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.

The Fourth Day?

Anyone who’s had the privilege of attending a Kairos retreat knows that the finality comes with a simple question, “what’s next?” How do we go about living the “fourth” day after having three life-changing days, meant to catapult us into a new awareness and consciousness after an intense time of self-reflection and diving into the unconditional love of others that often goes unseen in the busyness of our lives or our judgments that infringe on our ability to feel that love. Needless to say, when any of us return to the limitations of ordinary, chronos time, which subsists in Kairos, the answers are not nearly as easily seen and we are often lulled back into the routine of our daily lives, longing for more of the Kairos experience that fed the deeper parts of our hearts and souls while becoming enslaved to the ways of the world and often ways that have assured to make our lives easier and more stream-lined.

Time has a way of controlling our lives. Since the inception of the internet and phones that have become attached to our sides, it only seems as if time has increased in speed and intensity. There’s always someone and something that needs our attention that we find ourselves swallowed up by an ever-ticking clock of time, always behind, wondering why life has lost some sense of meaning and purpose as we race to the clock and the need to move at the speed of the world wide web. Text after text seems to consume our time, among other things that grab our attention. The experience of Kairos seems but all a distant memory, finding ourselves limited by time and losing our connection to the eternal.

The celebration of Easter reminds us of the Kairos moments all while unfolding in the chaos of the events leading up to the transformative event of life and death. For the disciples there’s no sense of the eternal in the bowels of hell that they find themselves in during the moments following the unimaginable events of the crucifixion. It’s as if all the suffering of the world comes front and center in the lives of the disciples and they’ll be left with trying to sort out what it all means and do they become like the Pharisees and political leaders of their day with further enslavement to darkness, invoking fear, swallowed up in pride and control or do they allow the pain of the world to be transformed in and through them? Do they allow themselves to transcend the time of their day and learn to embrace the eternal, the Kairos moment that they were invited into during these days, reminding them as well that there is more to this life? For the disciples and the earlier followers of Jesus, the fourth day is all that follows and the choices that they’ll make.

More often than not when our lives become about racing against the clock and trying to please others by our instant response to life’s problems, we have a tendency to lose sight of the bigger picture of what really matters. It was no different for the disciples. Yet, all the choices that they would make in the days that followed would have lingering effects on the unfolding of the early community. We find them, more often than not in the days following Easter, locked inside the Upper Room, a significant spot where Jesus, as prophet, foretold their own unwillingness to follow the will of the Lord. The memories that must haunt them in those moments following the events, trying to make sense of what they had done and how they had contributed to the impending death of their friend, the one in whom they claimed they loved and pledged their loyalty. Yet, in the darkest of moments, when the sense of Kairos had all been but lost, they found themselves caught up in the reaction to the events, worried more about how it would impact them, looking for a quick fix, and simply trying to rid themselves of the problem and the chaos that seemed to be closing in not only on Jesus but on them. Like them, we can only run so long before our own pain catches up with us and our own unwillingness to see even our own lives from the larger perspective. All we can see in those moments, trapped in chronos, is the pain that we try to outrun or what forces us to lock ourselves in the Upper Room out of fear, wondering as to what the world, our own world, would think if they had known, that we were one of them.

There’s nothing Easter-like about the actual resurrection narratives when it comes to the disciples. It’s not until the story unfolds that we meet the early communities and the courage they exhibited in the way they proceeded, knowing that even in the darkest of days, God was somehow leading them and revealing the next step in life as to what would lead them to this burning love that exuded in their hearts. They too, like us, need to pass through the agony of the Cross of our own lives, where it feels as if time has all but stopped before we catch a glimpse of the eternal, the Kairos. The death of the self that we cling to as well as the disciples can sometimes feel like the most painful. It’s all we have clung to in order to protect what we have most held onto, our own pain, our shame, our own judgement against ourselves, out of fear of being found out by the Lord.

For the disciples, and us, Jesus doesn’t avoid that place but, in the eternal, appears in their very fear and pain and begins the process of transforming it as they recall what had first begun in Galilee, gaining new perspective. It wasn’t about the disciples doing just as Jesus did. It was about the disciples now tapping into the very love that burned in their hearts and living it out in their most unique way possible. For the disciples, and us, it’s about becoming their truest selves, the embodied love of the Lord, that allows the agony of the Cross to be transformed into an Easter event. Living the fourth day for the disciples is living from a new place, the place of Kairos in their own hearts and yet within the tension of a world that always seems to want to grab hold of hearts and souls.

Easter, and the life found in the emptiness of the tomb, reminds us that we often avoid the very reality that prevents us from living a life of faith, in what ever way God chooses. Kairos moments need not be limited to retreat moments but become a way of life, where, no matter how many times we find ourselves being consumed by the way of the world and enslaved to time, moving at the speed of light or as quick at least as quick as Google can search, leaving us anxious, afraid, and even lonely at times, the experience of Easter, the Kairos moment, the embodiment of love, will remind us always that we never settle and never become satisfied with anything less. We may find great comfort in the Upper Room of fear, shame, hurt, pain, or our own enslavement, but it will never give us the love we desire. The love of Easter frees us from bondage, from our own enslavement, to a place of freedom, where we can simply be the people God created us to be. In those moments we learn that it’s not just about the third day, but every fourth day that follows and how we are to live the paschal mystery faithfully in our lives. These are the Easter moments of our lives where our own death, even the death of self, leads to the life and love that we most desire of and for our lives.

And They Remembered

We all have events in our lives that we’d rather forget. They’re typically moments of tragedy, heartbreak, loss of all kinds, events that have a way of puncturing our heart and soul to the point that it feels like there is no return. I suppose, at times, there are also moments we’d like to go on forever, as if we could simply stop the clock at one point and relive a moment over and over again. Either way leads to a point of getting stuck, simultaneously fearing the inevitable death and letting go that is necessary in order to step forward. Although our minds may have the ability to hold us hostage to such events, it’s the heart that continues to drag us forward, often unwillingly at times, to the greater depth and meaning that such events have in our lives in order to let go and experience life more fully, conscious of the present moment.

You have to believe that the disciples found themselves in a similar place in their lives, thinking of the many highs and lows that they had in walking the way of the Christ. If they could just somehow get back to the moments of healing and feeding that brought them to the place of humility in their own lives, in awe of a God of such wonder. Now, though, wanting to put behind them the events of the past days of the violence committed against the Christ. It wasn’t just an ending for Jesus, it was an ending for everyone involved with the unfolding of events and the trauma inflicted upon the Christ, all out of fear, power, hate, and illusions held of a God that could only be summed up in words and laws rather than a God, stripped of all dignity, a God who not only calls them to life but a God who understands the human complexity of dealing with death, a dying to self that becomes a necessity to living a life of love and fullness. Before there is any glimpse of dawn, the disciples too would venture where they’d rather not go, into the hallow halls of the hell they’d rather forget and yet become enslaved to before a new day arrives.

Much of the resurrection narratives, such as that of Luke, is accompanied by the words or something similar, “and they remembered”. We hear that when the women appear at the tomb in Luke’s account of the resurrection. As much as they’d like to forget, and in some ways, we do forget the pain that accompanies new life, there’s a remembering that takes place all at the same time. We begin to see the events that impacted us with new perspective, maybe not necessarily happening in the way we really remembered or now as adults don’t seem as traumatic as when we were children. The act of remembering in the resurrection accounts allows for the space within the heart to begin to widen so that the events of the past days of suffering can be put in greater perspective and in new light, slowing becoming free of the binding force of pain. They begin, and certainly by no means taking away the trauma and violence inflicted, to see meaning to the suffering and even their own participation in such violence towards the Christ, not as an act of bowing their heads in shame, but in moments of forgiveness towards one another, to the people they’ve hurt, and to the ones who had done harm towards them. They begin to retell the story through a new lens and with each step “along the way” the fear of their hearts begins to evaporate into the freedom of resurrection.

The School of Love (see previous post) doesn’t allow for the skipping of steps along the way and at times requires the disciples and ourselves to go back and pick up the pieces in our lives that were seemingly missed and forgotten for a variety of reasons. As much as we’d like to forget, our minds have a way of protecting us when we experience pain and trauma that only opens when we ourselves are ready to deal with the infliction. The process of death and resurrection is something that happens over the course of time, a remembering and a letting go that happens in order to have the courage to step forth from the oft self-inflicted tombs we create for ourselves, preventing us from life and love. Once there is movement and momentum towards life and love, though, the true power of the Christ becomes unstoppable and what we see is no longer death and decay, fear and loneliness, but rather hope in the face of adversity, love accompanying loneliness, life leading us through death.

In this continued commemoration, the events seem like utter “nonsense”. None of it makes any sense to the human mind. Faith, unfortunately, has become that all too often, as something I need to understand and comprehend, something certain and that I can cling to in the face of suffering and death. Easter, though, reminds us of just the opposite. When we cling, we cling to death more than anything. We begin to suffocate ourselves and others, as was seen in the chaos that ensues on Good Friday in the praetorium, unable to see, think, or hear as the weight of the Cross bears down on the world. Easter, however, reminds us that there is no need to cling because, more often than not, we cling to what is not real, a false hope, the illusions of pain that accompany past hurts, certainty, comfort, and all the rest that become second-nature in our lives, all of which pointing not to the empty tomb of Easter but rather the one sealed in the darkness of days past.

The passing over from death to life doesn’t lead to death no longer being a part of our life. Rather, it becomes the way to life, the only way to life where the two become one. Easter isn’t simply about some future time that we bank everything on. God wants us to live today, not in fear but rather in love and in peace. Our inability to let go of the past and all that accompanies it will continue to create the very hell we try to avoid in times to come. We become what it is we fear the most. The utter nonsense of Easter invites us to step forth from our comfortable tombs and to see the world in a new way, through a new lens, where we no longer need to fear. Fear will inevitably always lead to control, certainty, dogmatic thinking, illusions, and to the greater suffering we fear the most. However, what we often fear the most is love and through love learn a new way of living. The power of love in resurrection and life transforms us to trust, to let go, to mystery, the stepping whole-heartedly into the unknown, to freedom. What we fear most isn’t really death. As a matter of fact, we become quite comfortable there, trying to forget rather than forgive. Rather, it’s love, because like the disciples, we totally lose control of our lives and finally learn to surrender ourselves and our hearts to something more, to something and someone bigger than ourselves, who’s always summoning us from darkness into the splendor of light. This paschal mystery is not simply about some future life we long for; rather, an invitation to live and to love today and finally remember the greater truth of the resurrected Christ we too are and participate!

School of Love

The Cross is the school of love. –Maximilian Kolbe

Maximilian Kolbe, a man and saint, who suffered and died under the hands of the Nazi regime at Auschwitz, recognized the reality that the greatest conflict one faces lies within our very heart and soul. He, more than most of us, saw the impact of such conflict in the suffering of all under the reign of evil, played out on the grandest scale during the Second World War. He, though, also saw such suffering and the Cross of Christ as a school of love, teaching lessons that can only come through an encounter with love in its deepest form, where the human and divine will intersect and one chooses God, chooses love over the interest of man. For some, seemingly foolish and selfish, but a school and a love that contains all creation, not fought on a battlefield but our “innermost personal selves.”

When we arrive at the climactic scenes of John’s gospel and his version of the passion narratives, we see this battle played out in the school of trial, flowing water and blood, a spirit given over, and with no one more central to the drama than Pilate himself, a man deemed responsible and yet utterly conflicted. Pilate stands as archetype of a darkened power and the ability for power to seduce one into believing that all is held in his very hands, a world dominated by such power. What Pilate doesn’t anticipate, though, is an encounter with love in the Christ in this moment of trial, a school in which Pilate will fail out of in his time, unable to pass the test of love and to triumph the inner self.

Pilate suffers at the same hands as all of us, that with knowledge comes power. It’s not simply knowledge in the way we understand, but the power that comes with knowing and making that knowing into eternal truth. Pilate becomes blinded by such power and knowing, fearing its loss if he were to succumb to the power of love in that encounter. For Pilate, a quick fix to a problem, to rid himself of such problem, is all he can see. He knows of a growing crowd outside the praetorium, a crowd that has grown dissatisfied with truth and the unknown. The movement towards uncertainty rises a sense of anxiety among the people and Pilate for fear of the change that comes with the school of love. In the end, Pilate, in his own conflicted state, chooses fear over love, giving into a growing threat to his identity and power, not wanting to be seen as weak in the face of the people, both political and religious, who stand to swoop in and scoop up the very power that brings down a weak leader, a leader who chooses fear over love. Class failed and the intersection of the human and divine driven to Gabbatha and the ultimate undoing of human power and the revealing of the incomprehensible power of love.

The commemoration of the Lord’s passion and death pushes us to the point of choice in our own lives, choosing the ways of the world which find us confined by our own doing or choosing love, freeing us but at great price. When one encounters love, though, the illusions of power and self are all but destroyed, testified by an “eyewitness” that what first appears the greatest atrocity now stands as the only way to love. The school of love in which Kolbe speaks and witnesses to in his own life didn’t come by crawling cowardly away from the threat of death but rather courageously standing before the crossroads of life and death and choosing life through death, not for his own sake but for that of others. What appears with the eye as a self-serving sacrifice points the way to how we are to live our own lives. We may never encounter such circumstances as that of Kolbe, but the choice to choose love over fear and death is where we are invited every moment of our lives as we to stand between the cut rock of death and the unwavering outpouring of water and blood in new birth.

As the world turns in our own conflicted hearts, choosing fear and love continues to invite us to the intersection of the human and divine through the wood of the Cross. The world stands are our greatest classroom desperately in need of not more fear but a greater sense of love and the depths of love that come through our own suffering in daily choosing to follow love, listen to love, become love in the way we live our lives. It is not hate that stands in opposition to love but fear. It is our own fear of the unknown, something beyond comprehension, fear of the other who threatens my way of life, fear of not knowing, and the ever-increasing anxiety that is brought about by a world that remains repulsed and indifferent towards suffering.

“The Cross is the school of love.” It’s a school where we continue to gather as students to a deeper understanding of this unfolding mystery of suffering and death and the transformational power of love. The cross is not merely an event of centuries ago, seemingly won for us all, but rather the comprehensive exam of a life of faith that thrusts us into the center of the drama of our own lives, lives desiring the heart of the other, lives desiring love. Like Pilate, fear always stands in our way. We cling to what we know and limit this school’s lessons to what we know, to dogmatic certainties, rather than the unfolding and being unfolded ourselves of the layers of our own lives and fear that have kept us from love. An encounter with love changes everything, presumably even for someone like Pilate, even if unbeknownst to him. The school of this Cross and the love poured out shatters all that we have known, opening us to a new way of life, the pouring forth of water and blood and the growing intimacy of standing naked before love itself. The Cross stands as the school of love. What appears as fear, death, power, hatred, and threat can only be overturned by the unfathomable power of love. The school of love always stands ready not to reveal greater light but to cast light upon our own darkness and sin that hinders our own self, a self created for love and to be loved. In the drama of our own lives, the Cross stands ready as our own school, pointing us to the very love our hearts desire. The choice remains, love over fear.

 

Then Come, Follow Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conforming to Silence

“Silence is the language of God, all else is a poor translation.”  –Rumi

For a few weeks now, I’ve had the perspective of not being front and center at the celebration of Eucharist (not that I ever am).  I haven’t had to be the presider, nor the preacher for that matter.  It seems that after fifteen years, though, you lose some perspective when you’re expected to be the orchestrator, as to what goes on, down off the steps that ascend into the sanctuary of the church, where the community gathers in prayer.

The one striking reality that hit me this past weekend was just how “busy” Mass is on Sunday morning.  After spending more than a week in predominately silence by that point, I was so struck by just how much we have learned to fill in all the space and gaps in the liturgy.  There’s very little sense, nor openness, to silence, even an uncomfortable silence if that’s what’s necessary.  In the words of a friend, church has very much become a microcosm of the larger world, and in these weeks I believe more and more that truth lies in that statement.  I felt, while I had the time, that it was the perfect opportunity and invitation to try to capture what all the hullabaloo is about with people abandoning religion, and in particular, Sunday morning.

There are certainly many reasons that people can give as to why they abandon Sunday, especially if it is simply “more of the same” like the other six days of the week.  It becomes one more thing I have to do.  However, we’ve managed to fill the uncomfortable silence with music and words, none of which are bad, in and of themselves, but as I’ve sat and listened, painfully at times, I couldn’t help but wonder whether all of it is really necessary, and again, that comes from a guy who has spent fifteen years standing atop the sanctuary steps, trying to preach his heart out.

As Rumi states, silence is the language of God.  Yet, it’s the one thing we never seem to have time for or the one thing we fear the most.  I’ve always found one of the most profound moments in any liturgy is the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday.  It’s one of the few moments in the entire liturgical year that we are pushed into a point of uncomfortableness.  In that one moment, we can no longer avoid the inevitable.  We are pushed to see mirrored back at us, the Cross that stands before us, in union with something very deep within us.  It is that one moment of silence when we stand before someone larger than ourselves, mindful of our deeper yearnings and longings that manage to become swallowed up and smothered when we fill our lives with noise.

With the absence of silence, comes great noise and confusion.  The microcosm that we are manages to lure us into making what is considered the “source and summit” yet another place for politics, for superficial thought, for wanting to “feel good”, all at the price of allowing space and silence for the true mystery that unfolds to penetrate our hearts.  If it truly is a microcosm, and I do believe it is in many ways, how then do we differentiate and for that matter, why bother?  Is that not the question your kids and grandkids ask at this very moment?

If the best we can do is “more of the same”, in our own little microcosm, filled with politics and chit chat and feeling good, then we’ve managed to find the best way to take the mystery out of what it is we celebrate, and for that matter, of who we are.  We’ve filled in what Parker Palmer calls, “the tragic gap”.  The only place where we can allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, where a dialogue between God and us, and the divine within, really happens.  The only place where reconciliation happens not only with ourselves, but with God and others.

I am by no means saying we should “turn back the clock”, but at the same time, I understand why people believe that because they have a sense of what is missing, even if it is often shrouded in tradition.  The sense of mystery has been aborted from all means of life, especially the one place it should always exist, in religion.  I’d say the same for theological education as well.  Religion has forfeited its greatest gift for answers, certainty, for always knowing, for doing it right, for duty and obligation, all while often failing to bring in the fact that anyone that enters into relationship with God knows that there is so much that remains unknown. As a matter of fact, as soon as you think you know, you best be ready to be once again dropped off a cliff into the great unknown.  It’s called faith.  Faith is what allows you to take that first step, all while falling into silence.  A calculated risk to say the least, faith and reason intertwined.

Thomas Merton, great mystic, recognized that we are religious by nature, at our deepest core is an insatiable need to be in union, to bond, with the mystery of God.  He, though, was often most critical of religion because of the many masks it wore, hiding the true essence of who we are.  He certainly showed through his life that it can only come through silence and allowing ourselves to sit in the uncomfortable “tragic gap” of what is and what can be, to often just catch glimpse of this mystery.  That is the heart of the liturgy and celebration of Eucharist.  May I ask, is that your experience of liturgy?  Our little microcosms go searching for ways that make the liturgy appealing and attractive, which is often reduced to needing bodies to fill the seats.  If we truly want to allow ourselves to “fall into” this mystery of liturgy, Eucharist, God, our lives, then it mustn’t be about trying to give others what they want.  Rather, about giving others what we ourselves know deep down, in that most basic of religions, a great sense of mystery that can only be found in silence.

Sure, it may make us uncomfortable at first and there’s no way to measure success by numbers, but over time something begins to happen.  All the illusions begin to fall away and we begin to see the Eucharist, God, ourselves, others, for who we really are, as one with each other.  Everything we thought that defined us vanishes for it was never really the real in the first place. There’s a reason why God’s favorite language is silence and very good reasons why many want nothing to do with God and religion in the 21st Century, leaving us with “more of the same”.  Are we courageous enough to ease the pain of the “tragic gap” by filling it will less noise, on Sunday and in our lives?  If we really want to be bold, recognize that the steps up into the sanctuary should truly lead down, for that is the only path of ascent.  None of which makes sense without silence.

Dear God…

For many years now I have spent a great deal of time writing Letters to God.  I believe it all started after seeing the movie under the same name, of a young boy struggling with cancer who thought God was the only one who would understand, despite the unending doubts and dissatisfaction of everyone around him.  It all began in similar fashion for me as well.  They began rather briefly without much depth, often with a question that burdened me or something that just didn’t make sense.  It was a way of getting out of me what so often seemed to become internalized, and being freed from the burden that often became associated with the question, the thought, the experience, or whatever it may have been in that time and space.  Needless to say, the way we have internalized experiences is not always the way it really happened.

Since then, I have written literally hundreds of pages, binders full of these letters that I would not want to share with anyone.  There’s only one person I have, but that’s a story for another day.  It wasn’t simply, at one point, being accountable to someone larger than myself, like God, but to another person who could mirror back, free of judgment, shame, and fear, my deepest thoughts and experiences.  It’s funny, if you would have asked me when I was young what I wanted to be when I grew up, a writer would never even have crossed my lips.  Always, a teacher, but also meteorology a close second.  The natural world still fascinates me and feel at home there, but it has also given me much to write about, and more importantly, a path to redemption over and over again, seeing creation as God’s first and greatest act, and myself intimately connected.

The letters, though, over time, have become more complicated and more nuanced.  I often have to return to them for my own reference, unsure where some of it even comes from, supposing a place deep within me.  It has become a place where I can freely be myself and allow my imagination to engage on levels I could not have imagined even existed, a place where I can often become lost, wander, and over time, be found while finding myself.  They are letters that are filled with quotes, movie scenes, and other images and metaphors that become attached as a means to going deeper and to discover with greater certainty, the One in which the letters are written.  Not only has it been a discovery of the complexity of mystery and the unknown, but how true it is of my own life and how easily any of us can allow ourselves to become imprisoned where and when we feel most comfortable, exiled from the very mystery we fall in love with, even when we feel as if we don’t belong.

I never knew if God was really listening, just as it is with people.  I often wondered if God understood what often felt like one misunderstanding after another.  It’s never been about the peripheries, the trappings that often capture our attention as humans, but rather a quest for the marrow of life, what makes it tick, what gives it meaning and purpose, what and who gives life.  I’m just as guilty as the next, believing there’s an easy answer or fix to what comes at us in life, but it often takes a blow to knock that type of illusion from our hearts and eyes, when we begin to experience that God has been listening all along; I just wasn’t aware of how much he was listening because of the illusions that crippled me and were used as a crutch to hold onto what was never real in the first place, but was a way to protect, to feel comfortable, to hide in fear from what it was I desired the most.  It was hidden all along and in plain sight.  It wasn’t God’s fault, revealing the path, step by step, but rather my own inability to let go, to surrender, to the very mystery that captivated me from the beginning.

So here I sit writing, in a similar format, with questions that in the past would have seemed insurmountable but now are a part of this ongoing quest for truth and love.  Dear God; they are sometimes the easiest words to put on the paper.  The doubt of God listening never seems to completely disappear, and maybe that’s the point.  It’s in that doubt where courage is found to write what comes next in that letter or any of them for that matter.  At first the words that followed came out with great trepidation, not always wanting to put into words what was really going on within me because somehow, once out, they become real, as if words being breathed become embodied in some way.  When I’m asked if I’ll ever share such writings, I hesitate.  My experiences, like any, are very personal.  They’re about difficulties with identity, love, heartbreak, struggles, questions, joys, and all the rest.  Of course, that’s what binds us all in the human family.  We all have a story to share and is important to share that story so hopefully one day the words that follow, Dear God, will lead me in that direction.

A friend shared with me a quote from a book this week (which has a lot of great quotes) entitled, Poverty of Spirit.  The author says this, “We are all beggars.  We are all members of a species that is not sufficient unto itself.  We are all creatures plagued by unending doubts and restless, unsatisfied hearts.  Of all creatures, we are the poorest and the most incomplete.  Our needs are always beyond our capacities, and we only find ourselves when we lose ourselves.”  He goes onto write, “Left to ourselves, we still remain the prisoner of our own Being…if we attempt this [hiding], the truth of our Being haunts us with its nameless emissary:  anxiety…in the final analysis we have one of two choices:  to obediently accept our innate poverty or to become the slave of anxiety.”  I’m convinced we are all beggars when we utter the words, Dear God, but I’m also nearly certain that we come begging for the wrong thing.  More often than not we come to God begging for answers, only leading to a greater anxiety when answers are not found.  The true invitation to losing ourselves is living into the unknown of the very question that leave us with doubt, restlessness, and unsatisfied hearts.  The answers may, and probably never will, come, but in time we begin to embody the question that God has placed in our hearts and begin to step into and out of our deepest selves, our truest selves, where we no longer need to cut off or shun who it is within us that remains prisoner.

What started as two simple words of imitation of a young boy in a movie, Dear God, has led me to many places within myself and beyond that I will never fully comprehend, but it also leads me to this point in my life right now.  Somewhere in the pages and pages of writing, God has led me to a choice and an invitation to enter into the unthinkable, of surrendering myself to that interior poverty that scares and yet is most enticing and seductive.  As I said, it’s never been about the peripheries, the pomp, the dress, the performance, but rather about this journey that binds us all, from our own sense of exile, crossing threshold after threshold, to a deeper understanding of the promised land that lies within and yet so far beyond my own comprehension.  Needless to say, it comes with a sense of fear, stepping beyond the walls that have held me tightly and have given great comfort, but that too is simply a passage, a threshold to cross, just as any new birth, into an unknown world.  The difference is trusting that journey and trusting that whatever follows, Dear God, will once again be yet another invitation to a new way of living, a new way of loving, a new way of learning to embody the deeper questions of life and living that revelation as, again, God’s first and greatest act of creation.