\ ˈem-pə-thē \

If you were to look up the word, empathy, in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, you’d find the following:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :the capacity for this”

From time to time I make the mistake of going to comment sections of articles and posts that I happen to be reading.  It doesn’t take long for me to realize that I’ve made a mistake by doing it and yet I do it anyway.  Maybe there’s a part of me that hopes it has changed, that somehow since the last time I made this mistake that the world got a little better and more understanding.  Needless to say it didn’t go so well and was reminiscent of times past.

The one thing I could never quite understand is how people can lash out at others that they don’t even know, complete strangers going after one another because of opposing viewpoints but never making any effort to get to the heart of their own anger and why this is all coming up inside themselves. When I can’t be sensitive to another’s feelings, thoughts, and experience, I simply then project it all onto them, making them the embodiment of the demon that lies within myself, becoming enemies rather than seeking understanding of a person’s view; and that’s all it is, a view.  I’ve been the victim of it myself and I’m sure the projector at times in my life.  It’s a sign of just how unaware we are as a culture and society when we don’t take responsibility for our own baggage and prefer to share the wealth with others.

When it comes to pain and suffering we are often the worst.  We have to look tough, stoic, to others and the world.  It can explain a great deal of the opioid epidemic that has arisen in this country and our constant need to be medicated and numbed.  That pain has been taken advantage of by advertisers, politicians, and drug manufacturers alike, all of whom have benefited from our inability to deal with pain.  Dealing with our own pain, rather than numbing it, is the only answer to the epidemic but also our inability to empathize with others and to understand another person’s experience which is often different from my own.  Pain has a way of sucking us in and yet projecting outward, seemingly that we stand at the center of the world and carry the measuring stick of judgment of all life’s challenges, experiences, and pains, even if I’ve never actually experienced it myself, all in the name of defense of some one or some thing.

As a culture and society we have distanced ourselves from pain and suffering (the cross) so much that we no longer know how to handle it, embrace it, enter into it, feel it.  It’s as if we walk into the ICU of a dying patient or into a funeral home to mourn with a family and we become so uncomfortable that all we know how to do is make trite statements, hollow at best, because of the fear of going to where we hurt and in those very moments, to realize that that person is also me.  The pain of sitting with the uncomfortableness is too overwhelming in those moments that we have to do something with it.  We just can’t bring ourselves to do it and so we project it all outward, onto each other, onto the country, other countries, and to the world.  Heck, for that matter, there are plenty of examples of it in Scripture that, more often than not, we do it to God as well.  It has given us distorted images of each other and the Creator and there are examples of it everywhere, often including our own lives.  Again, if we’re willing to take a step back, become self-aware, and see what I too am doing to the other and this world.  There’s no wiping our hands entirely clean if we’re willing to take responsibility for our own undealt with pain.

It’s probably the easiest way to understand the gospels and Jesus’ own encounter with the Pharisees and other leaders of that time.  They had such venom towards him, mainly because he challenged their way of thinking and understanding of the other.  All they could do is try to divide and conquer, and in the end, they believe they won. They believe, in the short term, they have won the battle with Jesus once he is crucified, a projection of their own disdain for God and human life and the suffering one endures.  It was and is inevitable in the case of Jesus that hatred would appear to be his demise.  Hate, anger, unfinished hurt, always thinks short term in order to protect itself from deeper pain but always fails to see the big picture, avoiding it at all cost.

We see it in war, violence, resentment, hatred, bigotry, racism, disdain, blame, all rooted in this deep fear of our own pain, separating us from the other in isolating fashion.  Little do we know that when we make decisions and choices from such destructive tension, life becomes much more about survival that living life fully.  It’s as if we’re drowning in our own pain and all we can do is cling rather than to take the hand of someone who may look different, live differently, have a different experience of my own, simply because I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I may have been wrong.  When life is about winning and losing we, without a doubt, always lose even if it feels like a short-term win, protecting myself once more while gasping for air until the next attack, the next exposure of my short-coming, my imperfection, my shadow, my own pain that has taken hold of my life.

We have a lot to do in our society, a lot of work in dealing with the deep-seated pain that we continue to hold onto, clouding all our decisions and choices for the future, while at the same time blaming the future for all our problems.  We’re leaving that very future one hell of a mess to clean up if we soon don’t learn to stop, quiet ourselves, and sit in that ICU, sitting with the dying patient, and learn to die with them.  Pain and suffering has so much to teach us and is often the key to living a fuller life when we no longer dance around it but rather jump in, head first, rather than sharing it with the world.  In times when we retreat, isolate, and believe it’s about us first, we can only begin to understand such action when we’ve been there ourselves, wallowing in our own pain and suffering, feeling it’s the only way for us to survive.  I can empathize with that because I’ve been there myself.  It feels like it’s the only answer to the loneliness experienced when we suffer.  The capacity to empathize with the other, the nation, all suffering everywhere, the world, can only come when we’ve done our own work and continue to do our work in life, creating the necessary space in our lives for someone and something more than ourselves.  It’s the task at hand if we are to move forward for the way forward is through.

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Redeeming History

Isaiah 25: 6-10; Phil 4: 12-14, 19-20; Matt 22: 1-14

If we could take the First Reading from Isaiah and smack it against this gospel from Matthew, we can get somewhat of a continuation of the story of People Israel. We seem to think that everything prior to Jesus is simply “old” and could be forgotten, as if putting the past in the past is enough, but for Israel, their history continued with or without Jesus. If we pull them together, despite being some 800 years apart, we could see not just how far they have come as a people but just how much further they need to go to experience the fullness of the promise of Isaiah in today’s first reading.
Like most of us, Israel struggles with its history. As much as Cross and Resurrection is central to who we are, for Israel, and even for us, it was very much rooted in slavery and freedom and the tension between them that so often defined them. With every step forward into freedom in which they are invited, it seems as if they get stuck, being enslaved in one way or another. It may not show itself in the form of Pharaoh, but it certainly does in the form of the chief priests, elders of the people, and Pharisees, whom Jesus has been telling these rather bizarre parables to the past few weeks. Here he is in the heart of the tension, Jerusalem, with his own death beginning to seem more real. They’ve come a long way but still much further to go until, as Isaiah tells us today, the veil that veils all people is removed and the banquet is no longer an exclusive club for certain members. If anything, more often than not they become enslaved to their own way of thinking that pulls them back into slavery, separating from their heart, with a call once again to freedom.
All that being said, then we have these two parables that Jesus tells us today that seem rather unusual without quite knowing who’s who. As it would be for us, our autoreply would be to associate the king with God. However, if we do that it seems like a rather cruel one at that. We’re dealing with people, though, who were doing just that to others, putting themselves in the place of God, enslaved to the law. It was the chief priests, elders of the people, Pharisees and the like and so in some ways it’s mirroring their own behavior and once again how their history has taken a hold of them. If we could say anything about Jesus, he has a way of raising these things to a surface, not to lead to further death, but rather to be redeemed once again, forgiven, an opportunity for reconciliation.
We often live with this idea, as we do with everything that comes before Jesus, that we can simply put the past behind us. In my experience, I find that my past always finds a way to work its way back into my life, weaving itself in in different ways. Again, not to cast it into the darkness where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth, but raised to the surface for deeper redemption and forgiveness, no longer needing to pretend that it’s somehow no longer relevant, which only leads to deeper enslavement. We can’t just say that everything is in the past, as individuals and as a country, casting it into further darkness. That’s simply denying the pain of the people, often enslaved by that pain that prevents them from moving forward. I could make it look like all is well but deep down living in pain and with an unchanged heart.
That takes us to the second parable of the man not dressed the proper way, in the wedding garment. Again, it would seem rather trite if we were speaking of God, but it is a parable raising to the surface what it is the leaders of the community are doing and how they are acting. It’s not about a garment at all. Rather, it’s about limiting faith to simply making it look like we play the part. It was all about looking good while inflicting pain otherwise, as they so often did. Even at such banquet they’d wait to see who else attended to determine if it was worth them showing up. It was about being seen rather than a change of heart, all the while living in the darkness of the night. Not cast there by God, but by their own doing. For the Pharisees, the chief priests, and elders of the people, the banquet was about exclusion. It was about us versus them. It was about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about winners and losers. They may have come a far way into living into the promise, but still a long way to go where all are invited to the banquet, where there is no more division and separation, where head and heart may be one.
Paul so often exemplifies it and speaks of living in that tension in his own life, quite content with being full or going hungry, having abundance or being in need. For Paul it was not about casting life out into the darkness but embracing life where it is in this moment and not becoming enslaved to his thinking and simply sitting with the choices that lie before him. For Paul it is about surrendering himself over to God consistently, knowing the mercy of God is a necessity and that whatever rises to the surface in his own life is being raised by God for healing and redemption. If we weren’t so quick to react to our own pain and our addicting thoughts, we too can experience that sense of surrender that Paul speaks of and find the healing we need in our own lives, for a change of heart that goes beyond the surface.
The parables we’ve heard these weeks have been quite challenging. They can also be a mirror for us about how far we have come as a people, mindful of our how history, but also how much further we need to go. More often than not we are lured into the life of slavery once again, in many different forms from anger, grudges, and our own inability to see each other as one. We almost prefer to separate and divide rather than sit with our own uncomfortableness with people who may be different than us, people we’ve cast into the darkness who have something to teach us about ourselves, people we think we’ve pushed into slavery but have only cast ourselves into through our own fear and attachment to our thinking.  It was what Matthew feared of his own community, that they’d be pulled apart by these divisions. We pray for the awareness in our own lives, not only recognizing how far we have come in our lives, individually and collectively, but just how far we still need to go to experience the fulfillment of the promise. Our past will always find a way to creep into our lives, holding us back, but in such moments, as Paul tells us, when we can sit with it rather than cast aside or react to, we can finally move to a place of redemption and forgiveness through and in Love. In those moments, glimpses of the promise are revealed where all are truly welcome at this banquet and all are seen as brother and sister.

 

Love’s Eye

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

I was talking to some new pastors this week up at the seminary so of course part of the conversation was on prayer.  It is not only central to us priests but to all of us.  I was surprised when one of them had told me that he didn’t pray.  So, of course, I asked him why, and as surprised as I was to hear that he didn’t pray I wasn’t all surprised by the why because I had heard in many times before.  When I finally sit down to pray, to stop, to quiet down, it seems at that point my mind takes off, a million miles a minute along with all my fears and anxieties, unresolved conflict, and all the rest begin to surface.  That’s the reason why you have to pray in those moments.

I use the example often, now that we are into the summer and it is hurricane season, to imagine a satellite image of a hurricane.  Most have a well-defined eye.  Crazy enough, that’s where you want to be in the hurricane.  It’s the place where the sun shines.  There’s peace and tranquility.  That’s the place of center we take with us into the storm, into the million miles a minute, otherwise the wall collapses and the storm consumes our lives.  This feast we celebrate today at the end of the Easter Season defines our center, that place of peace and tranquility that is hopefully leading us and navigating us through the storms of our own lives, as individuals, community, country, and world.  We certainly know that that’s not always the case.

When the early community begins to form and that we heard of throughout this Easter season from Acts of the Apostles, they too found themselves often trying to find that center and allowing it to be their navigation tool through often tumultuous times.  It was not an easy go for them when community was beginning to form around this new identity in Christ.  Like any community, there is self-interest, there are people that are trying to satisfy their own needs, there are people that are trying to drag us into their own storms, into the chaos of their own lives that will often challenge that center, that navigation tool.

The same was true for Corinth in whom Paul writes today.  It’s a section of that letter that we are all familiar with when he speaks of different gifts but the same spirit being manifested in the life of the community.  He’ll go onto to speak about the different parts yet one body and culminate in the next chapter with his message of love that we are familiar with from weddings.  There was dissension in the ranks of the community because they thought one person’s gift was better than the other, thinking that speaking in tongues was somehow better than the rest.  It created riffs.  Like the world we often find ourselves in today, there was selfish motivation, which of course, at that point, loses its purpose of being a gift in the first place!  One gift is not somehow better than the other, but rather, Paul will go onto say that no matter the gift and no matter the person, at the center of the community, the great navigation tool, will be that of love.  That becomes the eye of the storm and it becomes the navigation tool that the disciples will have to take into the storms that await them on that Easter day.

There seems to be no great Pentecost experience with them when we encounter them in today’s Gospel.  There they are, caught in the midst of a wild storm as the witnessed the death of Jesus, the one who had been their center up to this point.  For John, though, he’s going to want to take us back to the beginning and not to just the beginning of the gospel but back to the beginning of Genesis, when God breathes life into creation.  Here we are now, locked in the upper room, filled with fear and doubt, wondering and questioning, feeling like they’re being consumed by the storm and all that they had known falling down around them, and Jesus appears.  But not to just pick back up where they had left off on Good Friday but to give them a new center that goes deep within them and yet so far beyond them.  Jesus breathes on them, not just into their mouths, but into their very being the gift of the Spirit.  That will become their place of authority, their place of deep love, their own navigation tool as we see them go forward throughout Acts of the Apostles.

As we draw this Easter season to a close today, we pray for that same Spirit to be breathed into us, making us aware of where our center is in life.  Do we find ourselves much more comfortable in the storminess, chaos, fear and anxiety, that at times consumes our lives or are we being led to a place of peace that expands truth and makes space within us for all peoples?  Maybe we’re at a place where we need to quiet down, slow down, even if our minds want to go a million miles an hour.  That’s exactly where that navigation tool is leading us, to expand that place of peace and tranquility within us.  The last thing the world needs is more chaos, fear, and anxiety.  It leads us to reacting to everything that comes our way, sucking us into the storminess of lives and feeling overwhelmed by it all.  Like the disciples, on this day God desires to breathe that life, that Spirit into each of us so rather than being defined by the storminess we become the agents of change by brining that navigation tool, that eye, that deep source of love to an often hurting world to bring about the redemption that is freely given to each of us.

 

Disruptive Blind Spots

Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18; 2Tim 4: 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14

Anyone who drives is well aware of what we call “the blind spot”. We know the havoc it could cause for us as drivers if we are not paying attention to it. It’s our most vulnerable place as drivers and can cause great harm if we forget about it. The same is true, as we know, for Joe Flacco and other quarterbacks. They have their blindside. When his isn’t protected, as we’ve seen a lot recently, he finds himself on his back end more than anything. It’s his vulnerable point and has to be protected and not forgotten.

The same is true for our spiritual life and our lives in general. Like when we drive, it is our most vulnerable place and if evil and sin is going to work its way into our lives that’s precisely where it’s going to happen. Yet, we like to ignore it and are often so unaware of it that it has a tendency to control our lives, sometimes unaware that our lives can even be better than it is. They are our blindspots, our blindside, that can find a way to separate us from ourselves, from others, and from God.

In the stories we hear each week, our blind spot is often represented through the Pharisee. Even when Jesus uses other stories, they’re often about the pharisees and what they can’t see about themselves. However, as we march our way through Luke’s gospel, he seems to be more forward with them, specifically calling the one entering into prayer a Pharisee who finds himself disconnected from the tax collector and from God for that matter. Everything that he wants to point out about others are often his own faults and points of vulnerability and yet becomes blinded by them, presenting himself in a rather conceited way before God. What he does is what we often all try to do, thinking we can trick God into believing that we’re someone other than we really are, as if God is somehow not going to love us or forgive us if God really knows who we are. So what do we do? We created an affront and not always even consciously, but our blind spot is hard at work separating us and leading us to believe we can be someone other than who we are.

Paul knows it all too well. He is the master of the ego and knows all too well what life is like when the blind spot is directing life, often separating us from our own humanity. Yet, today we hear his continuation of his letter to Timothy. He’s imprisoned and nearing the end of his life, using such poetic language to speak about the constant need for turning his life over the Lord, seeking redemption and greater freedom. Everyone has abandoned him at this point because of the challenge he created in their lives. He wasn’t only good at recognizing his own blind spot but calling others out for theirs. They don’t want to hear that. And yet, to move towards holiness and wholeness in our lives, we have to come to the Lord and this Table as we are, entirely. We aren’t going to trick God into believing something about us nor are we going to trick ourselves. This sense that we have to come to the Lord perfect stands as a great obstacle to the good in our lives and an obstacle to holiness and wholeness and leading an authentic life.

Sirach also points out this need to be vulnerable before the Lord as the writer speaks of a God who shows no favorites. It is a God who is partial to the weak and hears the cry of the oppressed, a God not deaf to the orphans, or for that matter as with today’s gospel, a tax collector who acknowledges his own sinfulness and recognizes this deeper need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. It’s someone that realizes they no longer need to hide from God, no longer need to disguise or ignore their blind spot, but rather come to God as they are, in need of mercy and forgiveness. The reversals happen once again where the tax collector upstages the pharisee and God meets humanity at its most vulnerable point, redemption and salvation happens in a moment of oneness and connectedness.

As we come to this Table today, we pray we may be aware as to how we gather. Are we still trying to play games with God, presenting ourselves as “perfect” never allowing ourselves to be changed and transformed by this Eucharist. There is great freedom when we can come to accept that we don’t need to come here perfect but rather only as ourselves, sinners in need of mercy and forgiveness. Why do we want to put that pressure on ourselves to be something we aren’t? It keeps us from growing in relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God. It also becomes an obstacle from living an authentic life. We pray, like when we drive, that we are always aware of that blind spot in our own lives and to know the havoc it could play in our lives. We’re more than that not because of what it wants to tell us, but rather because of who we are, sinners, yet loved and always being called forth to mercy and forgiveness.

A Journey to Redemption

There are many reasons Jesus could go after the Pharisees in the gospel but maybe none more than this image that they tried to project onto the people that somehow they are above the law, somehow they have this all figured out, and in many ways, have mastered life. Now we all know it’s not true, and yet, like them, we still try to do it in our own lives. We’re all guilty of it, guilty of the hypocrisy that Jesus speaks of in today’s gospel as we begin this Lenten season. Everything is not what we see is what Jesus tries to show to the disciples today. They see the actions of the Pharisees and they see the actions of others that they aren’t doing what they’re doing in prayer and fasting because of God but rather what it does for their own image and the persona they want to project.

It’s a tough place to be because we’re all there, and yet, if we follow Jesus’ direction in this gospel to go to that inner place rather than flaunting things and we’re still trying to live this image we’ve created, well, when we go there we’re going to feel the emptiness that comes with it. We find ourselves not wanting to live with ourselves because we know we’re living a lie rather than living from a place of authenticity, a place of integrity. All along, there is as Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, a God who continues to appeal through us. God doesn’t give up on the people, but rather, even when they sway and get caught up in these images, false selves that are created, God continues to appeal through us to call us back to who we really are. Otherwise, we live with that constant emptiness within ourselves, lonely, knowing we can never live up to the image we have wanted to be or think we are. We live a lie, God appeals, and we’re called back, to our home.

Lent provides us the opportunity to examine our lives and where we still fall short in trying to be someone other than we are, believing the lies we create for ourselves. Ironically, we can’t even hide behind it today on this Ash Wednesday because we will leave here with ash on our heads, only hoping that it can seep through the image and persona we have created for ourselves for it is only through the cross that we are broken through, through the hypocrisy that we’ve created and takes us to the true home, the place of authenticity that we already desire. That mark on our heads not only reminds us of our lives but everyone that gazes upon that cross. We’re all the same in that sense.

There’s something freeing when we can allow ourselves to move to that place, when we finally get dissatisfied with the self we’ve created and think we have to be and allow ourselves to be our best self. That doesn’t mean that we ever get it together. That doesn’t mean that we know it all and life is somehow perfect. That doesn’t mean that somehow we mastered this life that we has been given to us. Rather, as Paul states, salvation comes upon us and our truest self is revealed through the cross, a loved and redeemed sinner. When we can live from that place our lives are more enriched and fulfilled because we no longer need to be something or someone else; we can’t anyway. Finally we can live from the place of a God that continues to appeal through. Lent invites us into that journey, that discovery, that place of conversion and we become who we have always been and always will be, loved and redeemed and yet sinner. What a place of freedom! No longer an image or persona but the real deal. Welcome to the journey. Welcome to Lent.

Breaking Through

Job 7:1-4,6-7; Mark 1:29-39

No one has more right to live a “woe is me” life than that of Job. The story we hear in the first reading today sounds dismal, dark, lost, whatever you want to call it. He says life is a drudgery. He says he shall never see happiness again. How hopeless to us Sunday listeners of the word! Yet, it’s where Job was at, where we are often at in our own lives, living outside this place of hurt, suffering, and our own lostness in life, pleading with God and for God’s grace to break through into our world and lives.

Yet, we are all too familiar with Job’s story. We know suffering in many different ways, but maybe he provides us today a chance to look at it differently and what’s going on interiorly with Job. It’s safe to say, over the course of this archetype’s life that the God that Job thought he believed in was not the God that he encountered. Such suffering comes when this begins to break down in his life and in ours as well. From the time we are kids, we hold onto what we think God is about and for some, they never move beyond that. We live in this constant fear, that like Job, somehow God is going to strike us down, continue to test us, push us down until we break. And maybe all along that’s exactly what God is trying to do by breaking us down. Not in the sense of being beaten up and pushed into the ground, but to begin to allow the grace of God to break through into our lives and through us into the world to let go of a god that no longer is. It’s painful and hard stuff for all of us because the story of Job is my story and it is your story because the God we grew up with, and for that matter, created for ourselves over the course of our lives, isn’t the God that is going to transform us and free us from the pain and suffering of the moment. Quite honestly, that god only leaves us trapped in our suffering so that it begins to feel like Job, where life is a drudgery and we start to think that we will never see happiness again because we aren’t living out of the place of grace and freedom, precisely where the true God, who heals the brokenhearted, is trying to lead Job and each of us.

Jesus once again this week goes to that sacred space as he did last week with the disciples. He once again is going to model to the disciples the life they are to lead. He goes on to heal Simon’s mother-in-law and many others who are afflicted with suffering, illness, and once again, demons. He again tries to lead them to that interior place within their souls, but not before the journey of the cross in breaking down their own ideas and images of God, like with Job, because for the disciples as well, the god they thought they knew won’t be the God of their experience and the God that is going to call them to the deep waters of their own souls and to begin to live life from this true place, the place within, where the grace of God flows and heals our own brokenness and those who come seeking healing in their own lives. Jesus then goes on to model for them the necessity of prayer on this journey to the true God. He goes off to find solitude and silence, despite the searching of all, as the gospel tell us. He knows that already and continues on, leading us forward to that place we desire.

My experience, personally and also as a priest, is one that a great deal of the suffering that we experience daily is brought on by ourselves. We hold so tightly, as Job does, to things that aren’t real or may not exist or certainly don’t bring fulfillment into our lives because it’s all we know. Like the cast of characters we meet today, we too are called to live the journey to the true God because we too hold onto images of god that we have created for ourselves, our survival god, if you wish, who isn’t the true God to begin with. The journey to and of the cross is an experience of letting go of these gods and finding the love of the true God, the God that calls us to live our lives from a different place, a place within that leads to fulfillment. Until then, we will remain restless and desiring and wanting something more out of our lives, often feeling like Job because we aren’t living out the call God has placed within. God calls us to live out of our own sacred space and calls us to let go of the life of drudgery and unhappiness, not a life God has given us, but a life we so often have created for ourselves but now is being broken down so we may live fully in God’s grace and love. God is breaking in at this very moment of our lives, desiring for us to accept it and ultimately, to live it faithfully and with great hope to the world.