Leaning Into Life

Although not discussed in great detail, I was watching an interview this week from a representative from WebMD about trends on searches during this time of pandemic. It was interesting to note the shift taking place in what people feel they need during this time, first on how long the virus survives on surfaces, when it first began, to now loneliness and depression. It seems like a radical shift as a majority of us quickly approach the second month of quarantine and social distancing and what it’s doing to us psychologically and spiritually. It may be true this pandemic is making us somewhat “stir-crazy”, understandable knowing what it’s been like together and individually. However, what we fail to recognize is the pandemic, in many ways, is simply allowing what has been for some time to rise to the surface and making sure we have nowhere to run, giving us the opportunity to no longer run from our own shadow, scaring us half to death. It begins to rear itself in our dreams and other means demanding our attention.

I’ve been depressed and experienced a deep moral loneliness, as so many readers’ have experienced in their lives or may be for the first time during this pandemic. I have had to take medication along the way in order to assist me in the process, giving the necessary bump to deal with the shadow of my own life in which I was running. If we stop simply at meds, though, we never actually deal with the problem of loneliness and moments like we find ourselves begin to feel excruciating. It truly is an invisible enemy easily masked until we are forced to stop or tragedy strikes, no longer making logical sense of the lives we’ve learned to box up and wrap neatly. It leads, unfortunately, to living a double-life which deepens the loneliness. Now, though, we find ourselves no longer able to run.

I’m not saying there’s an easy answer to any of it. However, most of us have had the experience of living double-lives, growing the gulf within us leading to this sense of darkness. Our identities have a tendency to be wrapped up in what we do, in our work, so when we find ourselves at home, week after week, our ability to run from the pain associated with this loneliness seems nearly impossible. It’s no wonder places selling alcohol become “essential” places because it so often is used as a numbing drug in order to take away the pain, when in reality, only deepens the pain to the point where it feels like there’s an abyss within our soul and we find ourselves freefalling into the darkness. There is a reason many need to go back to work. Certainly, there is the financial element for millions of people right now, but on a human side, so many do not know who they are without working, and working to the point of addiction. If we’re not producing then there must be something wrong with us.

I can recall days in my own life, when, upon finishing working, I dreaded going home. I dreaded the pain which would begin to surface within me because I was feeding an identity not my own. I can recall the level of pain I experienced at times in my life because of the gulf existing between work and home. Home became a place to fear and dread because I couldn’t outrun the pain. All I could ever do was numb it with whatever was available, often food for myself. I feel for the people who find themselves in this position today, after nearly decades of their lives working and being able to leave home to escape themselves. As ridiculous as it seems, I can even feel for people protesting. In the various images I have seen, you can literally see the pain in their faces as they arm themselves with guns and such, giving them a sense of power, in which has felt lost. They’ve lost their outlet and can no longer avoid themselves. Unfortunately, though, there’s always someone ready to capitalize on the pain of others. I remember needing to deal with the regrets in my life, the resentments I was holding onto, all aimed at myself, blaming myself, living out of my own victimhood. It was a feeling as if the world was consistently working against me and I allowed it. Anything to avoid the inevitable flip of the mirror of me staring back at myself, unable to run from my own hurt and pain. I will say, in my experience, men are much more susceptible to this type because they are driven by work.

We have a tendency to limit the pain of loneliness to elements of this pandemic, such as social distancing and the absence of physical touch. This may be true to a point and we can allow ourselves to feel the pain of separation in this way. However, I don’t believe it’s the deep loneliness and darkness some are experiencing these days. There is certainly a level of grief connected to the pandemic. I too am living in the same way, at the house I grew up in, but I by no means feel lonely. I don’t feel the sense of separation from myself. If, though, our identity isn’t wrapped up in our work and what we produce, it can also be tied to what others tell us we are, dependent upon what others think and believe about us. This too leads to a separation from ourselves. As shallow as our culture can be, generally speaking, we’ve lost the sense of transformation and even how to go about doing it and so we live in a perpetual state of anxiousness because of this gulf within ourselves.

There is nothing easy about loneliness, which can lead to depression for many. There is also no quick fix in dealing with it. The rush to normalcy calls to mind just how much we loathe the necessity to allow things to die, especially our thinking and mindset. The rush to normalcy is fed by the fear and anxiety we face in having no where to run from ourselves. Although I don’t know statistics, it would be interesting to see numbers on domestic abuse, alcoholism, increased addiction to pain meds, and all the other numbing elements occurring during this time. It comes down to this very basic principle of knowing ourselves and beginning to close the gap between the persona we present at work, in relationships, etc. and the person who lays his or her head on the pillow at night, the one time when we are truly alone. Our economy, our politics, religion, job, all want to define us in one way or another and slowly we take on their identity as consumer, party affiliate, winner, loser, sinner, hard-worker, and we begin to believe this is finally the identity which defines me.

However, none of them do. None of them. As all of these identities have slowly been stripped of us the past month, we are left with our own poverty, our own sense of abyss within ourselves which doesn’t need to be feared but rather which we surrender to the voice calling us to enter into our own darkness, our loneliness, not to be consumed by it, but to feel our way through the darkened corners of our hearts and souls and to claim it. We need not fear the terror of the night! I have written it in all these posts these weeks, we are all being given a golden opportunity! In an addictive and co-dependent culture within so many of our institutions and organizations, we have been set free from what has bound us most. It’s no wonder they rush to get us back! We help in feeding these masters, these ghouls, decorating us with lavish identities, hiding our poverty and making us feel rich!

My friends, and all who read this day, what is your relationship with the ghouls which have identified you? With your religion, your work, newsfeeds, your political affiliation, your whatever? Most especially, though, what is your relationship like with yourself? Welcome reality as it is and not the way any of them tell you. Recognize what you actually have control over, the choices and decisions you make for yourself and not much else. Become aware of how you feel the world has worked against you and begin to shift the mindset where it works for you. Don’t sit around and simply wait for this to pass, even though it will. Allow yourself to be empowered to change what you can in your life and begin to close the gap causing such deep loneliness. This ultimately leads to the freedom we truly desire in our lives, a freedom which doesn’t come through some official document nor from carrying a weapon.

Think about people like Saint Paul, Martin Luther King, Jr, Anne Frank, and so many others who were imprisoned in their own right and still spoke from a place of freedom. They had the mindset of a world working for them and no need to blame. Trust me, there’s still a loneliness which accompanies such darkness when you feel you stand alone and being crucified. However, they were true to themselves, dealt with their darkness, and learned to be empowered through and with it rather than running away. The wisdom figures of ancient past all point to the same deeply held truth, what appears to be our greatest fear and obstacle, the thorn in our side, is often our greatest gift. Don’t run from the loneliness of these days. Rather, lean into it and allow it to teach by welcoming it in, allow it to be healed, and offer it back to a hurting and often lonely world.

Caught In Between

See the source image

I’ve been thinking a lot about Browning, Montana. Now for most people this means absolutely nothing. Unless traveling through Glacier National Park, most would have no reason to know Browning let alone even hear of it! Browning sits at the base of the mountains, and when visiting during the winter months, you’d think you were going to be blown back to Kansas as the wind whips down the side of the mountain amidst blowing snow into this small town. Browning sits within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and is neighbor to one of the most beautiful and spectacular national parks around, even during the dead of winter.

I never knew much about life on a Reservation until I had the opportunity to visit on three different occasions, chaperoning with high school students. It’s a rather unique experience because much of life is contained to the particular space, not only because of the heritage, but also practically there is nothing in sight for hours All you see are endless fields.  Needless to say, groceries are quite expensive since there’s no competition and requires more to import into town, addictions run rampant, education is less than stellar, poverty only continues to escalate, and opportunity for long-term work and success has all but vanished beyond any visitors from Glacier who straggle through during the summer months.

So why has it been on my mind? Well, I’ve been spending this time of pandemic back at the town I grew up in and spent more than half my life. Since then I’ve not only visited Browning, but Third World countries, various places around this country, as well as Europe and Israel, so I’ve had the chance to see and experience many places over the course of my life. Yet, here I am, back where I began. I have seen, though, many similarities to some of the places I have visited, like Browning, and this town which I now find myself writing. No, it’s not an Indian Reservation, but has become similar to many other small, more rural towns in America. Like Browning there is but one grocery store with high prices. At a normal time, it’s much cheaper to drive to the Wal Mart fifteen minutes away. Most industries have all but left, and driving through the “downtown” area, a place I spent hanging out with friends in all types of weather, is vacant, dilapidated, and mirrors a war zone much more than the booming feel it had as a kid and teenager. Unless you hit the one red light in town now, there isn’t much reason to stop anymore.

Just like ourselves, when life simply becomes about survival, rather than thriving and booming, as many small towns have become, we begin to attract people who are like-minded. We begin to become depleted without much vision or purpose along with a lack of funds. Learning begins to falter in education systems unable to keep up with current trends, even more glaring during this time. Creativity seems to be all but lost as to how to move forward. We literally become stuck between two worlds, seemingly at odds with one another, when in reality we’re at odds with ourselves, more often than not. It is, after all, a small town with a big heart. However, it’s a hurting heart which doesn’t beat as quick as it used to in days past, weighed down. Like most things, it has a lifespan, but it doesn’t mean it has to end.

If you don’t know the history of Reservations, the long-term intent was an extinction of Natives. It was not some kind of gift to them but rather a way of ridding the country of a problem. They too become trapped between tradition/heritage and the guilt of losing it or sacrificing it for a new way of life, or better yet, thinking. Like most of our problems as a society, we’d rather try to get rid of it than to deal with it, but unfortunately in the process of trying to be rid of it only tends to deepen it, including the resentment and anger associated with it. We’ve seen some of the problems rear their head during this time of pandemic, consistently finding ourselves stuck and reacting, as if playing a game of whack-a-mole all with a silo mentality in a global world. It was Einstein who’s quoted saying, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” There’s much truth to the statement. Yet, we try and it moves us to the place of confinement, unable to let go despite a wanting to move forward. We see it not only in small towns but in cities and in the country as well.

I’ve only had the experience of living in the city of Baltimore in my life so it’s the only one in which I can speak. Like small towns, it lacks a vision and is always behind the eight ball in dealing with issues. The number of lives lost to murder and homicide is staggering. There is, though, also a tension which exists. With the lack of vision on a larger scale for a city like Baltimore, neighborhoods take it upon themselves to change. You can see it driving through various locations. For those of us wanting to see a bigger picture for such a place, it looks like an experience of gentrification, and is on some level. It’s pushing the problem to other locations and often feeding into the level of crime existent in the neighborhoods. Like minds gravitate to like minds. If life is about survival, it’s about survival and we’ll go to a place where we can simply hang on for dear life but it’s not a mindset which will bring about change because it’s not even possible when in triage. Parts of cities, small towns, Reservations, end up becoming about extinction than about booming and thriving, a place to die. It feels rather hopeless.

Yet, it doesn’t need to be about blame or feeling hopeless. We often settle for a victim mindset because we’re comfortable there. There’s a sense of safety there because I can avoid looking at my own life and actions as to how they have contributed to the problem. It’s easy to blame the federal government for creating Reservations. It’s easy to blame suburbanites for fleeing cities for a “better way of life”. It’s easy to blame outsiders coming into small towns and destroying them and making them unsafe. But when looked at through the lens of a mindset, it should not come as a surprise. Rather than being in the uncomfortable place of change and letting go of what no longer works, we’d often rather settle for one or the other, past over present, tradition over change, the way it was over the way it could be. We don’t have to choose, in this regard, but rather take the wisdom of the past, the learned experiences, and allow them to be the framework for the future. Sure, there is a letting go needing to take place, even if it’s our anger and resentment for a life which hasn’t necessarily turned out the way we wanted it to be or the feeling of being overwhelmed by all which needs to be done. Change isn’t a leap but rather a step-by-step process, and before you know it, you’re on the other side of the river, once again booming and thriving.

It takes a will and desire for change, an acceptance of our present reality as it is, not in the illusion we often create it to be, and a heart freed of the hurt which has held you back. Whether it’s individuals, towns, cities, countries, or even companies, if they cling too tightly to what was and not wanting to change, you’ll always be playing from behind because life has become too cluttered. We become victims and do what we’re so good at, blame. It’s not to say we don’t take responsibility for problems which exist. If it is a problem plaguing any part of humanity or this world, we all have a responsibility. It’s not just the neighbor, the mayor, the president, Congress-men and women, or anyone else. It’s a mindset and mindset is the hardest to change. It can only be changed by a higher consciousness and this time is providing us the space to move to a deeper and yet higher place in our lives and society. We have a responsibility to one another, not just to ourselves. We mustn’t create a safe space for ourselves and forget about everyone else; that’s selfish. We must create a world which seeks the common good of humanity.

It is a daunting task but it’s step by step. In order to become unstuck we must make the conscious choice to do so, to have the desire to be free in order to move forward. This place of tension in which we find ourselves, between pre-pandemic and post-pandemic, will either paralyze us or free us and our imaginations for a better world. I’ve seen both at play daily. Hunkering down in great fear will only continue to paralyze you and deepen the anger and resentment which already existed. Yet, being cautious and using time wisely, as we used to say back in the day, can bring about great change in the future. It’s a time for self-reflection for all of us as to what world we will choose to live in as we move forward and begins with not only a vision for our own lives but for our towns, cities, nation, and world.

When Luck Runs Out

One of the biggest stories coming out as the NFL kicks off its 2019 regular season is the “retirement” of Andrew Luck from the Indianapolis Colts. It’s strange to say retirement for someone as young as him, turning a rather young 30 years old this week, but it was enough to spark much debate. Of course, it’s hard to ignore the amount of money that hangs in the balance when a player chooses to step away, even at the most inopportune time. It goes beyond the Indianapolis Colts, jersey and ticket sales, but also in fantasy football that billions riding on the health and weekly play of the athletes. It is easy to understand why so many would feel rage against him, even if far from being justified, but it also says much about our priorities and values that we hold as a culture and people.

However, if you listen to him speak, or better yet, read the transcript of his press conference, we should be doing nothing but praising him for his decision to call it quits. After his initial statement of the endless cycle of pain and injury, Luck goes onto say, “I’ve been stuck in this process. I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live… I’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road, and I made a vow to myself that if I ever did again, I’d choose me, in a sense. It’s very difficult; I love this team, I love my teammates, the folks in our building, the folks in this building, the fans, the game of football, and as part of this team, as a member of this team, and because of how I feel, I know that I am unable to pour my heart and soul into this position, which would not only sell myself short but the team in the end as well.”

What takes some a lifetime to figure out, Luck managed to see after six seasons, with the help of pain and injury, coupled with a love for family, to see it just wasn’t working for him. He realized that his heart was no longer, if at all, in the game. When the heart is pulling in one direction but the lure of the ego, success, money, fame, stardom, having it all, pulls in the other, it is only a matter of time when our own pain awakens us to what is missing in our lives. What we do simply remains and the doing level leading to burnout with the desire for greater meaning and purpose constantly tugging at our hearts, trying to awaken us to something more in our lives, often right in front of our eyes.

For someone who recognized that football was all about team and the other, it almost seems selfish, in the end, that he’d call it quits. All the expectations of fans for another great season, receivers and others who have become comfortable with Luck’s methods, if not aware themselves, can see it simply as that, a selfish act; hence, all the hoopla around his retirement. It’s even difficult for him to say it in that statement knowing that it is all about the team and the other. However, Luck had to choose the deeper self that called out from within him reminding him that he’s more than football and stardom, which over time naturally wears off for someone not playing with heart and soul.

I’ve heard more than enough of my share of people who end their lives with regrets about their lives and the choices made as to how to live it. For so many, it is about getting by, work enough to get the kids through college, have a nice home, and simply being able to breathe. We’re often convinced that that’s what it’s all about; the pinnacle of one’s adult life. Hopefully, though, there should always be something tugging at us like it did for Andrew Luck. There should always be something in us reminding us of something bigger than ourselves that there’s something more for us out there that becomes flushed out with each choice we make every day not to settle or get by, but to live.

This is what makes Luck so hated by some and yet praised by others, like myself. He got to that point in his life long before I ever did. Sure, he had the help of physical pain and suffering that was taking a toll on his life. But for him, and me, for that matter, that’s what it often takes. It’s when we start to feel the pain that lies within of ignoring the deeper call for meaning and purpose that goes beyond a title or position. It never goes away. We simply live with the daily choice to ignore and regret or to feel more deeply into it and live. It’s the invitation that Luck has accepted for himself by stepping away from it all, no matter the circumstances, reaction, or anything else from anyone else. In the end, he knew in his heart of hearts that it was the right thing and would no longer live with regret.

Luck has a great deal to teach us if we allow ourselves to step back and ask ourselves what’s most important to us in life. We can continue to be “stuck in this process” and come to the “proverbial fork in the road”, choosing what leads to further pain and a sense of violence against our own hearts and souls, and at times it seems like all we can do. However, the “proverbial fork” does not always return. When the moment comes, and knocks us off our feet, we know at that point that we have no other choice but to walk away what has hurt us, whether work or relationship. It’s what Luck chose in that very moment, even if it seems to be the most inopportune time. We often don’t get to choose when that moment arrives. All we can do is choose in that moment, when all luck seems to have run out in our life, to allow ourselves to be pushed towards life and what first gives meaning and purpose.

A Royal Love

Acts 2: 1-11; I Cor 12: 3b-7, 12-13; John 20: 19-23

I’m guessing by now everyone has had their fill of the Royal Family after the wedding yesterday.  It would have been interesting to hear what the Brits had to say about the American take-over yesterday, not only with the bride, but also the choice of music at times, and of course, the one who stole the show was the preacher.  I’m guessing they’re not all to used to having such a preacher in their midst.  I’m not sure what was more enjoyable, listening to him or watching the reaction of some of the guests who were squirming in their seats a bit.  It wasn’t your typical royal wedding.  It wasn’t that he even said anything that was so extreme, but it was certainly delivered with great passion and from the fire within him.  It was a message that has been delivered now for 50 days, the redemptive love of Easter.  It was an interesting approach at a wedding but a message definitely needed.

The reaction of some of the folks that had gathered at Windsor was not much different than what the disciples received at this gathering that we hear of from Acts today, when the time of Pentecost had been fulfilled.  If you keep reading a bit the reaction of onlookers was a question of whether they were drunk and drinking too much.  But that wasn’t the case at all.  Like that message at the Royal Wedding, they had experienced that redemptive love of Easter and it, they could no longer be contained.  We’ve overused the word in our own language and so the redemptive quality of love gets lost in translation, but in many ways it reveals their smallness as a people and all that holds them back from having this love set free.  It reveals the smallness of their judgment.  It reveals the smallness of thinking they’re somehow above others, which was probably some of the squirming yesterday at the wedding.  He knew the audience that he was speaking to, the royals, celebrities, and very few common folk like ourselves, which hammers the message home all the more.  It reveals the smallness, more than anything, of their fear.

That’s where we return now in today’s gospel.  This is the same gospel we heard back on the second Sunday of Easter and now we return with greater vigor after marching through these fifty days.  The disciples, as any sense of daylight begins to fade and darkness returns, are found in one of their smallest places, trapped and locked inside the upper room.  They’ve already heard the message of Mary Magdala as well as Peter and the Beloved Disciple, but the message has yet to resonate in their hearts.  Fear continued to plague their hearts and harden them from confronting their own smallness.  The Church doesn’t just take us back to the beginning of Easter, but John in turn takes us back to the beginning of salvation history when God breathes life into man prior to the fall.  This redemptive love that Jesus now breathes into the disciples redeems all of humanity.  The disciples will be moved from within to go forth.  Like the early community of Acts, this redemptive love and forgiveness will no longer be contained.  It’s not going to take away the hostility that awaits them beyond the locked, upper room.  Rather, it is only the gift of the redemptive love by that Spirit being breathed into them that can now renew the face of the Earth, as we sang in the psalm.

We gather like that early community asking for the gift of the Spirit and the redemptive love in our own hearts that still, at times, stand hardened by our own smallness.  We create our own gods that stand in the way.  We move from the self-sacrificial love that we first heard on Holy Thursday and Good Friday to the redemptive love of Easter, Jesus breathing new life into a community that had lost its way, had been contained by fear, and living in its own smallness.  Now, though, they will be pushed forth to share what can no longer be contained.  Where there is poverty, love redeems.  Where there is hatred and violence as we’ve seen here in the States and in the Middle East this week, love redeems.  Where there continues to be refugees and people fleeing tyrants, love redeems.  If there is no love there is no God.  That was the message of the preacher today and it’s the message that gathers us here today.  The love of God through the sending of the Spirit cannot be contained within this building otherwise it’s not of God.  It’s our own doing.  It’s us telling God who God is rather than allowing that redemptive love to define us as Paul tells us today.  It’s what binds us together as a community, despite fear, judgment, sin, hurt, grudges, resentments, and all the rest that we often prefer and make us comfortable.  They also are our smallest selves.  We settle for so much less by trying to domesticate this God that tries to liberate and set us free.

As this season of Easter draws to a close now, we pray for that same Spirit to once again descend upon us and to move through us, breathing new life into where we have clung to death.  This redemptive love that liberates expands our hearts to have greater space for others who think different, live different, act different, pray different, and all the rest.  If it doesn’t, we are still trapped in that upper room, in fear, awaiting our own god rather than allowing ourselves to experience the wildness of a God who shatters our smallness in order to renew not only our own lives but the face of the earth.  Now more than ever redemptive love is needed in this world.  False versions of love seem to far outnumber in our world but it is only the liberating act of redemptive love, Christ breathing new life into our hardened hearts, where we are renewed and given the vigor to live with such passion as the first disciples.  They are us and we are them.  We pray for that Spirit now so we may be pushed through our own limits to the openness and vastness of God’s redeeming love!

Go!

Acts 1: 1-11; Eph 1: 17-23; Mark 16: 15-20

I suppose they were expecting “happily ever after”.  If we go back 40 days now to Easter, the disciples had just witnessed the horrific death of their friend Jesus, then three days later raised from the dead, and I suppose expected “happily ever after”.  Everything was good again.  They’ve witnessed all he did as Luke and Mark tell us today and he’ll continue going about the mission that he had come here for in the first place and they can follow along.  Yet, and I would hope, that as adults we know enough to know that there are no fairy tales, there is no “happily ever after”.  Our lives are just not like that and nor for the disciples so when Jesus is lifted up into heaven today all they can do is look up at the sky and wonder what’s next.

Don’t we all catch ourselves staring at the sky, wondering when God’s going to do something about all the problems in the world.  I mean, can’t God do something about poverty, hunger, homelessness, refugees, war, and the countless other problems that plague the world.  It’s funny how God gets blamed for all of it while we stand idly by, at times, staring at the sky wondering why.  Yet, we hear today that the story doesn’t end with the disciples staring into space, questioning again what’s happening.  They, however, are given a command to go!  Their fairy tale ending with Jesus just isn’t going to be the reality but instead they’re told to go do something and imitate Jesus along the way, bring that healing and love to the world.

Paul tells us today that we’ve already been given the power to do something in the world.  It’s by no means an easy task that lies ahead for the disciples or us for that matter, but he reminds us today that the Spirit is already given to us and the more we learn to trust and have faith in the ascended Lord, the more we can tackle the problems of the world, bringing healing and love along the way.  It’s so easy to blame God, or others for that matter, when things aren’t getting done and people are not being cared for in our world.  It’s a whole lot easier to live in our “happily ever after” storybook than to face the realities of the world, the very realities that Jesus faced living out this mission.  Today is the day the responsibility of the mission is passed onto the disciples to simply Go!

We live in a time, though, when we’d rather blame.  The worst thing any of us can tell ourselves is that we’re helpless or powerless for that matter.  Any addict can affirm that for us.  We begin to tell ourselves, while we stare up at the sky, that the problems are so big, how can I possibly do anything about it.  It’s not my responsibility, it’s someone else’s.  Our favorite here, well that’s the government’s job.  Pass blame, victims of our own circumstances, all while gazing up at the sky waiting for a message to come from on High as to what to do, when all along the disciples are told don’t look up.  Rather, go out.  The mission is passed onto each.

Of course, it’s necessary, as I said Paul writes that we return to the source of life.  We, like the disciples, can also easily fall into the trap of thinking it’s all about us.  We begin to think we’re the savior or messiah.  Rather, Paul reminds us, as well as the gospel writers, that the Lord needed to ascend.  This mission is too big to be contained to a specific location.  It was going to need to spread from Jerusalem and Galilee to the ends of the earth but that can only happen because of today’s feast as the Lord ascends before the very eyes of the disciples, remaining with them, now in a unique way, until the end of time.  It won’t ever be happily ever after for them or for us.  There are too much hurting and suffering in our world today to even begin to think that.  Rather, like the disciples, the message of the feast is quite simple, Go!  When we allow the Lord to use us and work through us and within us, we bring the only thing that offers hope the world, the gift of our love and the love of God burning within us. 

As we celebrate this feast and prepare for the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost next Sunday, we pray for the grace to turn our gaze from the sky and unto the Lord, to be given that Spirit, enlivened within our hearts, so that we can live the command given to the disciples and continues today, to go.  No more blaming.  No more passing the buck.  Heck, no more thinking this is about “happily ever after”.  There’s too much work to be done, there is a mission to serve, so go.  Go, do something that brings love to the world.  Go, do something that brings healing to the world.  Go and allow yourself to be used by the Lord for mission and bring the good news through your lives.  Go!

A Stable Force

star-of-bethlehem-wallpaper-source_bff

Isaiah 9: 1-6; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14

There’s some irony in hearing this familiar gospel from Luke today of Mary and Joseph heading back to the place of origin for the census. The story we heard more than anything this week was about taxes.  Congress passed a bill and it was signed into law.  There’s debate, depending on who you listen to, as to who it benefits.  I don’t know.  But some 2000 years ago Mary and Joseph found themselves in this same familiar place.  The calling of the census by Caesar Augustus was primarily about taxes.  Like always it seems as if money drives everything no matter the point in history.

We do know one thing, though, that Mary and Joseph would not benefit from this taxation and nor would any other poor person of the day. It was to benefit the expansion of the kingdom that Caesar was creating in his own image.  It was a time of peace that was rooted in oppression, fear, and constant instability for the community in which Luke writes this passage. Yet, despite all of it this couple were faithful to this earthly power just as Jesus would go onto say, give to Caesar what is Caesar.  But they were faithful until they no longer could.  They were faithful until it stood in the way of this newfound life in Christ that seemed harmless and yet a threat to powers of the day, when people, as history is turned on its head, no longer have to be defined by the political or even religious authorities of their day.  In the midst of all the instability, Mary and Joseph return to the place of origin, as we all do to seek what they sought, to the stable, the manger, the garden, to once again find that union with the divine.  In the midst of the instability of the day a Stable arises in their midst to bring lasting peace and freedom that can no longer be contained by the earthly powers.

This passage we hear this evening that stands so familiar to us of the birth of the Christ has great spiritual implications more than any other.  As much as we have softened over time, it was a story of hope for Luke’s community that found themselves displaced and in constant turmoil from within and from the political and religious authorities.  There was no space, no room, for another voice beyond Caesar and anyone that tried faced consequences.  There was, as Luke tells us, no room in the Inn.  The external pressures to conform and that contained them would no longer suffice for a God who was to take on flesh.  Rather, Mary and Joseph leave the confines of the Inn and wander into the darkened night, where the community so often found itself, giving birth in a stable.  This is the defining moment for Mary and Joseph as well who realize there’s no turning back at this point.  They have been given a gift and this gift is going to guide them through some of the darkest moments of their lives.  They will not be defined by Caesar and his cronies.  They will no longer be contained by the political and religious authorities of their day.  They, instead, will be led as refugees to unfamiliar land and space only to turn to the Christ as their guide.  They return to the place of their own origin and give birth to a new way of life, wrapped not in the confines of the worldly desires but rather in mystery and the unknown, learning to trust and navigate the given gift.

But long before there was Israel who too found itself in similar situations.  As much as things change over time they also remain the same.  They find themselves again on the cusp of something new.  They were a people that walked in darkness but now illumined by this light.  Israel will learn in its own history, as in ours, that darkness becomes their greatest teacher.  It’s often when they find themselves wandering, fleeing oppressors, facing the unknown and utter darkness, that grace begins to grow.  They too will return to their own place of origin, to the heart of who they are, only to once again become attached and led to the darkness once more, to grown more deeply in faith and trust of this mystery that continues to call them forth.  Like them, we don’t like to be “in the dark” on things.  We want to know.  We want that certainty in our lives.  Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the Magi will encounter in the weeks ahead, learn to be sent forth to those very places in their own lives.  As I said, great spiritual implications as to how they and we live our lives.  Our we going to be defined by the confined Inn, cluttered lives we often lead.  Will we simply be identified with our politics and even our religious beliefs.  The radical simplicity of Christmas in a very complex world reminds us that in all our instability, war, poverty, unrest, and all the rest, we’re called to leave it behind, the “worldly desires” and allow the Stable to arise in our own hearts and souls to now be led not from on high and not from these external authorities but rather from within our very hearts and souls where the Christ, from the beginning and always, is being born.

This is what Christmas is about.  Luke turns the story on its head.  Salvation history will not be defined through the eyes of Caesar Augustus, Herod, or any other tyrant of their day, oppressing the people for their own political gain.  Luke reminds us that we live from the inside out and from the bottom up.  The journey now into the great darkness that has seen the great light is a painful one at that, but Mary and Joseph stand as witnesses to the power of the Stable in the midst of the instability of their own lives and ours as well.  Deep within us we know something that goes beyond anything this world offers, all the clutter and noise that distracts us, creating anxiety and instability, turmoil in our lives.  In that very place we’re called to leave it behind on this Christmas, leave the staleness and artificialness of the Inn that has defined to something real, wandering in the darkness of night, to a Stable that holds the eternal and the one who navigates Luke’s community to a new way of life and one for ourselves as well.  We can be defined by the tyrants of our day, the corruption of money, political and religious leaders telling us who we are and what to do but Christmas demands more of us.  Christmas demands us to learn to grown and trust the voice deep within, from a place of mystery and the great unknown, calling us to live our lives identified by the eternal place of origin, a Stable, in the midst of a often unstable world.

A Millennial Exodus for Meaning

The following are my remarks made at the opening of our pastorate meeting…

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the chance to dialogue with some Millennials who I have met along the way and was telling them about the changes that are taking place in the Church.  Some faithfully practice and others come and go when they can.  At the same time, I’ve learned through them, that they are often the most misunderstood generation that exists and they get blamed for much of what we, older generations, fail to take responsibility for.  Their way of thinking and way of life can be foreign to so many of us, and yet, in many ways, I relate to them in a very different way.  If I had to sum up my experience not only of those who are friends but also whom I have worked with is that more than any other group they seek meaning and purpose in their lives.  They aren’t going to stay at a job or a church forever if it isn’t feeding the deeper hunger of their lives.  Honestly, we’re better at serving stones than bread.  It’s part of the mass exodus that has taken place over the years.  That’s not just the main Institution but the parishes that have been institutionalized as well.

Quite frankly, it’s probably a miracle or at least the grace of God that I have stayed in this institution over the years just knowing how much we haven’t met the younger generations in that way, often because we think it’s still about us.  Instead, we’ve blamed, resented, and projected our own stuff onto them while failing to see, become aware, and accept where we have gone wrong as Church, where we have failed at feeding the ultimate hunger of meaning in people’s lives.  And I include myself in this, we have fought over who can and can’t receive communion, we’ve fought over music and style of liturgy, we’ve fought over empty meetings that have been more about building ourselves up rather than the encounter with the other, and of course, even times and places for mass and other events.  All this while poverty continues to exist and grow, churches empty out because of our pettiness, attaching ourselves to superficiality while returning home empty, yes, even fighting over spaghetti sauce, war persists, hunger persists, murder within the pastorate rises, drugs run rampant up and down York Road, immigrants looking for direction, a school barely hanging on, people persecuted because of color and sexuality, among other things, and yet here we are, all of us, locked in the upper room out of fear, hiding in the comfort of our own space.  More often than not, clinging to what we have known rather than braving the great unknown.  If you want to know why Millennials often don’t show up, well, we typically don’t have to look too far.

If you haven’t realized, and I know many don’t know me beyond the priest, there’s a lot of stuff I just don’t care about, but what I do care about I care very deeply.  I care about people much more than institutions and parish agendas and identities.  I care about souls and the spiritual well-being of people because I know if we’re not healthy in a spiritual way we just won’t be healthy.  We’ll get hung up on the trivialities and have no perspective and larger picture.  I care about people and relationship and meeting people, having coffee with people, talking about faith and certainly preaching about it.  I’m well aware I have other responsibilities and other things happen in the life of a parish, but more than anything, I am about prayer, silence, and leading others to that same place, to find meaning and purpose in their lives.  It’s not that I don’t care about other things, because I do, but I can never quite stop myself from looking for deeper meaning and trying to lead people to the great unknown now so it won’t be as painful later, because it does always come.  I care about leading others to finding deeper meaning and purpose in their lives, through the muck of consumerism, capitalism, and politics which are often the gods we cling to in life.

When I teach, I always remind the students that, more than anything, we cling to what we know.  We like to be certain.  We like things to be black and white.  Yet, the more I have allowed myself to delve into mystery the less I see that as being real.  We, more often than not, find ourselves somewhere in between.  For me, one of the great stories that I use is that of the Exodus and people Israel.  They were miserable with what they were clinging to and yet, no sooner they are led to the unknown to encounter God in a very different way, being led to conversion, they immediately want to go back to what they know despite being miserable.  Heck, they get ticked off at Moses for leading them out of Egypt because they would have rather died to what they had known and clung to than to begin to experience life differently.  Aren’t we very much the same at times?

As we proceed, like Moses, we never quite know the twists and turns that we will encounter, and we have encountered them and will continue to do so, but our faith and trust must transcend what we know and what we cling to, which is often not real in the first place.  Don’t get me wrong.  We can continue doing what we’ve always done, business as usual, but know there are consequences to that as well.  Demographics continue to change, population is shrinking in most of this pastorate and appears to be in the near future.  In other words, we’ll die with it.  We’ll die with it.  As the poet, W.H. Auden, once wrote, “We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”  If I have learned anything this past year it’s that both locations have just that, illusions of one another, often deeply rooted in fear and the unknown which only entering into relationship can change.

So here we are, at the crossroads of change.  Like the disciples of Jesus in John’s Gospel, some may high tail it out because of change and what will be asked of them, because something is asked of all of us.  Some of this is personal.  I was close to just breaking down in exhaustion earlier this summer and I cannot continue to do that to myself.  If you read my blog you know that Notre Dame was like a “field hospital” for me and vacation more like respite care.  We currently have seven masses on the weekend and I’m seeking to move it to five.  In relation to the seven and nearly 30 in this vicinity, it’s not that much when we see ourselves as stewards of the liturgy rather than possessors.  I am a believer that less is often better because I can be better, and not allow the celebration that stands at our center to be entered into in drudgery and exhaustion. 

Change is hard and it’s messy.  There have been missteps and there will continue to be mistakes.  There always is when you wander through the desert.  Like the Israelites, our eyes have a way of deceiving us.  Change is also good and one of the few consistencies in our life.  As we enter into this discernment process and dialogue, we pray for the grace to move us to a place of encounter with and through one another.  We pray for the grace of the Spirit to come upon us and lead us to the place of poverty within our soul which often holds the key to so many of our struggles.  One of Pope Francis’ first quotes about the Church was that it is poor and for the poor.  It leads me to the image that we hold so dear, that first Christmas in Bethlehem when poverty took on flesh.  Here we are some 2000 years later, still asking for the grace so that we may be the same in the here and now, in this pastorate, as one people in and through Christ.  That, my friends, is what we’re all about and where we will find fulfillment of the deeper hunger for meaning and purpose in our lives.

 

‘Better than This’

Isaiah 22: 19-23; Matthew 16: 13-20

In today’s opening prayer we heard something like, we pray amid all the uncertainties of the world.  Well, I’m not sure where it is we start with that.  It seems as if there is uncertainty and chaos all over the place, around the globe, the country, even Mother Nature seems to be playing a part, but also right outside our front door.  I’ve been here three years now and this was the first summer that I was awakened one night because someone was shot across the street.  I don’t know who he was or what the circumstances are but I’d guess drugs.  It’s the way of life in this stretch of road.  It’s been a rough summer in the city of Baltimore and here in our own neighborhood.  All I can think is, aren’t we better than this?  Aren’t we better than all of this?

You ever notice that’s often our response to realities like this?  It was our response following Charlottesville, following 9/11, after mosques had been blown up, among other things, that somehow we’re better than this.  It is the American way to these situations, somehow we’re better than all of this.  It’s the illusion and persona that we collectively try to project to the world that somehow we’re above these realities even though everyone else knows otherwise.  None of us can really escape it.  It’s a part of who we are but it’s also a way that we separate ourselves from responsibility and connection to those who suffer and hurt, people who walk this street day in and day out.  More often than not we’d prefer the illusion over the reality but the reality is that the guy shot is me and you as well.  In the end those who suffer those most from our thinking that we’re better than this are the poor who often get trampled upon to uphold the illusion and avoid the reality.

It’s where we encounter Shebna in the first reading today from Isaiah.  Shebna is about to be tossed out as the master of the palace because of his lack of responsibility to the people.  Shebna is all about himself and feeds into this power that has been given to him and has abused it.  God’s not going to have anything of it and is now going to toss him and raise up Eliakim.  As with many of these figures we encounter in the prophetic books they let power go to their head and becomes about thinking they’re better than others and somehow above others along the way.  We’re better than that would be his approach to the people and so now he’ll be humbled and stripped of this illusion of power that he has held so tightly.  God will raise up a father figure, one who can tend to the needs of the people and their pain, holding a place of honor in the family.  From the beginning of time we’ve lived with the uncertainties of a changing world and a fallen world clinging to power.  As I said, it’s very much a part of who we are as humans and certainly as Americans.

Then there’s Peter.  He too is given power today as they have this encounter with the Lord.  Upon this rock I’ll build my church, keys of the kingdom and so on.  Needless to say almost instantly it’ll go to Peter’s head and will be knocked down a few in next week’s gospel.  He immediately begins to think that he’s somehow better than and above the rest because of all this recognition from Jesus but despite identifying the Lord in today’s gospel he doesn’t yet realize he is also speaking of his own deepest identity.  Notice that Jesus asks two questions.  First he asks what the crowds have to say about him.  What is the image the persona that he is projecting to this crowd?  They say he’s one of the prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah or John the Baptist.  But then he goes directly to those closest of the followers, those closest to him and asks and Peter responds ‘the Christ’.  It doesn’t put him above them in some way or lording authority over them.  It’s a recognition of the reality of who he really is beyond any illusions and persona that may get in the way.  At the core we are the divine, myself, you, the man shot outside, those peddling drugs, those looking for some sense of belonging in gangs in this city.  At the core we are all the same.  When we think otherwise we begin to separate, distance ourselves, and as we are so good at, the problem is somewhere out there.  The illusion can be so strong and we love to hold it so tightly thinking it’s who we are.  But in the end it separates us from reality and the many uncertainties that we face as a city, a nation, and a globe.  In the end, we all know who it ends up hurting the most.

If there is one thing we can be certain of, the extremes in our politics and even in our Church cling to that illusion in their own way, that somehow they hold the truth entirely, that they are somehow better than.  But they’re not and we’ll never move to a place of healing as a city and nation unless we learn to let go of that illusion and move to the place of our deeper identity.  All our clinging to the illusion is a mere reminder that we continue to search for something, search for God in our lives yet we cling to the wrong thing.  There are countless people suffering in this city and country and beyond and yet we still seem to convince ourselves that we’re better than that.  Our prayer is to allow ourselves to be aware of it in our own life; it happens so naturally.  Then learn to let it go.  Once we can accept reality for what it really is we then can begin to change it for the better, ourselves and as a society.  It’s humbling.  It takes a great deal of patience and acceptance.  It takes a great deal of courage to step out of that illusion and see the other as yourself.  There is always hope.  If we don’t, we’ll continue to separate and buy into the illusion, keeping us out of touch with reality, out of touch with the pain of our brothers and sisters.  The problem is…the problem is…we’re better than this.

 

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.

Gratefully Living Without

Galatians 4: 4-7; Luke 2: 16-21

Like most of you, I spent part of this Christmas week with my family, which includes all the chaos with kids and such but also reflecting back on Christmas past. At one point some of us commented on how much Christmas has changed since we were kids. As you may know, I’m one of six. We were by no means rich but also not living in poverty, but we certainly learned to live without. As a kid, that seems like torture. You always want what is new, bigger, better, more advanced, and so on. But now, I can look back, as I’m sure many others can, and to see that that is a great lesson to learn in life, learning to live without and not having this constant need to be stimulated with the latest gadget. It’s hard to be grateful when I’m never quite satisfied and certainly only plays into the hand of the consumer culture. We can never have enough and yet, in the end, we only find gratitude without.

There’s a lot that stands in contradiction with the stories we hear throughout this Christmas season, including the continuation of the Christmas gospel we hear on January 1st each year. The shepherds finally find their way to Mary and Joseph and the new born babe to share what has been seen and heard. But there they stand at the center, Mary and Joseph, overwhelmed by what has taken place and the enormity of what has unfolded. But the story is really just beginning for them. If they had to carry with them what we have come to expect on Christmas morning they would never be able to make this journey. They really become refugees and go with nothing but what they have and of course, what is most important, the Christ, who will lead them on the way. As a matter of fact, they would face demise if they carried what we carry and maybe that’s the real point of the story. If we keep it at historical level we miss the point as to how their journey is our journey. It’s a journey of faith and trust and learning to take nothing with us along the way. It only slows us down in the first place and quite frankly, if we need to clutter our lives externally, we most likely are doing it internally as well leaving no space in the crib for the Christ. It will even become the message that Jesus conveys to the disciples of taking nothing with them for the journey while learning to trust and have faith in something and someone much bigger than themselves, in the unseen deep within them.

It is a day that we pray for peace, and of course, that’s first making peace with our own lives but we we also celebrate the Motherhood of Mary who ponders all this within her heart. She doesn’t stand demanding anything of anyone. She already has the space within to try to absorb the mystery that has and is unfolding and to be grateful for the real gift that has been given, of Love Incarnate. For today is also a day to give thanks and to be grateful as we begin a new year. But we too must make that space within our hearts to be grateful rather than trying to accumulate more and more. We too must learn to live without and to find God within what seems like nothingness. The journey Mary and Joseph embark on, and we too, demands us to go to that place of poverty. As refugees they must now flee the terror of Herod and head to Egypt only to eventually make their return at another time with an even deeper sense of trust and faith. They allow the Christ to lead them to the place of exile, to foreign land where they are without, only to find what has always been there and leading them along the way, the Savior that walks and meets them in that very place.

It’s what Paul also speaks of in today’s second reading to the Galatians. He speaks of the fullness of time taking on flesh under the law. Now it’s not just law as we understand it, but rather into the suffering of our lives, that place within us that keeps us bound and weighed down by what we carry. Maybe it’s not the Christmas gifts we may or may not have wanted, or the expectations we had of the holiday that weren’t met, but it could be the grief and pain that we continue to carry with us that makes the journey nearly impossible. Again, Mary and Joseph stand as the iconic figures of the season of making this journey while going without and finding the gift in the midst of it all. We so want to find the Christ in the joy and wonderment of the season, and that’s true, but the Christ is more than that. The Christ meets us where we have allowed our hearts to become exiled. This Christmas invites us to that place of poverty and to give thanks for the gift of living without.

As we continue this Christmas season and begin the new year, we pray for the grace to accept the invitation and walk with Mary and Joseph to our own hearts. Maybe we have to drop things and let things go as move along, but they promise us that what we find, that has always been, will satisfy every longing, where we will no longer be nagged by what seems to be never enough in our lives. Ironically, in the gift of going without, in our own nothingness, we learn the greatest gift, the gift of being grateful not just for what we have but for who and whose we are. Happy New Year!