An American Lament

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Vincent Castiglia – “Lament”

When life began shuttering for all of us back in March, I found myself once again on the run and beginning to feel as if I couldn’t breathe.  If you read back to the blogs I posted back in March, the sense of darkness was surfacing, tossing and turning at night, overwhelmed by once again the feeling of drowning.  It was the sense of loss, feeling homeless, a looming pandemic, and admittedly, the humility it takes to move home, even if temporarily, after more than twenty years away.  I could literally feel it on my chest, like I couldn’t breathe.

If you’re a regular reader, you know it’s nothing new for me, the sense of having my breath taken away.  One of the most pivotal moments in my life was nearly drowning while whitewater rafting on the Ohiopyle River in Western Pennsylvania.  It was not only the weight of a raft atop me, but the weight of the handful of men in the raft, and even the weight of a life flashing before my eyes, my life as it seemed to be coming to an abrupt end in a matter of seconds although feeling like minutes.  I couldn’t breathe.

If we can ever admit, or take the time to become aware, most of us at one time or another know that feeling of drowning or being unable to breathe.  We’ve witnessed the story of George Floyd this past week, a man pinned to the ground for what we now know to be nearly 9 minutes with a knee to his throat.  I’ll never admit to understanding I know what it feels like, but I do know the feeling of oppression and the weight of the world and all powers plopped down on top of me, unable to move, breathe, or even live life fully.  It’s the point which often goes unspoken, but believe it has more to do with the fact most don’t know their drowning because it’s often in their own grief.

It takes a great deal of humility to admit something is wrong and needing help, especially for men.  It’s not a surprise to anyone, men are more prone to suppress and repress how they feel and takes a lot of pushing before it begins to spill over.  We’re much better at taking it out on others than we are on allowing the pain to be transformed within us.  If we compound years of anger, hurt, and resentment, with now nearly three months of quarantine and lock-downs, it shouldn’t shock us when it begins to reach a boil and no one willing to turn back the heat.  It becomes, sadly, a political game with each of us as pawns, pushed to stand against so-called beliefs rather than with a hurting people.

We have before us many failing institutions.  It doesn’t mean their surmise; however, it does mean change is necessary, now more than ever.  We find ourselves surrounded by institutions which have become self-serving, which naturally take an oppressive approach because they become about power, and inevitably, an abuse of power.  We certainly see it in our political system, crumbling infrastructures, waffling cities, irrelevant religious institutions driven more by politics, money, and keeping the natives intact.  Is it any wonder we find ourselves now at a boiling point with the fear of only getting worse as this political season heats up?

I, of course, can only speak of my own experience.  There is even a part of me lamenting the rush of churches reopening.  As someone who’s been on the inside, there is great value and still have a resounding faith, but like most institutions, we refuse to look at the whole.  Now more than ever, churches need to move beyond the walls and out into the streets.  The thought of closing church into the confines of a wall gives the sense of suffocation, unable to breathe.  Over time we gradually are lulled into believing the world is bad, dark, evil, or any word you choose to describe.  However, it’s no different than an individual closing in on him or her-self. 

Over time, we become isolated, self-consumed, and breakdown communication.  It doesn’t mean we can’t function in the world; we still work, gather around people, and do what we need to do, but all in anticipation of locking ourselves back up again, feeling like we can once again breathe as we “leave” the world.  Before we quickly return to get our “fix” of comfort, we need to take a look at the world and what’s happening.  Again, I must say, I’m not against any of it; however, more needs to be expected of such an institution claiming transformation at its heart.  It’s also not simply my own faith background; it’s religion in America which fears the world and change and yet paradoxically choosing death over life by not changing systemically.

There is much to lament these days.  There are the countless people killed, hundreds of thousands dying of disease and viruses, at times looking like we don’t care, inequalities we prefer to make judgment of than deal with, failing institutions, increasing debt, anxiety through the roof, thousands upon thousands on prescription drugs for depression and other mental health issues, people yelling at one another unable to listen, pain boiling over, lack of care or concern for the other, selfishness, survival over living, transactional mindsets, empty words and speeches, generational trauma, and the list goes on an on.  Who are the people benefiting from this “normal”?  Is it “normal”?  Why is there a rush to return to “normal”?  Do you see why we shouldn’t rush to once again close off from the world?  It’s understandable why we make it “normal”; who wants to confront the pain of others when we can’t deal with our own!

When we break it down, we’ve lost our ability to dialogue as humans.  We’ve disconnected from our heart and try to understand through an ego which will always try to defend and protect.  Our greatest lament is the loss of our humanity in our institutions and beyond.  People are suffering on levels requiring self-aware leaders, free of the confines of institutional boundaries of cufflinks, dress and three-piece suits, a willingness, as Pope Francis says, “to smell like the sheep”.  The more we allow ourselves to be immersed in the pain and suffering of the world, we find ourselves unable to breathe by our own hypocrisy as a fellow human on the journey.  I know; I’ve been there.  Even writing about it brings up the feeling within me, reminding me of a life once lived not my own.  We lament the institutional freedom for true freedom.

As Americans we must lament.  We must grieve in these days.  We must learn to let go of our expectations, dreams unlived, our resentments and anger.  We must go out among the ones we deemed “profane” and listen to their story as well.  It’s not only our story which we find crumbling; it’s everyone’s story.  We need to write a new story for future generations, weaving together the great parts of our tradition with their own vision for tomorrow.  It’s not going to be the same.  It can’t be the same.  It mustn’t be the same.  We need to lament, most of all, a return to “normal”.  If one does not benefit from a return, then none of us do.  We must understand the one who’s been pushed from the top, being held underwater.  They have a perspective and a voice which must be heard, whether we agree or not.  For lamenting is not about agreeing or disagreeing.  It’s about grieving a heart which has hurt, a heart which will continue to scream out from underneath the raft until it’s given its voice to speak.  As Americans, it’s time to lament…

Hopeful Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

Suffering Silence

Isaiah 50: 5-9; Mark 8: 27-35

If you follow Church politics, and it’s really hard not to at the moment, then you know there’s been this debate about Pope Francis being silent on the accusations brought against him, and many others for that matter, except the guy making the accusations.  Now I’m not here to judge whether it’s right or wrong.  I don’t know it all nor all the facts so it’s hard to make such a judgment in the first place.  However, in the age we live we demand answers and justice.  We somehow think we deserve to know it all.  We want to react and overreact to everything without ever taking the time to step back and allow things to sink into the silence.

All that said, it’s important to keep in mind that both have been silent on it, both Pope Francis and the former diplomat who made the accusations.  There is, though, a difference in their silence.  The former diplomat is in hiding, not unlike the disciples on that first Easter when they were locked in the upper room out of fear.  Quite frankly, it’s easy to throw a lot of dirt and then run, but that is a silence rooted in fear.  It leads to secrecy and shame, a silence we’re all too familiar with in our own lives and from the Church for that matter.

There is, though, a silence that accompanies suffering.  It’s a silence we’re often less familiar with because we do everything in our power to avoid it.  It’s a silence that creates space for uncomfortableness, rather than fear and anxiety.  It’s a silence that moves us to deeper places in our own hearts, to a place of freedom, a place where the truth can be revealed.  It’s a silence that requires patience, quite frankly, to simply be in our suffering rather than reacting demanding truth, because, quite frankly, for us, it’s a truth that will never satisfy our own restlessness, other than maybe a few days or so, it’s thinking as humans does rather than as God, as Jesus points out today.

It’s this type of silence that Mark writes about throughout his gospel including what we hear today where he warns them not to tell anyone.  However, it doesn’t take long for Peter, and the others, to start doing the inevitable.  With each passing story there is a small bit of information and fact that is revealed, just as it is today, and they immediately think they know it all.  They think they have all the truth and will begin to abuse it.  They know what they know but they don’t know why and certainly don’t know what they don’t know.  The rest of Mark’s gospel will begin to reveal that mystery until it’s ultimate climax in the paradox of the Cross, the crossing of life and death that will reveal the deeper truth that they desire.  So when Jesus warns Peter today about shooting off his mouth, Mark tells us he looks at all of them to do it, warning the crew about their inevitable sin of not being able to sit with what is revealed and allow the deeper truth to continue to be revealed.  The next scene is the transfiguration in Mark’s Gospel and following that they will begin to argue about who’s the greatest, who’s has higher stature in the group, and so on, unable to allow the pieces of the puzzle to be revealed, step by step, and learning to live into that mystery, into that silence.  It’s painful, and like us, they want nothing to do with any of it.  Yet, it’s the only way for truth to be revealed, a truth that goes beyond facts and knowledge.  That forces us to stay on the surface and never delve into the deeper problems of a broken humanity.

It is also Isaiah’s struggle in the first reading today.  This is a reading we normally hear on Palm Sunday so it accompanies the passion and death of Jesus.  He reveals elements of the suffering servant.  He too, learns to sit in the silence and allow the deeper truth to be revealed in and through him.  Quite honestly, people have had enough with Isaiah at this point.  They’re tired of hearing what he has to say.  Not unlike us, they’re bombarded with it all.  They’re quick to judge, demand stuff, feel abandoned, and getting swallowed up in their own suffering.  Isaiah, though, today tells them that God has given him an ear to hear.  Sure, there is that physical ear he has like the rest of us, but that’s not what he speaks of here.  He speaks of the eyes and ears of his heart.  Our physical ears and eyes are too quick to judge.  They want proof.  They want answers.  They demand justice.  All Isaiah can do, though, is sit with it.  He’s aware they don’t want to hear it.  He learns to sit with the suffering and allow that silence to deepen they mystery and allow that truth to be revealed.

In an age when we are bombarded with noise, silence becomes all the more necessary.  We have politicians that are constantly throwing stuff at us and more often than not out of fear.  They try to manipulate and deceive with perceived facts and truths and all the rest and more often than not because we can’t sit in our own suffering.  We want to share it with the world rather than learning to sit in silence with it.  It’s the only way to transformation and the only way to move to the deeper places in our own hearts in order to experience the real truth.  We can demand and expect all we want, as human beings always do, but only leads to greater dissatisfaction and it’s never enough.  We end up acting upon our fear, our anxiety, our own uncomfortableness in life rather than allowing truth to be revealed.  It is only in the paradox of the cross where the deeper truth is revealed, not in facts or figures, but in Christ crucified.  It’s the piece of knowledge that Peter and the others didn’t want to hear and we often don’t want to hear either.  It really is easier to judge, invoke fear, accuse, demand, react and overreact, but it’s a whole other thing when we can simply sit in the uncomfortableness of the suffering that comes with the silence Jesus demands, for, in playing the long game, it is the only way in which the real truth will rise up and be revealed.

Will We Ever Learn?

I forced myself to watch the grand jury report from Pennsylvania regarding abuse in the Catholic Church.  I was partially curious as to the findings but also spent many formative years in the Diocese of Scranton, which included a few familiar names to me in the report, most of which I had already known.  At times it was hard to listen, not simply as a priest but as a human being.  At times, listening to how the sacred became scandalized and in people’s lives nearly seemed impossible, a thinking that has often led to denial in the life of the Church.  Anything is possible when it comes to human beings.  I still recall the words of Cardinal Tobin at a conference I attended earlier this summer, “All of us sitting in this room are really only a phone call away from our lives being destroyed even if we had done nothing.”  If that’s not perspective on what we live with I’m not sure what is.

I suppose the other common question is, “Why?”  Sure, there’s the question as to why things happen and why was it allowed to continue.  There are certainly plenty of justifications given by leaders.  Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to answer those questions and even more unfortunately is that those who can answer them still often refuse to answer.  The question, and not only posed by others to myself but the very question that at times weighs on my own heart, is, “Why do you stay?  Why do you keep staying with an institution that has done what it has done, and worse yet, fails to take responsibility?”  All good questions, and quite frankly, not always answers, or at least good answers, especially when it feels as if you’re climbing aboard the Titanic as it finds itself already halfway submerged in frozen water.

I believe there’s always been a part of me that has desired to push for reform from the edge of the inside, as Pope Francis often refers.  It’s just a part of who I am as a person.  I can’t say anything has really surprised me, even Cardinal McCarrick, but instead saddens me more than anything and often angers me that protecting and clinging becomes more important than human life.  I believe when the deacon preached about it a few weeks ago I had commented that I’m not here to tell you how to live.  Quite frankly, I have a hard enough time keeping myself in order than telling others how to make choices and what to do with their lives.  All I can really do is help shed light on situations and then give others the freedom to make choices.  When you believe your “business” is to be the ethical or moral police of the world, well, as it was with the Pharisees, you’re going to fail and the harder you try to prevent it and cover-up, the harder the fall.

Someone had said to me that they don’t want this to happen to the Church, but that ship sailed long ago.  Honestly, the Church has brought it upon herself over the years.  It’s tried to live with the illusion of perfection, which, like it or not, will without a doubt lead to putting yourself above God, and like Adam and Eve, it will always lead to failure after failure until you learn to accept that an illusion is just that, an illusion.  It’s not real.  None of it is real.  You cannot be God or Christ nor put yourself in that position.  Just like the rest of our lives, failure can lead to despair or it can lead to change, transformation, just as our faith teaches.  The problem is we’ve become so disconnected from the heart that we believe policy and new rules and zero tolerance is going to solve all problems.  It won’t.  Sure, it has a place, but all of this, and maybe why I stay connected is, about transforming hearts and leading others to that freedom, just as Moses did, with great difficulty, with people Israel through the desert to the Promised Land.  If we just took time to put aside dogma, teaching, and all the other head stuff, and allow ourselves to be transformed from the inside out we are changed forever and so much of the rest falls into place.  Thank God that God is bigger than the Church.  Thank God.  Otherwise I’d have every reason to despair and toss it aside forever.  Thank God I have been forgiven over and over again for stupid decisions and choices that I have made in my life.  It’s the only way.  When you think you’re simply the agent of forgiveness and fail to remember you need it more than anyone, problems will arise.  And they have.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s deflating and hurtful because as a priest we’re all lumped together, just like every other aggregate.  When things first broke back in 2002 I was still a seminarian so it was different then.  I was still protected from it in some sense.  I lived with, albeit a false hope at the moment, that the Church finally learned its lesson.  It hasn’t entirely.  Sure, some, but there’s more to go.  That’s obvious now.  All of us who continue to remain, though, must hold others accountable.  That I believe now more than ever.  It’s going to take a new generation to begin to dismantle, and it needs a dismantling, of the “old boys club” thinking, which exists not only in the Church, but in politics and many other institutions.  It’s not that men should be banned and shunned.  Rather, men need to grow up and certainly men in the Church need to grow up and become more attuned to their own interior life.  It’s the only way.  Buckling down, turning back the clock, tightening grips may seem like the answer but long-term only makes matters worse.  You can only hold someone under water or in a noose so long before it becomes fatal.  We’d find ourselves where we often find ourselves, reactionary rather than proactive, bound rather than free, hiding rather than open, sick rather than healthy, for it is true, you’re only as sick as your worst secret.  We have all the proof we need on that one.

It isn’t to say anything is new in what has been reported out of Pennsylvania, but the very visceral reaction of people, media, and certainly on social media, shows just how little has been done to change hearts, transform, and reform a sick culture, and that goes for Church and culture at large.  It’s easy to say that it all happened before 2002 but that by no means indicates that the culture has changed for the better.  Like any family that thrives on secrecy, which may seem important at the moment, the longer you sit on it and build on that secrecy, the harder it is to contain it over time.  Eventually the truth is revealed and exposed in and through the light.  If anything, we should be thankful that it is being exposed, but again, as long as it leads to transformation.  The fear always is that we’ll wait it out, let it pass, and we can go on with “business as usual”.  Business.  Yes, that’s often how it feels.  Hopefully it can lead to a return to who we’re really supposed to be, agents of change and transformation, conversion of heart.  The rest means nothing if there’s no foundation to grow on. We become the house on the sand that collapses amid the storm.

I still hope, in God.  I still have faith, in Jesus Christ.  I still love, this journey of conversion and leading others to that place.  It’s why I stay connected, but as I said, more on the edge of the inside.  The more we allow ourselves to be immersed, creating a codependency as is so common, we lose sight of the bigger picture and what really matters and what’s really important.  It’s what allows me to hope, to have faith, and to deepen that love.  As I said at mass a few weeks ago, I hope to see the day when the Church stops living in denial.  Again, don’t get me wrong, many policies were put in place that was necessary, but a lot of what we say still are empty words because policy and doctrine doesn’t change hearts and heal people, God does, pushed often to the edge through our relationships.  Those of us on the front lines of the battle are often all too aware of that.  Hopefully, as the rungs of the ladder are climbed that basic truth isn’t forgotten, less the fall becomes all the more hurtful, painful, and dramatic.  Unfortunately, we’ve become all too familiar with that.  All we can do is live in and with hope that we learn and change and grow out of the ash heap.

Love On Trial

Acts 4: 8-12; 1John 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18

Many of you have probably seen the video of Pope Francis from the past week or so when the young boy gets up to ask him a question and can’t get it out because he’s just sobbing.  His father had died and believed to be an atheist and he was concerned about his well-being.  It’s a lot of pressure on the young boy, not only losing his father which is traumatic enough but also worried about whether God is taking care of him.  Pope Francis calls him up and hugs him and speaks to him, showing him just a great depth of love.  First, it’s a good reminder of how we as adults influence young people by our words and actions and what it is they absorb from us.  Also, ironically, though, it’s that depth of love that has often got Pope Francis in trouble with the religious zealots.  Any zealot, religious or political does not leave much space for such love.  They often just can’t receive it.  In the end it’s not simply Pope Francis or anyone else who shows such love that is put on trial, but rather Love itself.  It’s love working in and through him that is put on trial and in doing so exposes the zealots for who they really are.

It’s no different for the early community that we hear of in today’s first reading from Acts.  They literally are on trial for the healing of this cripple.  Like most healing stories, though, including in the gospel, it’s more than just the healing that perturbs the zealots.  It’s the fact that as John tells us in the second reading today, the claim their place as children of God.  They can no longer be touched by the political and religious authorities because something has changed dramatically in their life.  The ones healed finds themselves no longer bound or defined by the temporal authorities of their time and that causes unrest.  But like Francis, their approach in life is very different than those who have closed themselves off in fear.  To regain that status as children of God it doesn’t mean that they become kids, like that little boy who simply sees the world through a black and white lens, but rather are moved to a place where the Love who had created them is now the love working through them.  That very love casts out all fear and in doing so exposes it for its shallowness and narrowness in thinking and understanding.  Not in their wildest dreams can they begin to imagine a God they can’t control of sorts.  The zealots no longer stand as the mediator but Love itself.

There is that same connection in today’s Gospel because in some ways Love is on trial in the person of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.  He too just found himself in this long interaction and conflict because of the healing of the blind man which comes just prior to today’s reading.  That man, too, has been reclaimed as a child of God as well and begins to live into this newfound freedom.  He’s no longer bound by any of the authorities, including his own family.  His healing not only exposes the fear of the zealots but also their blindness towards love and the person of Jesus Christ.  But Jesus isn’t done with them yet.  He then proceeds into this discourse of the Good Shepherd who then calls them out for being false prophets, hired workers who care more about themselves and their own narrow beliefs.  Like that young boy with Pope Francis, they have yet to move forward in life and continue to live in a very defined world which again leaves very little space for love.  When their narrow beliefs clash up against the human person they choose their belief and the law over the well-being of the person and unable to show them love.  This is the reason why they become such a threat to the zealots, including Jesus himself.

He pushes it though in today’s gospel.  He reminds them that there are still others beyond the gate who will hear his voice and he’s called to lead.  The one thing about insiders and even zealots is that they think they possess the truth.  It’s hard to love and to seek that truth when you think you already have it and possess it.  Love, on trial, again exposes their own fear for what it is, attached to the ruler of the world.  They are unable to love with such great depth until they allow themselves to fall into this mystery of our faith.  Right after the passage we hear today we are told that they begin to divide.  They want nothing to do with Jesus or Love.  They’d rather convict love than to open themselves up to change.  Jesus will lead the children through the narrow gate where there is a sense of seeking and wandering and a desire for love.  The insiders and zealots are left behind at their own doing, and yet, are blinded to that reality.

This is common language in much of our prayers this Easter Season.  We hear over and over again of being the children of God and it’s easy to reduce that to just another nice thought.  But for John it’s the stone rejected that becomes the cornerstone, to once again be moved to the place where we stand as children of God against a hostile world and a world that seeks knowledge, truth, and certainty while leaving very little room for Love.  All these years later we continue to put Love on trial and even convict love over our own narrow beliefs that hinder us from embracing the love that created us and tries to work through us.  It’s what makes the disciples untouchable.  They see as God sees, exposing the fear and hurt for what it really is and rather than rejecting the person, they do as the Good Shepherd has taught.  They love and with that the world is transformed not by them but through them and the love freely given!

A Path To Peace

Christmas Narratives continued…

There’s a belief that the problems we face and encounter in our lives are often of the psychological nature, which tells us there are a great deal of issues that encompass a broken humanity.  At the same time, though, it’s believed that the solutions to the problems are spiritual, a matter of the heart, which explains why problems seem to never end and this pursuit of peace seems rather insurmountable.  We’re not very good at matters of the heart.  It’s a challenge with problems and difficulties we face individually and so as a city, a country, and the world, handling heart and soul begins to make us feel helpless in the face of such suffering.  You may have heard Pope Francis mention yesterday on the eve of the New Year that humanity wasted 2017 on war and lies.  When we avoid the matters of the heart the pursuit of peace never seems possible.  It becomes much easier to inflict our pain and hurt onto others.  It’s easier to stay in war and locked in a violent cycle here in Baltimore than it is to do the difficult work of heart and soul that the gospel demands.  And so as we begin the new year we pray for peace but first in our own hearts and souls.

It is a theme that threads through Luke’s gospel even as we hear in the continuation of the Christmas narrative we hear on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.  She reflects and ponders and holds all these things in her heart.  Luke returns to it throughout the gospel but he’s not meaning the beating heart that keeps us physically alive.  He speaking of the oneness and union of mind, soul, and spirit.  He’s talking about how Mary steps back from all that is happening and allows the space of this mystery to unfold.  There’s no need to react or explain.  There’s no reason to attack their enemies.  Mary and Joseph, for that matter, have found that gift of peace and are at peace with the overwhelming gift which will now see them through the darkness of Herod as we hear on Epiphany on Sunday.  The gift that is given to them is then freely given to anyone who dares open themselves to it being offered.  When we find that peace and become that peace within our own hearts, as Luke describes, not even the harshest reality of war will stop us from facing the broken humanity and to truly work towards peace.

When we fail to seek healing and solutions as a heart matter and rather resort to a shallow political system here in the city as well as the country, we’ll continue to get the same results, trying to solve issues from the same level in which they were created.  Both extremes of the political narrative use fear to control and manipulate, just as Herod and Caesar Augustus did, who Matthew and Luke reference.  They try to bring about a peace that is rooted in fear, as we heard on Christmas.  They thrive on keeping people in the dark, separating and dividing.  At some point we have to face the fact that it no longer works for the people, especially the Joseph and Mary’s of the world, the poorest of the poor.  It no longer brings peace nor the pursuit of the common good.  Like Herod and Caesar Augustus it’s about building their own kingdoms and making politics into a god.  It’s how we have the problems that exist and that’s not the way to solve it.  It’s a matter of the heart.  It’s a matter of the soul that is necessary in these days.  We can’t stand for another year as we did in 2017 here in Baltimore.

It’s easy to pray for peace and we’ll continue to pray for peace on this World Day of Prayer for Peace but we also turn to Mary as our model on this feast of the Mother of God.  She is the one that teaches us to ponder, to reflect, to hold all these things in our hearts.  When we lose that space, as we have as a society and culture, we react and react and react to every blessed thing that is thrown our way and we become part of the problem not part of breathing peace and healing into hearts that hurt.  We become what we hate about the other.  Demonize the other.  Cut off the other.  Fearing what we don’t know and clinging to what we think we do.  We no longer have that space in our own hearts, as individuals, community, city, nation, world, for the sense of mystery that Mary ponders.  We hold on, and hold tightly, to what we know, what we see.

Our problems may be psychological but the solutions are a matter of the heart, are spiritual.  The path to peace is a difficult one.  It lies beneath the surface and is often what we can’t see or know.  It’s what we so often fear.  Yet, if we want that peace we have to work at it, not politically but in prayer, in silence, pondering the healing that is needed and take a contemplative stance towards a hurting world.  The Herod’s of our time can just as much be us if we don’t do our own work and on this feast we turn toward the Mother’s guidance in Mary, to ponder, reflect, and hold this mystery close to who we are that we may seek that oneness and union, not only within our own lives, but in the city and nation.  The pain runs deep in this city and nation and if we’re not willing to do it differently we’ll only perpetuate and mirror 2017 by wasting another year and another chance for the breaking in of the Christ which calls us to a new way, to a changed heart, to an opportunity for hope and peace that is rooted in the Christ, looking up and gazing into his mother’s eyes, pondering what sort of greeting this might be.  If we want peace then it must first begin with me.

The Capacity for God

I must admit, when I agreed to participate in priestly renewal at Notre Dame this summer, I really had no idea what I was signing up for at that time.  I knew it had a name, the Bishop D’Arcy Program in Priestly Renewal, part of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.  I knew it was free.  I knew it was at Notre Dame, a place I’ve always wanted to visit.  Of course, I also knew it was about priestly renewal.  Even that, though, I probably have my own idea and judgment about what exactly that means and how it can be defined by each of us, based on our own needs and desires.

Shortly after beginning his pontificate, Pope Francis often used the image of the Church as field hospital.  We all know that when it comes to hospitals, there is some knowledge or acceptance on our part that we may be sick, whether something minor or even terminal.  When it comes to Church life and the understanding of the image of field hospital, the second half of the equation is not always known and we often live in denial of the illness or for that matter, blame others for it.  Sometimes when you’re so close to the sickness you become immune or even numb to it, ultimately making you a part of the problem rather than an agent of healing and conversion.  We become blind to the deeper issues that we need to face while trying to band-aid when often surgery is the necessary route, or at least some restful care to regain the capacity to once again thrive.

I know this is all a rather long introduction to my point, but a point that is necessary in understanding what this week at Notre Dame has been for me.  Here’s the thing, those closest to me knew that I was burned out by the end of June, feeling fatigued and simply exhausted.  It was a transition year for me in moving from being pastor of one parish and taking on a second.  Despite the fact that they are a mere mile apart, it, over time, began to take a toll on me, especially interiorly.  My point is, I was in need of that field hospital myself without even knowing it at the time, while being immersed in the day to day routine.  That should have been a sign that a check-up was needed; everything was becoming routine.  I was becoming numb to it all, gradually forgetting why I was a priest in the first place, allowing myself to be pushed to the triage unit, which I was unfamiliar and new to trying to navigate, when, at times, I was the one in need.

Now don’t get me wrong, I never stopped doing what I needed to do, such as celebrating Mass and even having the time for personal prayer, but over the course of time, and after having the time to step away this week, to reflect, to listen, to allowing myself to be ministered to, I began to realize that the clock seemed to be managing me much more than the other way around.  Over time, it was easier to just escape for awhile, knowing that I had reached the bottom within myself, often without the capacity to give or receive, and try to gain enough muster to get through another day and another week, at least until the field hospital opened its doors to me and am once again breathing without a ventilator and no longer feeling like I’m on the brink of death.

One of the dangers of Church life and ministry is to become consumed by the weeds, which Jesus himself uses as metaphor.  Dealing with problems, fires, people, and the multitude of personalities and agendas , and now times two, began to consume me and I didn’t realize how ill I was becoming and in need of that field hospital, to mend wounds, deal with resentment, theologically contextualize the reality, and to reconnect with the larger priesthood that I am a part of and was ordained to for now thirteen years.  The crying child within, overwhelmed by the noise, needed to be cared for and loved.

For the past ten years, I have taught high school juniors not only the need for conversion but also have led them through that process.  Any of us knows that, just because we can lead others doesn’t mean we can always lead ourselves there.  The best leaders are often those that know how to follow.  It requires the help of the field hospital, a team, to lead you back to health and to a deeper understanding of the mystery of the life in which I have felt called and the capacity to fall into that mystery without the feeling of drowning, it’s arch-nemesis which likes to disguise.  There’s no book and no six steps that can bring about the perfect priest or parish, for that matter, (whatever that means anyway), all we can do is continuously allow ourselves to surrender to the mystery of God’s grace and mercy in our lives and through it we are changed, our environments are changed, the lens in which we view life is changed, broadened, and deepened, and ultimately the world begins to change.  The first step, though, is to acknowledge there’s a problem, even when we don’t know what it is and allow ourselves to be checked into the field hospital for care.  It may only require some medicine to sooth the soul, but it at least prevents something more terminal.

Each night I’d end my day down at the Grotto here on campus, often being bit alive by mosquitos, but there nonetheless.  Each night I’d watch people come and go, renewing a sense of wonder in myself as to what brings them there, seeking prayer and understanding, lighting candles for someone or something.  I sat, I listened, even to a young man in tears next to me one evening, knowing that this spot was a field hospital for him, in need of some kind of healing in his life and quite possibly in the life of someone he loved. Each night he’d return and pray, light more candles, making his offering to the Divine Physician. No words were necessary.  Simply a light, some tears, and an openness to the grace at hand.  I suppose the one good thing about field hospitals is that they are 24-7.  At least for the past week, whether at the Grotto, hearing confession with young people, in sessions with other priests, laughter, connecting with some of the people I encountered on campus, or simply walking through this campus, this became the necessary field hospital in my life, first to acknowledge that I had become ill and then to accept the doctors and the Doctor and the care they provided to bring about healing, the capacity to give and receive this mystery, and of course, renewal.

Humble Service

Exodus 12: 1-8, 11-14; ICor 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15

One thing that Pope Francis reminds us of all the time is our gospel mandate to serve the poor. He says we are a “Church that is poor for the poor.” Certainly there is a superficial element to it when it comes to material goods and the greed, as he often says that accompanies it in the Western World, but there’s also a deeper meaning to it and a deeper longing that it often comes from deep within us, a place of poverty that yearns for us to be. Our avoidance of it so often in our lives leads us to where we do find ourselves in the world with countries like our own about accumulating while others lack beyond our imagination. It says something about our own poverty and what it is we are being invited into on this three day retreat and how we use the symbols that are a part of these days to lead us there.

On this first night, we hear a familiar gospel from John of the washing of the disciples feet as he too leads them to a place of poverty within themselves in what appears to be a rather uncomfortable position for them. The first symbol we encounter in the passage is Jesus disrobing. For the disciples of that time, something like that would have been scandalous, accompanied by the fact that the leader of this movement will then go on to wash their feet; unheard of. But as this liturgy goes on this evening we will do the same thing to this altar. Before we leave we will leave this space in a rather unusual place. None of us would do it if we were expecting guests in our own homes; we’d want it to look the best and for everyone to see what we’re about. We move away from that place of poverty within ourselves and put on a show. But the service that Jesus mandates this evening is quite the opposite. Disrobing, the stripping of the altar, the bending down, the place of humility calls the disciples and us to a different kind of service.

We are often much more comfortable with the service that we can do indirectly. There’s no harm in it all, but a Church that is poor and for the poor demands something different from each of us, to go out and within to where we are most uncomfortable, most vulnerable, and allow ourselves to be exposed as Jesus does and as we will do to this space as the evening wears on and in turn allow ourselves to be changed. John’s Gospel is predominantly about conversion of heart and it’s done by being led to those vulnerable places in our lives, humbling us, bending down, disrobing, allowing ourselves to be exposed, not to change the other but to allow our own hearts to be changed. We heard that in the weeks leading up to this point with the Woman at the Well, The Blind Man, and the Raising of Lazarus.

It was a concern for Paul as well as we are invited into Corinth today. Paul was aware even at this point that the poor were being separated from the community celebration of breaking bread. The community began to become elitist and separating itself from anyone that it deemed worthy to participate. If they were allowed it was at a different time than everyone else. In many ways, to eat the scraps left over. There was a disconnect in the mandate of the gospel to serve. Although John doesn’t come out of this community, he does originate from one of Paul’s communities and in many ways takes it all a step further. Paul lays the groundwork for this theological basis for what’s going on and then John puts skin to it and makes it real, bringing it down to earth and what it means to serve on a deeper level. It is obvious that Paul and John knew and had allowed themselves to be taken to that place of poverty within themselves and their lives are changed for ever, while remaining connected to their larger story of faith.

That’s what we hear in the first reading today from Exodus and the Passover celebration. Our Jewish brothers and sisters just a few days ago told this very story around their tables. They tell the story not to take them backwards to that place, but rather as a reminder of their story and their own journey, as a people and community, to that place of great struggle and poverty in their lives. They mustn’t ever forget who they are and where they had come from and so the telling of the story and the participation in the great symbols of the faith lead them to a place of change in their own hearts.

These days are filled with many symbols as our the readings we are invited to enter into this day. Some would say that John’s story of the washing of the disciples feet was one used in early baptisms, connecting what it was all about and the service that was being demanded of them. It throws everything off kilter from the other gospels because it’s out of order, happening not during the Passover, that somehow this Christ was breaking through even at this very moment, from the depths of their being, that place of poverty within.

The challenge for us to allow all the symbols to speak to us and to lead us to that place of conversion in our lives. It may be the bending down, the washing of feet, the humbling movement, the stripping of the altar, disrobing as Jesus does. Which of the symbols makes us most uncomfortable? That’s so often the place that God is trying to break through in our lives. This isn’t just about Holy Thursday and all we have made it out to be over the years. Rather, for John, it’s already about Easter. Lent has ended and we enter into the great feast. John is going to ask how we make resurrection a part of our lives in this moment, and this evening it comes in the form of humbling service from that place of poverty within. We are a Church that is poor for the poor, but maybe in ways we don’t always expect. Allow the symbols to speak and to change what it is we hold onto in our lives, now being washed away in the humble giving of Jesus, and as Peter eventually teaches us today, through our humble reception of that giving. That’s the point of change, the point of conversion in our lives.

It Begins With Me

2 Thes 3: 7-12; Luke 21: 5-19

By now I suppose most have had enough of politics. I’ve stayed out of it as much as I can because I believe as a preacher that it’s not my place to tell people how to vote and to take away their freedom to choose. But it’s over now and we now move towards a new reality, not only with a president but with a mayor of this city. I spent some time reflecting and blogging this week, even down to the point of how hard it was up to the point where I was filling in that oval square as to how I would vote. But I also reflected upon who are the losers in all of this. You know, I think the greatest losers in all of this are the two political parties with religious institutions a close third. It gets more and more obvious as to how politics influences religion much more than the other way around. We can tell simply by our reaction to it and we ask ourselves where it is we place our faith.

I thought of the losers coupled up against this gospel we hear today. If you ask me, the major parties as they stand have to lose. They have lost touch with people and in particular people who are truly suffering for a variety of reasons. Jesus makes the point at the beginning of the gospel today about the people that have become distracted by “costly stones and votive offerings”. It’s like the shiny object over here that distracts us from the real issues going on in people’s lives. It’s this facade that both of these parties have projected outwards that distract us and even worse yet, we begin to think that they are identity. I am red or I am blue. But you know what, it simply becomes another way for us to judge and distract. We not only judge by skin color, by sexuality, by religion, we can now judge by the color of our vote and because one votes one way I am somehow better than. We can keep going down this road, but the parties are going to destroy us as they continue to divide and even manipulate in a way that benefits them. Yet, all along, there’s war, famine, poverty, destruction, and great suffering going on over here being ignored.

We cannot keep dividing ourselves in these ways that continues to separate. Even the way we look at poverty. Sure there is great poverty in this city of Baltimore alone, but we even make judgements about that. We think somehow our poverty is greater than the poverty in rural America and we cast judgments upon them. You don’t need to drive very far to see it all around us. So yes, our politics has influenced our religion much more than the other way around because we’re called to something more and we hear that from Paul this morning in our second reading. He understands quite well in these communities how there can be divisions. He would understand our reds and blues. But Paul makes a point to lead people to their deeper identity, that there is something more than the color of my vote, there is the very fact that we are to model Christ, and Christ crucified at that. That is who we really are despite what these parties want to tell us. They want to convince that we are these parties and our lives depend on it. You know what, Christ crucified. That’s who we are and no one can tell us otherwise.

Of course, people even ask what Pope Francis has to say. He says he’ll certainly pray for the president but he says what matters most is what’s happening with the poor, the migrant, the immigrant, and the list goes on. We must continue to work for peace and justice but not because red or blue tells us to but rather because our faith demands it of us. However, in order to do that we must begin with ourselves. If we want peace we must first find it within ourselves. If we want to work for justice, we must first work to identity the injustice of our own lives, that’s me and you. I have judgements, I have stereotypes, I have all this going on in myself and I get easily distracted by the shiny object just as much as the rest, but this is a time to come back to center and come back to our truest identity. We cannot become what it is we hate. We cannot continue to blame others for the problems of the world. We must first begin with us, with me and with you. I must recognize my own injustice and my participation in the injustice of the world before I can begin to bring about justice in the world. We are more than all of it. If we want to be love and forgiveness and mercy, we must reconnect with our deepest identity in Christ and detach ourselves from our attachment to red and blue. It will destroy us because it’s not even real and we know deep down that we are more than it all.

This is a time of reflection for all of us, individually and collectively, to ask ourselves where we have become distracted and attached ourselves to something other than we really are and move towards oneness. We have to stop believing that we are this facade when we know deep down we are something much more. As Jesus says, it will all pass anyway. There’s no point holding onto it. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. It never is to let go of something we believe to be our identity. He speaks about how it does turn family and against family and against friend. But we must keep our eye on all who are suffering, including those beyond the bubbles we live in. We must keep our eye on the poor, the suffering, the fearful, the hurting, all suffering from famine. We don’t like to keep our eyes there and would prefer to be distracted, but that’s where we find our truest selves in Christ crucified and it is Christ that we are called to model to the world. We work for peace and we work for justice, but let it first begin with me.