Terror of the Dark Night

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It comes in the form of feeling trapped. For anyone who knows my story, you know I nearly lost my life whitewater rafting more than fifteen years ago now. I will never forget the feeling, the feeling of being trapped. For me, it’s the experience of anxiety. Sure, there are many other manifestations of anxiety in people’s lives. I can simply speak of my own experience. It’s the feeling of drowning, for others, death, still others, trapped in a confined place, a closet, the sense of losing it all, things falling apart around me, the loss of control. The way it becomes embodied in our lives, because it does take shape in the body, are far too numerous to spell out here. Anyone who is at least somewhat self-aware knows and understands, to some degree, how it becomes manifest.

I still remember being called by a funeral director asking if I could come to a cemetery while a body is being transferred from underground into a mausoleum. As I began talking to the daughter of the one being exhumed, I began to understand its link to anxiety and an irrational fear. Here she was, making an expensive decision, based on her own fear. This was not the first, but now going to be the third burial place for her mother’s burial. To the rational mind we’d automatically deduce she’s crazy, and on some level, it is a madness or an insanity knowing we make decisions all the time out of irrational fears. She insisted to me her mother was claustrophobic and needed to be exhumed from the ground while never recognizing a mausoleum isn’t much different, going from one enclosed “resting” place to another. It was clear the daughter was not getting much rest herself.

It is a real problem for many, even on a societal level and begins to become all the more evident the further we embark on unchartered, or as we like to define everything, unprecedented, territory with the coronavirus pandemic. Very little is spoken of about mental health during this crisis but all seems to be surfacing the longer we find ourselves confined to a particular place. Again, there is the feeling of being trapped, cornered, confined, loss of control, aggressively moving itself to the surface. Unfortunately, we all find ways to keep it locked inside, but in some ways, now being confined to places, the external world has met up with the internal world we learned to avoid. We do it through overwork, eating, drinking, gluing ourselves to phones and pads, all to take “the edge” off in order to relax. It’s always been there but the pandemic is forcing us to slow ourselves and no longer run from our own pain and fear finding themselves bubbling to the surface.

Now I am not a mental health professional but I am a self-aware individual who’s done a lot of work on himself and understands the interior landscape. I, too, like many still run at times from my own pain. More often than not it’s because I’m just not ready to look at it but know it’s there. The easiest way we learn to deal with it is blame everyone else for our problems. It’s a good indicator of someone who has not done the hard, interior work. We even see this played out on a large scale when we blame, ridicule, put down, others because of our own inability to take responsibility for where are lives are at and an underlying resentment also feeding into our anxiousness. Most successful corporations are aware of the human condition and even hire psychologists to assist in their success. Steve Jobs never hid the fact of the inception of Apple coming from biblical reference and the unsettlement within human beings to want more.

Now we find ourselves at this crossroad, however, when we can begin to turn the system on its head because it has taken advantage of the weakness of our humanity. It’s one thing as an individual to tackle our own uneasiness, angst, or anxiety which remains the great “invisible enemy” in which we are at “war” with on a daily basis. It’s there and now is beginning to surface. We need to keep ourselves busy, it appears, get back to normal and work, so we can avoid the interior reality all the more. What we seem to fail to see is the energy required to blame, to remain victim, as if someone else is still responsible for our lives. Why on earth would we want to go to our grave miserable having never lived the life we wanted to live? There is a great freedom when we finally recognize the war we fight is against ourselves and no one else.

I think about all the energy I expended fighting everyone else. It’s not to say there aren’t times for it, but generally speaking the damage it does to my health and well-being, including my mental health, is a toll all too expensive. I understand it’s a painful process entering into your own anxiety and pain, but it is a necessary one as individuals and as a nation. If we don’t stop the blame game soon, the anxiety will only continue to deepen, the pain widens, and the feeling as if we are suffocating ourselves, as respiratory diseases do, will only begin to intensify. As a country we have shown our pride, but pride too has a dark side. It is the avoidance of our arrogance and ignorance as if we know better than the world and everyone else and our inability to say we need help. How many avoid the care of a mental health professional simply out of pride? The price, your own well-being. Is it worth it?  Ask for help.

Anxiety and pain are real and has an impact on our lives which goes unnoticed and unrecognized. If this time of quarantine and physical distancing should teach us anything, it’s the wake up call we should have anticipated for a long time. It’s not God smiting us for some bizarre reason, that too is blame. It’s not someone trying to do us in, that’s conspiracy. It’s not the world against me, that’s pride. It is, however, the world we have created and have bought into as being “The American Way”. If you still feel you’re not responsible, well, hopefully one day you’ll move beyond the stage of denial. It is after all a grieving process we find ourselves going through these days. Denial is everywhere around us and within us, avoiding the harsh reality that life isn’t always the way we dreamed or expected. It’s only when we move to the stage of acceptance where we can finally say, “you know what, that’s ok.” I no longer need to fight or blame but rather recognize and accept we are complicated people of both great joy and pain, victim and victor, winner and loser, and all the other paradoxes which make up the human condition.

Do yourself a favor. In this time of pandemic, look at it is opportunity, even our inability to gather as faith communities. We focus too much on the inconveniences of life. There are certainly economic and personal implications. We mustn’t deny it. However, there is also plenty of opportunity. We were designed for simplicity and not just from material things, but all we hold onto. Take the time to journal and write about your own pain, where life seemed to have treated you wrongly, the incessant uneasiness within yourself, the times you can’t breathe, all of it.  Go for a walk in nature and allow it to speak and allow yourself to listen. It’s the pain often making the decisions of holding you back from the life you had wanted and desired. In the end, we aren’t much different than the daughter unearthing her mother over and over again. We all just find different ways of doing it in order to avoid the most fragile part of what makes us human, our pain, hurt, and anxieties.

Use this time to go there and then you will find hope in the midst of pandemic and see just how much you’ve allowed yourself to be bamboozled by a ruthless world not because they’re out to get you and destroy you, but rather because it’s a world which hurts and acts out of the same place as your own pain, hurt, fears, and anxiety. There is already an anchor within you waiting to hold you down in the storm rather than being swept away in despair and depression. “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” It is, after all, a matter of the heart we need to learn to deal with for it is the heart which holds the pain and our head, our ego, trying at all cost to avoid, blame, and make us victim. No one can make the decision for you, not even me, all I can do is act as a guide on this journey to self-awareness. If anything, it will change the way you see the world and yourself. In the end, it’s all we can really ask for ourselves, for we need to fear the “terror of the night”.

Go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

\ 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.

An Authentic Yes

Ezekiel 18: 25-28; Philippians 2: 1-11; Matthew 21: 28-32

As we swing into this section of Matthew’s Gospel we arrive at a scene change. We have now entered Jerusalem and tension begins to mount during Jesus’ final days before his death. The battle lines have already been drawn between Jesus and, well, just about every leader there is, both political and religious. Today we hear the first of five different controversies that are raised and only add to the tension between the camps. The first controversy is where John the Baptist receives the authority to say what he does, and like only Jesus can do, rather than answering the question, tells the unusual and yet obvious story in today’s Gospel.

Needless to say, since it is the first of the controversies, it’s important to remember that it is being told to the opposing “camp” of pharisees, chief priests, and elders of the people and so there is going to be something that trips them up and knock them out of the routine of their lives. It’s also important to know that the second son, the one who answers yes but doesn’t really mean it is the one that culturally would be the one that is accepted. It was best not to dishonor his father like that and so despite knowing that he has no intention on doing what the father has asked, says so anyway; it’s an immediate and expected response.

That’s the hang-up with the passage and the confrontation with the chief priests and elders of the people with Jesus. Most of what they hold others to are simply learned responses. We all have them. From the time we are little kids, we learn ways to protect ourselves from being hurt, from being rejected, from thinking we’re going to hurt others’ feelings, and so this defense of ours keeps us from living in and out of faith; rather we live in fear.

The chief priests, elders of the people, and the pharisees all had these learned responses. Even if they didn’t believe it or understand it, they had everything figured out and all the answers, including a predetermined understanding of God. Everything was viewed through that lens. And so when they now confront Jesus about John the Baptist, it’s a lot easier to understand because they didn’t want to hear what he had to say! They didn’t like it! It challenged them and their thinking. It wasn’t the learned responses that they were used to and what they feel they needed to protect, but rather he spoke and acted out of the divine indwelling. Of course, it ended up costing him his life as well.

We see this all too often in our politics, we see it often in the leadership of our Church, and I thin even was evident in the whole scandal that has hit the NFL the past weeks. All too often, our learned responses are what we think people want to hear or what we want them to hear in order to protect ourselves or the institution. If I speak the truth, I won’t get elected. If I speak the truth, the Church rejects. If I speak the truth, we lose income on football. If we have to work that hard to protect an institution or a symbol, it’s probably living not out of faith and ongoing conversion, but rather out of fear. Yet, we have learned how to get what we want, but as Paul tells us, “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.”

For the Israelites whom Ezekiel speaks, it’s the blame game. Their learned response, and even ours at times, is to blame everyone else for our problems. It’s never because of the choices we make, or when our yes really doesn’t mean yes. They blame God; they blame the Egyptians; they blame, blame, blame everyone else, and yet, Ezekiel tells them today, the learned responses of life and of childhood must die in order to live. It really is a slap in the face when Jesus raises up the tax collectors and prostitutes but it is them who sought a change of mind and heart. It is them that saw the learned responses of life no longer worked and only led them further into sin and away from life and faith. It is only so long before it catches up with us, our emptiness from living this way, when we seek change in our lives.

My friends, it’s not easy. It takes a great deal of courage to let go of those learned responses and our ego and the fear of somehow being rejected; when in reality, we only end up rejecting ourselves in the process. We choose all too often fear over faith. We pray today for the courage to wake up each day and make our yes mean yes no longer to live out of fear but rather faith. It is a lifelong commitment to seeking conversion in our lives. It is a lifelong commitment to saying yes to faith over fear. It is a lifelong commitment to an authentic way of life.