Should We?

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For a couple months now I’ve had the opportunity to listen to Patrick Grach, pastor of Lifehouse Church in Hagerstown, preaching on a variety of topics. His current series, “Let’s Talk” may be one of the most intriguing and not sure I would have even thought of doing it when I was a preacher. Last week he spoke about politics and our citizenship of heaven and this week on Gender and Gender Identity. The whole series is on hot-button issues we face as a society and culture. You can find Lifehouse Church at http://www.lifehousechurch.org. His style, if you’re curious, is similar to what I had done, trying to make you think rather than, at least most of the time, spell things out. I call it a discerning and conversational style of preaching, rather than authoritative and “on high”. Something struck me as he spoke this weekend, pushing me to expand on a topic he mentioned when speaking about gender and related issues to roles, men and women play, in our society.

He spoke early on about the level of confusion and chaos we live with as cultural and society as a whole. On a side note, he spoke all of it while suffering with a kidney stone; yikes! The natural inclination when there is chaos and confusion is to try to control, to bring order, because none of us likes the feeling of being wrapped in the winds of a raging hurricane. We will do everything we can do avoid it in our lives, if at all possible. I dare say, and some would be critical of such a point, is the choice we have made to allow children to make choices for themselves, not wanting to box them. “I want them to decide.” Here’s the truth. Kids, no matter the time growing up, need to feel safe and secure, to know boundaries. It’s part of their development process, so when the time comes for them to begin to break away from parental thinking and beliefs, they actually have something to push and rebel against. It’s part of the natural stage of becoming a teenager and hopefully a mature adult.

Now, though, we are finding more and more young people living in that state of confusion and chaos and not knowing what to do with it, where anything goes. They don’t have the familiar pushbacks that most of us would have, such as values and religious beliefs, and so they simply keep pushing against a movable wall, making it increasingly difficult to establish themselves as individuals separate from the traditional family and societal role. Whether we want to believe it or not, teenagers are supposed to do stupid things. Everything about their neuro-wiring tells us they will, if they’ve been given a proper set of boundaries and something confining them in one way or another (safety and security) they will rebel. They literally can be neurotic at that age! We all know it; we were all there!

We mustn’t forget that we as a society have created this space of “where we used to be and this place of reckoning” in which we find ourselves, practically bouncing off and talking past one another. Rather than allowing ourselves to be in the uncomfortable space of unknown and confusion, we typically, as culture and society, have a way of sending the pendulum swinging hard right or left rather than trusting we will be moved to a place of legitimate change and growth. When it comes to the issue, I take a much more conservative approach, knowing full well the psychological world is inconclusive as to the attempts to changing pronouns, one’s gender, and identifying in ways other than male or female. Beyond that, I’m not even sure I could argue a point for or against knowing the other aspects, the nurturing side of development, young people have grown up in during this century. We’re still too close to it all and have not had the space to evaluate fully and with objectivity.

I would argue, though, the reading often cited, Genesis 1:27, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (NIV), can be interpreted in a variety of ways and for our own growth needs to be. There is the mainstream belief that God created two, male and female, of which there is great truth. We can see that with our own visible eyes. However, the creation stories are much more about creating a new world order out of chaos and confusion. There is a great separation taking place, between heavens and earth, and all the rest from the writer of the Genesis account, but then there’s the reconciliation of bringing what was separated, divided, and chaotic into one. It is, in the spiritual realm, the primary goal, two becoming one.

It’s short-sighted to limit it to marriage, although a legitimate interpretation. There are, though, many of us who are not married and do not enter into such union. Does it simply eliminate the rest of us and serve no purpose or value to our own lives? Does, somehow, the illusion of the other, complete us, resonate within us, even though it’s flawed thinking? In my experience, the healthiest of relationships are between two who have done their own hard work and sought that interior reconciliation within themselves. In other words, people who have learned to love themselves first. It certainly does not indicate perfection, though, since the work is never done and the other often does reveal blind spots as to what we need to confront about ourselves.

The marriage of male and female, on the surface is one thing. However, there is a deeper marriage we’re invited into, within our own spiritual journey, our own given gender of male and female and the masculine soul of the woman and the feminine soul of the man. It may be needed now more than ever! Patrick, the pastor, made a very necessary point and a reality we at times have witnessed in politics and religious life. Strong, authentic women who have done their work expose the insecure, boyish men who we have often settled for in many aspects of our life, boys in a man’s body, never having had to mature beyond teen years. It is one of the great crises of our time, and more often than not, we just accept it as normal simply because it is so predominant in our culture. It leads to immature and underdeveloped me in positions of leadership often leading to scandal and heartlessness. His simple point, men need to love and women need to honor. When both step up their game it creates a more whole person and society.

There is, though, the issue of confusion and chaos and the challenge we now face with gender identity, gender politics, and gender roles. Like most realities, we focus on our own need and forget to evaluate the long-term implications for not establishing boundaries for young people. As I said, safety and security are key for kids. As adults we hopefully outgrow it and recognize there is no guarantee of tomorrow, all while maintaining healthy boundaries ourselves, modeling and mentoring for younger people. Young people aren’t in a position to handle such gray areas and yet it’s what we have created for them. Life is full of gray, but for kids, it’s this or that, like it or not. I was recently filling out an application asking me what pronouns I refer to myself as. I simply shook my head even though I understand why. I by no means have it all together and have questioned many things about myself and who I am, but I also know that there is a deeper identity that defines me more than a gender. It is the marriage of masculine and feminine in my own life. It’s not like we don’t get into bitter battles at time, of course, the battle within myself. It is, though a marriage requiring constant work and the only one leading to greater wholeness.

At a time when safety and security are necessary, it would behoove us to teach the many facets of ourselves before we go through drastic measures of change, a more methodical approach to development. I by no means claim to have all the answers on such difficult subjects, but I do have the foresight necessary to recognize and ask the question, “Does just because we can mean we should?” Is it any wonder why some demand we put the skids to progress, not simply because of a lack of desire for change, but at times, because it feels like too much is being undone. If we do anything, we’d benefit society’s well-being by asking how what we do and don’t do impacts future generations, despite our reactionary nature as Americans. Living split lives has simply become the custom. We see it in the way people are abused, revealing more about ourselves than anything. We see it in the disdain towards people who are different than ourselves. We see it in the degree of immaturity existing in this moment of time.

We have, after all, forgotten the larger narrative of our lives and the deeper identity we share, in the Creator. It may be spoken in different forms and languages, but at the heart of who we are is love. When we first learn to love ourselves and be in relationship with ourselves, we find the complementarity we desire with people of other genders and find the deeper sense of safety and security in the love we really are, neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile. Simply, at the heart, we are love. It’s this perspective, to love and be love, we need in days of chaos and confusion in order to allow a new created order to be formed, not rooted in the here and now but for the generations yet unborn. Just because we can, by no means, means we should. Let’s dialogue…

Avenge Not

**Spoiler alert:  If you don’t want to know anything about the movie read no further!

There are threads of movies, in particular hero and heroine, as well as all the great comic book characters, that stand the test of time of what even this blog’s namesake, the hero’s journey. The latest Avengers: Endgame is no different, maybe even more tied to the threads than many others.

From the very beginning of the movie, characters are put in a position of making the choice of going back in time. Of course, they go for a specific reason, but once they find themselves traveling back, there’s more to the storyline than simply picking up a stone. The characters, like ourselves, are often faced with our own life in moments passed. They are put in a position where, even at times, they need to confront their own life in those moments before they can once again jump forward to the present moment.

If life has taught me anything, the same is true for us. We can all face moments, like Hulk does, where he’s simply embarrassed for his level of rage in his past. All he could do is shake his head and move on knowing that it’s no longer him. However, he has to see it for himself, that that’s who he was in those moments, pick up the pieces, and allow himself to be even more whole as a character. In his first appearance he admits to finally accepting who he really is, no longer the human character but the green man who no longer needs to be tied to his own rage against himself. We all miss pieces in our own lives growing up, often at no fault to ourselves, but are necessary for us to continue the hero journey as well. Until we confront our own self, even in past memories, it is often quite difficult for us to move forward as well. We continuously fall into the same traps in our lives, leading to more suffering, or as it is with Hulk, a raging against evil in the end is simply a rage against ourselves.

There is the unexpected turn, though, of Captain America, who appears to live with some regret in his own life as he goes back to pick up pieces. There’s the possibility that he stands before the woman of his dreams when he returns to earlier days and begins to question how his own life had panned out. It’s not until later in the movie when we find out that it was more than simply a regret, often at the hands of being a super hero, recognizing that there was more to his life than “saving the world” and it was an experience of love that he desired more than anything. Although there is no turning back in our own lives; we are to live with the choices that we make for good or for ill, he found himself in the conundrum that many find themselves, living with regret and how do we change course in life so that we are more aware and more conscious of the choices we’re making so as to not live with regret in the future. When in doubt, so it seems, choosing love never seems to be the one to doubt but rather the one to act upon in life.

All of it, though, eventually prepares us for the final battle, the journey that goes even further into the depths of our being when we finally have to face our own mortality. There never seems to be any doubt that someone in the end is going to have to pay the ultimate price. Certainly, the major religions of the world are often centered around the mystery of life and death and the journey towards the true hero is no different. There may be no more touching scenes in the entire film than those with Iron Man and even his ultimate reconciliation with Peter Parker. For too long he blamed himself for the death of the kid and yet is finally given the chance, before his own death, the reconcile. There was a necessary healing that needed to take place in his life before he could finally let go of his own, his past, present, and future. As much as there is joy in the characters in the end, following the untimely death, it is a joy that is rooted in that very mystery of life and death.

Like so many of the other movies before, there is a difference in the characters in the end of the movie. Something has changed that is not always seen or explained; you just know it has happened. You know everyone of them, in facing their own past and learning to reconcile with it, confronting their own mortality, looking the demons of their lives square in the face, even death itself, their lives are changed. They become the hero in a variety of different ways, learning to reconcile, despite their own superpower, that they too have a shadow side that is a part of who they are and helps to define the character.

All too often the characters stumble over that shadow and do everything to avoid that reality. No one ever wants to rush in and face evil’s stalwart characters because they appear and seem to be larger than life. That part of ourselves that we often choose to avoid, the parts of pain and hurt, have a way of dominating our lives until we make the timeless journey towards hero and heroine. It is the people that choose that journey who become our mentors, spiritual directors, lovers, guides, and many others who have done the hard work of facing life square on. Rather than avenging against our own lives, the hero journey invites us to face it square in the face, despite the overwhelming darkness that it seems to hover over us.

Much can be learned from movies like Avengers: Endgame. It teaches us that tears on life’s journey are necessary to letting go and learning to engage the dance between life and death. In the end, something changes within us as well. Something changes for the better when we enter into the journey. There’s a depth to the wisdom that we acquire when we pick up the pieces of our lives towards wholeness, knowing that it will prepare us for the further journey and the battle with darkness and our own shadow that can drag us down. Ultimately, though, it frees us, our hearts and souls, from fear, even fear of what appears as the greatest enemy, death itself. We may fight it along the way, but like Hulk, at some point we have to learn to accept even the parts of ourselves that we have found grotesque for one reason or another. They often become our greatest tool and our deepest sense of beauty because we no longer need to fight the fight, raging against ourselves. Rather, we embrace the tension that exists between life and death, knowing full-well that it’s the journey to what we most desire, to be the hero and heroine of our own life story.

Family Lies

Genesis 3: 9-15; 2Cor 4: 13–5: 1; Mark 3: 20-35

When we hear this gospel and the question of family, it’s important to remember that we’re not reading Matthew or Luke where we hear the narratives of the Holy Family that we have become accustomed to during the Christmas season.  In Mark, who we hear from this weekend, they are nonexistent and so when family is spoken of today it’s a much larger context, we can define them as the human family that sets out with the accusation of him “being out of his mind”.  That said, when it comes to family, it’s not so much as to whether there is dysfunction it’s a matter of the degree of dysfunction within the human family.  Every family has secrets and things they don’t talk about.  No family even wants to give the perception that they are far from perfect all while believing “out there” someone has it better than ourselves, creating a sense of shame and guilt that runs deep where no one can ever speak of the elephant in the room.

We also know, from the nuclear family, that it’s often an outsider who reveals our own insanity to us.  When someone brings home a boyfriend, girlfriend, or just anyone who didn’t grow up within that family, they see things differently.  Now our immediate reaction is to typically judge that person and cast them aside as being “out of his mind” but that’s our own way of avoiding the dysfunction.  What we can do, though, is allow these things to surface and not to judge them or others but rather to allow them to be healed and redeemed.  That’s what God desires of and for the human family.  We can take that a step further also to this city or certainly as a country.  We live in denial of our own history so often.  We prefer not to look at it and avoid it all while the rest of the world already knows.  It’s why we feel so threatened by outsiders.  They have a way of revealing what we don’t like about ourselves and we’ll do anything to destroy, by word or action.  We continue to see it today with families being torn apart, refugees being shunned, anyone that is seen as a threat to our own way of life is disposable.

Jesus, though, becomes the archetypal outsider, living on the edge of the inside.  How quickly people, those in power in particular, feel threatened by his very existence.  Today, it’s the human family.  It’s a very simple question that is asked as to “who is my brother and mother”.  We can come up with obvious answers to those questions but it seems to get clouded by Jesus.  They want to immediately react and say he’s crazy, in the same way we do with people who do heinous acts, to somehow save them from themselves.  But Jesus isn’t simply referring to his immediate family as I said.  He becomes a perceived threat to the way of life for the human family.  So their response to him is to label him crazy.  They don’t want to associate with him or have any parts of him in that sense.  As soon as he begins to threaten the status quo of their lives things are turned upside down.  The very people who thought they were insiders now find themselves on the outside looking in because they don’t feel the need for redemption and refuse to look at their own sin.  It’s a fascinating play on words and turning things upside down, allowing all to surface in order to be redeemed through a God how continues to look out at humanity with great love.

It takes us to one of the most famous passages of Genesis with Adam and Eve doing what they do in the Garden.  They buy into the big lie just as we do.  They are convinced, rather easily, that if they eat from that particular tree in the middle of the garden they can be God.  There would no longer need to God and they can become self-sufficient, just as we often try.  There is, in some sense from God today a level of disappointment with the human family for what they had done and the lie they so easily believed.  God continues to look lovingly upon them as their own sin surfaces to be redeemed and reconciled.  Whereas the human family wants to quickly label God as “out of his mind” God in turn looks lovingly.  It’s not until they realize that they have become lost that they can be sought out and found by Love.  It’s not about becoming God.  Rather, it’s about seeing as God sees and to look at a hurting human family in that same way, in need of love, forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation. 

It’s Paul’s continuous point to the people of Corinth as well, whom we hear from in the second reading.  He reminds them that we have “the same spirit of faith” and that as a community which also had become reliant upon itself and self-sufficient, that it was still God who was working in and through them.  They community was becoming its own judge and determining who was in and who was out, excluding people from the table, mistreating others, and simply seeing with their own eyes rather than the eyes of God.  Paul, of course, knows this better than anyone.  He was the one who judged and deemed who was in and out until his own conversion experience.  Paul had to first find himself lost in order to be found by this God who loved and redeemed him for his own sin, sin which we’d find hard to forgive at times.  Yet, that same God who looked lovingly upon Adam and Eve looked upon Paul and his vision had been restored and he began to look at the human family in a very different way.  Paul sought a more just society, especially for those who were excluded.  Like Jesus, he learned to live on the edge of the inside and never forgetting what it’s like to be the outsider.

The human family can be quite dysfunctional; and is quite often.  It should not surprise us that our government is the same as family and also the Church.  When the human family is involved there will always be problems.  The question is do we live in denial of our own storied history or do we allow it to surface with purpose and meaning, revealing the great lies that we become attached to in order to be redeemed and reconciled, leading to a more just society.  The ones who gather around Jesus in today’s gospel always has space for new faces.  There are no walls, no divisions, nothing that separates, otherwise it’s not God.  We put ourselves on the outside looking in when we make the mistake from the Garden, of thinking we know as God knows, of thinking we can be the judge.  It becomes easier to blame and be victims rather than allow ourselves to be changed when our own sin surfaces.  The Good News, as it always is, just as in the beginning, God still looks lovingly upon us, awaiting our own desire in our lostness to be found.

Nature’s Groaning Call

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Philippians 4: 6-9; Matthew 21: 33-43

Finally, some rain.  When I was out walking this week it felt more like walking through a desert it’s been so warm and extremely dry.  You know, more than anything, nature is used in the bible to often mirror to people what’s going on with us.  There’s been such a violent streak in weather the past month or so but also with us.  It’s as if nature is groaning within, letting us know we have a problem.  Now when I say it has something to mirror to us I don’t mean it in a televangelist kind of way, like Pat Robertson who again went off these weeks not only about weather but about the killings in Las Vegas.  It’s a distorted image of God to think that God somehow wants to smite us, which should make us question whether it’s God at all.  We do enough smiting ourselves. 

So if there’s anything that the tenants of the vineyard do wrong it’s that they cut themselves off, distance themselves from the land.  They begin to think that it’s theirs and they are somehow entitled to it, have the right to it, know better than the landowner, possess and control it.  They no longer need the landowner they can do it quite fine themselves, so they think.  They no longer even recognize the landowner in the slaves that are sent or for that matter, the son, who come in the landowner’s image and likeness.  They don’t see it necessary for themselves so they certainly won’t in the others.  Cutting themselves off from the land not only distances themselves in that way, they separate themselves from the landowner themselves.  It’s about them.  It’s about what they want.  And once the son is sent they believe the landowner is out of the picture all together and they finally have the power they want to possess.

Now they’d all be familiar with the story Jesus tells because it’s pretty much given word for word from the reading from Isaiah today.  Everything is going great for Israel, so they think, until it’s not.  They too separate themselves from the land, each other, and their God, the Creator, but they aren’t aware of it until it’s time for harvesting only to find wild grapes.  It would be no surprise to the audience Jesus has today that the story wasn’t going to turn out in their favor.  If you sow wild grapes, take advantage of the land and try to possess it, no longer seeing it as a gift, then expect wild grapes, expect violence, expect separation and war.  We reap what we sow and if we sow violence and hate, then like the Pharisees and elders of the people voice in today’s gospel, it will lead to a wretched death.  They abandon each other, the land, and well, quite honestly, if we go that far then most likely we’ll abandon the Creator, the landowner as well.  It’s inevitable.

Paul too finds himself separated from the community but not by choice.  He’s imprisoned but not even the walls of prison are going to cut him off from his source of life.  Paul speaks of a very different way of life, one rooted in peace and free of anxiety, a life free of violence.  Despite his own difficulties at this point, Paul continues to return to the source of life, the landowner per se, who allows him to persevere and model a different way of life.  For Paul, it’s all about gift.  It’s not about possessing or owning, nor about rights and entitlement.  For Paul all is gift and it shines through in this very poetic verse we hear today from him.  He sees not only his own life but the life of others, the land, and all he has been given as gift and he a mere steward.  It’s a life that doesn’t forget that he’s connected to someone bigger than himself and he keeps returning to be nourished by the Creator but even as he sees the violence that has ensued against him and humanity in his own time and from his own hands.

Nature has a great deal to teach us and for three weeks now we have found ourselves wandering through the vineyard with Jesus, often with some harsh words.  If we fail as tenants to the land and each other, forgetting our truest identity, it will all be taken away and it will feel like a horrific death and letting go, even feeling violent at times.  Violence just seems to be a part of who we are and what we’re capable of in this life.  We’ve seen that violent streak in nature, reminding us of hearts that hurt and that have become arid.  We’ve allowed ourselves to be separated not only from this Earth but from each other, often feeling no need for the landowner anymore.  We can do it ourselves, thank you.  But we also see what happens when we do.  Now more than ever we need the landowner and to remain closely to the Creator to soften our hurting hearts so that they no longer resort to violence, but rather to be filled with the heart of the Creator, one of love, peace, compassion, and reconciliation for all of God’s creation.

 

Unseen Obstacles

Sirach 27: 30–28:7; Matthew 18: 21-35

When I was out at Notre Dame back in July, I had asked the priest who was kind of leading us through the week what he thought was one of the greatest obstacles we faced as a Church.  Now, I can name many already.  We know there are less priests.  We are certainly aware that there are less people coming.  We also know that there is a lack of trust with all institutions but also a feeling that the institution is out of touch with what’s going on.  Again, the list can go on and on as to what kind of obstacles we face, all of which we can see with our own eyes.  But he wasn’t thinking about what we can see.  He was thinking about something much deeper and so I was taken back when he responded to me.  He said he felt the greatest obstacle we face is resentment.  I got to tell you, it has pushed me to look at my own self and where it may be simmering underneath for me.  We’ve all faced it towards the institution but also with priests and people.  So many examples of how it hasn’t gone as planned or it’s not what we thought it would be or should be.  We have somehow been treated unfairly and we deserved better.  All along as it simmers underneath the surface, resentment.

And, boy, do we as Sirach tells us today, love to cling to it.  I don’t know why we hold on as tightly as we do.  If anything, over time it really acts as a cancer in our lives, feeding on itself, and taking a toll on our hearts.  Now Sirach is speaking specifically to friendships that have gone awry.  This isn’t just something that the Church must face, but we see it in marriages, in families, and in our communities that we’re a part of, simmering underneath as we cling for dear life.  Maybe we tell ourselves that we’ll hold the injustice over the other.  Or somehow it gives me power and domination over the other who has wronged me in some way.  I’m going to dangle it over them, holding a grudge, as if that’s somehow going to bring justice.  Any maybe that’s are problem.  We want justice despite Sirach telling us we even have to forgive our neighbor’s injustice.  Justice without mercy and forgiveness only leads to greater anger and resentment simmering underneath. 

Both Sirach and Matthew write to communities that often faced division.  This who section of Matthew that we’ve been listening to for the past few weeks has been on what it means to be community and the necessary tools for a community to grow.  Today we hear this outlandish parable by Jesus about a servant who was given forgiveness but never quite penetrates his being.  He remains a tyrant and unchanged by the king’s gift.  The servant simply feeds the king a line that he wants to hear, that somehow he’ll repay this outrageous amount of money, knowing full well that it will never come to pass.  He simply reacts to the situation to get what he wants and yet is unable to receive the gift.  How do we know?  See how he immediately goes and reacts to his fellow servant.  He does exactly what Sirach tells us today.  He clings to his sin and begins to choke the guy.  His own anger that simmers underneath gets the best of him, unchanged by the king’s mercy.  Whether we like it or not, it’s our story.  We like to do the same thing.  We’ll play nice to get what we want.  We’ll go along with something even if it upsets us for the sake of keeping “the peace”.  Yet, all along, just as it is with the servant, just below the surface anger is feeding itself on resentment.  It has destroyed relationships and communities alike when we don’t allow it to come to the surface, to the light, in order to be transformed.  We’d not only prefer to cling to it but also transmit it to anyone who happens to set us off at the moment.  The king doesn’t need to send him to the tortures.  We do that to ourselves by holding on.

These two readings provide us two images and leave us with a choice.  Sirach gives us the clinched fist and grinding teeth, holding on to what eats away at us from within.  Then there’s Jesus, the freedom that comes with forgiveness.  The thing about forgiveness, though, and I have said this before, I cannot do it myself and nor can you.  It is truly a grace given to us from God, freely given.  We do not have the ability to forget how we have hurt and have been hurt and so through this grace we are set free from what binds our hearts and what it is we cling to.  The other is this.  There must be a mutuality.  There must be an openness on our part and a receptivity on our part to receive that grace otherwise it simply deflects off of us, unable to penetrate our own hurt.  The servant is the perfect example.  If he were able to receive that grace, that gift from the king, he would have in turn shown mercy to his fellow servant.  When we open ourselves to the grace we in turn give the gift away.  That’s grace.

We all cling to things in our lives, unable to be free.  It may be fear, resentment, anger, so often causing depression in people’s lives.  It can be towards the Church, towards me, towards a spouse, and even towards God when we feel we have been wronged and unjustly treated for whatever reason.  In those moments, though, we are invited into a choice as to what we do with it.  Do we allow it to simmer underneath the surface, creating a wedge between us and the other and God or do we surrender it to the Lord?  It’s hard stuff as individuals and hard stuff as a community to deal with the real issues.  It’s easy to speak about the obvious issues and problems we face as Church and community.  It’s a whole other ballgame to talk about the real issue simmering underneath that prevents us from growing as individuals and as community into the grace of God that is being offered us at this very moment.  Cling or be set free.

Mediating Love

Ezekiel 33: 7-9; Romans 13: 8-10; Matthew 18: 15-20

During the 2008 campaign we often heard from Sarah Palin about the “bridge to nowhere”.  It was part of her shtick to prove the point of the ineffectiveness of the federal government, building a bridge that went nowhere just to benefit a few.  There are others like it where you can be driving along and all of a sudden if you try to continue you’d end up hitting a wall.  I tried to think of an example closer to home and all I could come up with is, that if you’re a regular driving around here you know that most of the roads from Homeland are One Way out.  All of it begins to send a message over time as the bridge to nowhere does.  Bridges to nowhere, one way out, walls, it’s what we tend to be good at in our lives.  It should be no surprise that we’d want to build walls rather than deal with the burning issues of our day.  It’s much easier than reconciling our differences and finding common ground.

Building community is no easy task.  Matthew is quite aware of that with all his community faces, including their own divisions, but we also know it from our families and any relationships we have been in and have experienced in their breaking apart.  So often we have to have mediators come in to work with people because we become so attached to being right, to knowing it all, to our certainty, to the other being absolutely wrong, when we know that there is often truth on both sides.  Mediators can often help sort out the truth and sift through the conflicts to find that reconciliation.  It doesn’t mean we always get what we want.  As a matter of fact, there often has to be a willingness to give up and surrender things for the good of the community in order to get to the other side and build bridges that go both ways.  We too often become comfortable building bridges only to those we feel we can tolerate, leading to the bridge to nowhere, to only people we can somewhat agree on, tribal thinking as we often see in our own society and certainly our politics..

Ezekiel was one such mediator.  He saw his role as the watchman of his community.  He had to be the one that stands in the middle, seeking the truth when conflict would arise, when people were abusing power or excluding others.  God reminds him of the immense responsibility that comes with such a task and the consequences when there’s not a willingness to be truthful about what he sees and experiences.  He becomes the one who has a keen sense of awareness in the life of the community to see where bridges between the oppositions can be made and what needs to be let go of in the process.  He’s the one that stands above, watching from the watchtower, to not lead them into the traps of bridges to nowhere, one ways, or walls, but rather to a richer sense of community.

It’s no easy task as we’ve heard from Matthew the past few weeks.  It’s quite the challenge when there is conflict and one can’t see the others perspective and not even willing to understand.  Matthew lays out a plan for dealing with such conflicts to hopefully lead to reconciliation but even he knows that that’s not always possible.  He realizes some will choose to not be a part of the community, such as tax collectors and Gentiles.  Of course, they have their own reasons to separate themselves from the life of the community and quite frankly, many had reasons why they didn’t want them to be a part of the community.  There were plenty that would be considered intolerant of them.  At times it seemed insurmountable to think that a bridge that goes between could ever be built.  However, Matthew, time and again, will remind them that it is no longer the prophet who stands as mediator but Christ who stands as love.  The gap could only be closed when love stands as mediator and we could see the other as brother and sister, as neighbor, no matter color, economic status, place of origin, or whatever other means that we used to build our bridges to nowhere and erect walls.

The heart of the readings is Paul’s letter to the Romans.  He puts it so plainly that we must love our neighbor as ourselves.  Love does no evil, he goes onto say.  When we live our lives and grow community around love, around Christ, it finds ways to move from what is often superficial ways of separating ourselves to uniting us around a single purpose, around a single person in Christ.  Reconciling our differences and conflicts is hard work.  It’s the reason why we live in a world where war is never-ending and a constant state of chaos and conflict.  We get so hung up on our own way of things and thinking we’re right, prideful, that there’s no room for love to break us down and see ourselves as brother and sister, as one with our neighbor.  We don’t choose who gets to be our neighbor, mindful that I am a neighbor just as you are and we’d want to be treated with love and respect as the next one.

Yes, it is all easier said than done.  We do prefer walls and bridges to nowhere, and even one ways out so we determine it all and we use ourselves as the center of our lives, avoiding conflict and settling for less in life.  However, to be community and to call ourselves community, we often have to go where we have conflict and where we have made judgments and misunderstandings of each other to learn to bridge those gaps, just as we have to do in our own lives.  It’s so often what separates and it’s so often the easy way out but it never leads to growing deeper in love and in accepting that love.  We pray today for the grace to be aware of it in our own lives, where we may be avoiding what it is that we struggle with and ask love to build a bridge there as well.  In the end, what we can most offer the community is to not only open ourselves to that love in our own lives but ultimately to become that love to one another, to our brothers and sisters, to our neighbor as ourselves.

Necessary Tears

“Jesus wept.”  John 11:35

Jesus wept.  It’s dubbed as the shortest verse in all of Scripture and despite its size has a way of packing a wallop to the crowds that are gathered at that moment.  It comes as the story builds around the death of Lazarus, his friend, and the questioning of the crowds as to whether Jesus is who he says he is now that he has finally met his match in death.  Sure he could heal the blind man but death has a hold that stands as much greater than blindness or so it would seem.  In that gatherings of jeers, anger, and spite, Jesus weeps.  He weeps.

Of course, though, that is what is seen with the eyes, tears falling down his face.  But tears are never just tears.  Frequently they come from a much deeper place within, a place of our own pain and loneliness.  Once again, he is misunderstood by the crowds and followers.  Once again, he is doubted.  Once again, he sees the lack of faith.  Once again, they can’t seem to get past their own judgment of what they have seen with their own eyes and move to greater depths within themselves.  When we do, we weep with Jesus for many of the same reasons.

More than once this past week I have been told to be angry.  At times, screamed at by people telling me to be outraged.  I’ve had it told to me on Facebook.  I’ve had it told to me through the news.  Heck, I’ve pretty much had it shown to me by the President and other political figures, be angry, and be angry for a reason.  After some time I began to think maybe I should be angry.  Maybe I should start screaming like so many on television are these days, at one another and with one another, with no path to understanding or even an inkling of listening to each other.  Yet, all I feel is sadness and tears, like weeping.  For everyone.

To this day I am most struck by the image of the young men in Charlottesville on Friday evening who had surrounded a gathering of ministers, practically holding them hostage, carrying flames with the looks of rage on their faces.  In symbolic fashion, holding hostage their own hearts from being moved and changed.  The last thing this situation needed was more anger, I thought.  I began to wonder how men of such a young age could be harboring such strong feelings of anger and fear in their lives, knowing full well that that is what I was witnessing with my eyes.  Deep down, though, anger and fear are merely masks, symptoms, of a much deeper hurt and wound that is often not visible with our eyes, including the hurt in my own life that I’m being invited into to seeking healing and reconciliation.  If I’m not careful and aware, it’s quite easy to react to it when it arises and lash out at the closest target, often the one who has embodied that deeper hurt of mine and where I continue to hold onto it in which I don’t want to look or see within myself.  It’s the human dilemma that we all need to face and confront at different points in our lives, individually and collectively.

As the week wore on, I listened to all the noise less and less and found myself wrestling with this reality in which we find ourselves.  It’s not that I don’t agree that the level of hate and the realities of racism continue to cast a shadow upon us because I do.  As long as there are humans we’ll face all of it.  Often people are simply looking for validation of their experience since so much of what we do and how we act happens on the subconscious level without us even thinking.  Raising awareness means the shifting to the conscious level, which is the only place we can deal with them, otherwise the wounds once again become buried within ourselves and the cycle of violence continues not only in the world but in our own lives, many times without us even being aware of it because it becomes are natural fallback, peeling back the scab over and over again.

If there is one thing I have learned through my own struggles and in facing my own violence toward others and myself is that there is no easy way around it.  My natural inclination is to shut down in the face of it until I can reckon with the reality, a reality which never disappears by not confronting it head on.  Dealing with our past is so often minimalized with, the past is already over, move on, as if I can just will my pain be gone.  I wish it were that easy.  However, the pain has a way of manifesting itself in the same ways, again and again, in our lives.  Rather than trying to tear it down and rid ourselves of it, we are often invited to understand it, allow it to surface, and reverence it with the healing it needs, almost always through tears, weeping for what it was and even for what it was not.

The great risk in life as a part of the human race is to become what it is we hate, when in reality, we often already are exactly that.  We live in this world filled with should have’s and could have’s, living with the disappointment that we’re not more than how we appear before others.  We live with the disappointments often because we deal with the same problems the same way and expect different results each time, casting amnesia upon us in the face of perpetual violence towards our brothers and sisters.  Through the use of our judgments, our own misunderstandings, our labels that denigrate fellow human beings to being monsters of sorts, in the end, gets us nowhere, often only validating the monster within ourselves that we haven’t learned to love.  In some ways, I’d rather live with the moments of loneliness that comes with being misunderstood, as it was for Jesus, rather than use him against another.  I’d rather live with the tears that come with not quickly reacting but first trying to understand the deeper hurt that is being aroused.  I’d much rather weep than fan the flames of anger knowing that there is a deeper pain in the others life than I may never understand.  I’d rather sit in silence and wrestle with it, knowing the expectations then placed upon me to react.  Jesus weeps, sure for the death of his friend Lazarus, as most do when they visit a grave.  But what we see never fully defines the depth of the pain and where it comes from within the other in those moments.  All we see is what we want to see most often despite it just being the tip of the iceberg of one’s life, including for the Christ as he weeps for and with humanity.

More often than not, the path to love and peace, a peace which is a marriage of justice and mercy, will never arrive in our own hearts until we learn to sit, quiet ourselves, doubt, question, and learn to accept even our own selves, short comings and all, which closes the gap between myself and the other.  The war that rages on beyond us as we see it is often the war within that we are invited to confront.  The more we separate, divide, demonize, seek winners and losers, the greater that gap becomes, creating the tribal mentality that Jesus himself often confronts.  I not only separate myself from others but I separate myself from myself.  It deepens the blinders we wear, invoking fear and insecurity in our lives, leaving us wandering through the desert, often unbeknownst to us.  In time, even for Israel, the tears began to arrive, not only for what had been done to them but what they had done to the other through their own pain.  In those moments, glimpses of that promised land that they desired became visible.

As a country, and I’ve written this many times before, we will need to learn to weep and weep bitterly.  Not select people, but each of us, individually and collectively.  America has never been what it was supposed to be and never will.  It’s not the chosen one.  It’s not the city on a hill.  It’s by no means perfect or somehow the greatest, all of which only feeds the illusion that we know better than the rest, avoiding the pain that lies within the heart of a nation.  We are country among 195 or so others.  We are 323 million of approximately 7 billion people on the planet.  And it’s all ok.  When we finally give up the illusions, the blinders, what it is we simply see with our eyes, we begin to see that there is something even greater about us that is not always visible to the naked eye.  As much as our heart continues to beat, it is by no means without pain and hurt.  That is very visible not only in Charlottesville but outside my own window, day in and day out.  There is a story that is dying to be told, from deep within, a story that desires to be free, and will continue to kill if it’s not told.  A human desires to be free.  Lashing out and violence will never lead to what it is we want and desire.  Rather, only through our own ability to weep, for what was and wasn’t, for what is and isn’t.  Yes, it is the shortest verse in the bible but in doing so packs quite the wallop of bringing healing and reconciliation that is desperately needed in my life, your life, this city, and well beyond.  Jesus wept.  For everyone.

Pay Attention

Romans 8: 9, 11-13; Matthew 11: 25-30

From the time we are kids, we are taught to “pay attention” to certain things.  Of course, as kids it’s necessary because it often keeps us safe and secure even from perceived dangers.  However, as we age, it often grows into judgment, stereotype, even guilt and shame, that seems to dominate our lives where we begin to think what we have paid attention to is truth.  But over that time, despite some of its necessity early on, it begins to overshadow who we really are, hide our truest self from ourselves, often distorting our image of God, but also separating and dividing us not only from others but from ourselves as well.  It makes it nearly impossible to deal with problems because we try to fix what was caused by it in the first place.

It’s that place of hiddenness and what has been overshadowed where Jesus tries to lead the disciples in today’s gospel when he speaks of what has been hidden from the wise and learned but rather revealed to the little ones.  As is often the case, he’s speaking after an experience with the Pharisees where they once again found themselves in conflict with one another.  One way in which what we “pay attention” to rears its head is when things aren’t good enough or it’s never enough because the Pharisees continue to look through life through a rather narrow lens, which is what happens to all of us over time.  When it came to John the Baptist, they had problems.  When it comes to Jesus, it’s still not good enough for them.  More often than not they weren’t paying attention to the right things and got so caught up in the law that they become blinded.  It creates this tension and conflict and eventually to the violent act of the crucifixion.  He doesn’t necessarily react to their way but rather tries to expand the lens and understanding, which they often weren’t able to see but saw him as a threat to their way of life and thinking for that matter.

Whether you know it or not, it’s also what Paul speaks of in the second reading today to the Romans.  It’s probably one of the most misinterpreted passages in all his letters because we try to keep it only skin deep.  We probably have all heard it interpreted as “sins of the flesh”.  Like kids, that may work for a period in our lives, but that’s not the deeper meaning to what Paul is speaking of nor is it what he’s challenging them to pay attention to in their lives.  If we take out the word “flesh” from the passage and insert words like ego, what we pay attention to, or even that Pharisee within us, that’s more the point that Paul is trying to make.  Getting trapped in that place in our lives often leads to conflict and even hostility towards God and others.  It’s not a deeper life in the spirit as he speaks of, but one of conflict.  It ultimately is what Paul tries in his writings to lead people to learn to let go of; not their body, but their control tower, their ego, what they have been conditioned to pay attention to and yet now stands as an obstacle, which in other letters he also calls it.  This point where we don’t feel satisfied or things are never good enough, for Paul, is recognition that we aren’t living from the right place, from the divine, from the Christ within our very souls.  If we want to seek solutions to a world of problems, we must first be willing to make that journey ourselves and face our own violence and blindness.

It is the invitation that Jesus gives to the disciples and to us today as the gospel continues.  He says to come to him all who labor and are burdened.  Come to me all of you that are struggling in one way or another.  This invitation isn’t just about handing our problems over to God and somehow they disappear.  No, the invitation that Jesus gives is to move beyond the struggle, often defined by what we pay attention to, and move to the place of the Christ and learn to live from that place.  It is the place where the judgement and stereotype, division and separation, begins to disappear.  It is a journey inward and a journey downward, and quite frankly, a journey that takes great humility to finally begin to admit that maybe what I have paid attention to is not the fuller picture.  It’s learning to live our lives inward out rather than the outward appearance of things defining us, who we are, and what we do.  It is a path that is quite difficult but the only path to a fuller life and where we finally become agents of change in the world.

All too often we try to deal with problems in this city, community, country, and world, by doing the same thing.  It leads to people butting heads and as we have seen in this city, a great deal of violence.  We are trying to solve problems with what separates and divides rather than moving to this deeper place within ourselves that unites us with God, others, and even ourselves.  This city and our lives do not need more separation and division and certainly do not need more violence.  But it will continue if we try to fix things by an old mindset.  The healing begins with me and you.  The healing begins when I can finally begin to ask myself, “What am I paying attention to?” and is it leading to healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and a more loving posture towards God and people or does it simply dig in my heels and lead to further violence.  If our faith and our religion are going to have any impact on our lives, it’s going to require change on our part, change in what we pay attention to, and be led to the deeper places of our lives, people of spirit and soul.  That is how we begin to make a difference here and everywhere, including our own families, in becoming the agents of change, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, while learning to let go of what only continues to separate and divide.  There’s no more time for any of that.  It’s time for a new way, a deeper way of living where we bridge differences and live lives filled with love, healing, and forgiveness.  First and foremost, what is it you find yourself paying attention to in life?

A Full-Hearted Love

Jeremiah 20: 10-13; Romans 5: 12-15; Matt 10: 26-33

When I’m doing weddings, I have all my couples fill out a questionnaire and of course one of the questions is what marriage means for them.  Working with young couples you get used to a lot of idealistic views and expectations that we know aren’t always the reality in our lives, no matter where we find ourselves committed.  The wedding I had yesterday, though, the groom had written something different and I then commented on it at the wedding.  He said something along the lines that it’s about giving 100%.  I’ve met many that enter into this commitment thinking it’s 50-50.  There’s two of us and we’ll somehow make it work.  But those in committed relationships for awhile know it doesn’t work that way.  As a matter of fact, it’s often what ends relationships.  No matter the case, the call is to give yourself 100%, full heart, often to someone or something bigger than yourself, to live the mission given.

I believe it’s the same message we hear from Jeremiah and Jesus in today’s first reading and gospel.  Jeremiah is probably the greatest example we have in Hebrew Scripture of the real struggle of moving to the place of fully committing to what God is asking.  He’s young, naïve, and quite idealistic, and feels as if God has somehow deceived him into this whole gig he’s got as a prophet.  He sees war, destruction, violence, and injustice, and no one wants to listen to him, and just finds himself tormented by the whole thing.  It’s not until Jeremiah begins to make the pivot in his life and see that all the injustice that is going on in the world is also happening within himself and that is preventing him from giving it his all.  He can’t fully commit to this God when his own heart remains divided, holding onto his own illusions and expectations of what it was supposed to be.  He will learn to let go and surrender to love in order to be transformed into this prophetic voice.  He will go on and give thanks to go but only after giving himself the space to struggle, and rub up against his own injustice before he can taste the freedom this God is offering him to send him on this mission.  As Paul tells us today, it’s this grace that will push us through, even when we’re not feeling 100%.  Otherwise, as he says, we’ll hold onto death and sin and our own injustice. 

The same is true for the disciples as they are sent out on mission in today’s gospel.  We jump ahead a few chapters from where we left off in ordinary time in February.  The last we heard was from the Sermon on the Mount but today the message is still practically the same.  The beatitudes end with the message that you will face persecution and today the first line is to fear no one.  Jesus is fully aware of the human condition and what it is that the disciples will face in their own lives and this commitment that they are being called to in life.  At first they are like Jeremiah, young and somewhat idealistic, but eventually the illusions start to fall away and they will find their own commitment being tested.  They will be lured by fear, the threat of losing their own lives, persecution, and great darkness.  They will witness it before their eyes and will be challenged to make the same pivot at Jeremiah to see it within themselves.  If their mission is to be agents of peace and reconciliation and a more just society, they will first have to confront their own illusions and what they hold onto for self-preservation.  Of course, we know that the twelve will move to that place and make that pivot to committing themselves with their whole heart to the mission that is being asked of them.  As we hear from Jeremiah, it’s hard but it the demand of not only the gospel and the committed relationships that we’re in, whether marriage, priesthood, or however we commit ourselves, but also the demand of being a disciple for each of us.

We all know that we can never be 100%.  It’s nearly impossible as humans and the human condition that we are all a part of, but it remains a process that we are invited into in our lives when it comes to not only our relationship with others but with God.  It’s a struggle and something we must wrestle with ourselves, a constant letting go and surrendering to find that 100% within ourselves.  More often than not, whatever we let go of or allow to die wasn’t necessary anyway.  It’s something that has offered us security or even fed into our own fears, our own way of self-preservation.  What are the fears we hold onto, our own ways of preserving ourselves?  What holds us back, knowing full well that the way we see the world around us is the world within us?  Where is the terror and injustice within our own hearts, keeping us from experiencing the freedom necessary to respond to God 100%?    Our mission is to be agents of peace and reconciliation, agents of that grace and love and we do that when we allow ourselves to become just that, especially allowing ourselves to become the love that changes our hearts forever.

Getting UnStuck

Exodus 34: 4-6, 8-9; II Cor 13: 11-13; John 3: 16-18

Despite the passage of centuries, I do believe that to this day Moses, people Israel, and the whole experience of the exodus and exile has something to teach us about our own lives.  Their story really is our story.  We know what it feels like to live in exile from others at times, even from God.  It so often seems, in such contentious times with Moses and the people, that they lose their ability to relate to one another and to God and move towards cutting themselves off, moving into this tribal mentality of winners and losers, where, in the end, everyone ends up losing.

The same is true for ourselves and the climate in which we live these days.  On many levels we’ve lost the ability to relate to anyone different than ourselves and have really exiled ourselves from one another or at least from people that we have deemed the losers, the ones that think differently, creating this divide, and like people Israel, we have become stuck.  We can’t relate to others and then for that matter, with God.

Think about their experience, though, in relation to ourselves.  Despite this newfound freedom that people Israel experiences following the exodus, they don’t know quite what to do with themselves.  It’s as if they had become accustomed to being slaves in Israel that they no longer know how to live.  They don’t understand what’s up with Moses and his seemingly strange experiences, but they also don’t understand God.  Keep in mind that this experience has impacted them on a very deep level.  They had gotten used to a God that seemed to abandon them.  They had gotten used to a God that seemed to reject them over and over again, and now as they move to this place of freedom, they don’t know how to act and they certainly don’t know how to relate.  They react to it all and create these false gods for themselves, grouping themselves and finding, at times, a common enemy in Moses for leading them to this place.  It’s simply their experience but so is being stuck as they seem to become in the throws of the desert for years to come.  As Moses tries to lead them to a deeper understanding of this God, a God of mercy and generosity, their hearts remain closed and they become, as he so often refers, the stiff-necked people.  As life changes so does the way we relate to others and especially to God.

This is what we encounter in this snippet we hear from John’s Gospel today.  In its larger context is an interaction with one of the more interesting characters in the gospel, Nicodemus who’s known for coming to Jesus at night.  At this point in John’s community, some fifty years after their formed, there is a great deal of contention and division.  We have certainly heard that during the Lenten and Easter seasons as Jesus often found himself in conflict with the leaders.  Well, Nicodemus was one of them.  He has his own way of relating in the life of the community as a Pharisee and is not yet willing to put that in jeopardy so he comes to Jesus at night.  As much as people Israel didn’t know what to make of a God that wanted to enter into relationship with them, even centuries later they still can’t quite grasp now this God who takes the form of one of them in Jesus.  It causes more tribal thinking, certainly among the Pharisees who had their own way and were stuck in that thinking.  For them there had to be winners and losers.  For Nicodemus, despite being one of them, he finds himself somewhat attracted to this Jesus guy and what he’s all about.  For John it is a process we go through, of letting go and reconciling, allowing ourselves to move forward in life with a fresh take on the way we relate to one another and to God, not in some distant universe, but right here in the midst of our own lives as they unfold.

In the end, it’s probably Paul that sums it up best for us in today’s second reading and provides us the tool to look at our own lives and the way we relate.  Just because we’ve related in one way all our lives doesn’t mean that it’s the best way or even the healthiest way.  Again, we see that on the large scale in our political system and the divides, people moving to the extremes.  Paul reminds us to mend our ways.  Reconcile with one another.  Love stands as the foundation of relationship and community.  Work towards peace.  Among other tidbits of ideas that he shares with us today.  If we continue to cling to a God that rejects, abandons, or shames us, it’s just probably not God.  There’s a better chance that we can relate to people Israel and find ourselves stuck in life, just as we find ourselves politically.  It impacts all of us and the way we relate.

On this feast of the Most Holy Trinity, maybe it’s time accept the invitation to be the fourth one at the table and being challenged to change the way we relate.  If we cling to tribal thinking, where we’re right and others are wrong, where truth becomes relative, where there needs to be winners and losers, well, guess what, we all lose and we are all losing because we’re being invited to move beyond our stuck-ness and grow into a deeper relationship that goes beyond ideology and politics, to the deeper reality of a God that continues to pursue a relationship with us from deep within our very being and through all creation we encounter.  Where are we stuck in our own thinking and understanding not only of others but of God?  That’s the place this God pursues us and desires greater and deeper intimacy with us, relating to us in a more profound and deeper way, with others, our community, and with the Mystery that continues to draw us to the place of mercy, generosity, healing, reconciliation, and certainly, love.