\ 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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Really Living & Living Really

“Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in…where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.”  John Muir

“It is astonishing how high and far we can climb mountains that we love, and how little we require food and clothing…No sane man in the hands of nature can doubt the doubleness of his life.  Soul and body receive separate nourishment and separate exercise, and speedily reach a stage of development, wherein each is easily known apart from the other.  Living artificially, we seldom see much of our real selves.”  John Muir

I came across both of these quotes today by John Muir, legendary activist and protector of the woodlands of this country, who in many ways has a love affair with the outdoors.  It becomes not only the avenue for finding himself but for finding a being greater than himself, although rarely wrote about God.  He is considered the Father of the National Parks.

If there is one thing I have learned in spending time in the outdoors, whether it’s here at Acadia, the Grand Canyon, the vast forested area of Alaska, or even the shores of Maryland and Jersey, it’s that deep down what defines the soul is something much more than an urban landscape but rather a never-ending twist and turn, yet explored area that very much resembles these wild and uncharted lands that I’ve had the opportunity, and really, privilege, to explore.

His sentiments have been mine through these experiences, that the natural mountains that we climb or even the vast chasms that we descend throughout this land, how little, we begin to realize, that we truly need.  What becomes our challenge as humans is that we often climb illusions of mountains in our lives, seeking power, prestige, so often missing along the way just what it is we’re losing, forgetting, ignoring, that we become blinded by the climb itself.  A return to the mountains is a good reminder of how we fall prey to the illusions that power and climbing seems to offer, leaving us insecure and fearful of losing something that was never really real in the first place.

Of course, descending the chasms can be just as challenging.  The fall from the illusion of grandeur can be a humbling experience when we begin to see what it is that we have forgotten or ignored along the way.  I had that experience climbing, and descending, in Acadia this week, so intent on getting to the top of the mountain and not until I started to descend did I begin to see things differently, as if the hardness of the climb began to dissipate, noticing a fallen tree, a sparkling stream, an unnamed path that leads to one of the most spectacular views and serene locations in the park.

It seems in either instance, our temptation to remain at the top or simply climb, as we see so often in our culture and society, but also to become attached to the bottom, walked upon, taken advantage of or needing to please, both begin to increase what it is that we seem to need in our lives, when the insecurity and fear begin to take root in our hearts and souls, no longer free.  In the words of John Muir, a separateness of heart and mind begins to form, creating a deeper chasm within ourselves.  In some ways, we become needy and no matter what it is, nothing seems to be enough.

The more I give myself the space to explore the outdoors, which in turn frees me to explore myself, the more I see the value in protecting our lands and leaving them as a place of wonder and exploration.  Whether it was watching a group of young boys play the 21st Century version of “cops and robbers” on Cadillac Mountain or even getting lost myself and being aware of the anxiety it brings up within myself and learning again to trust that deeper instinct and voice.  Over and over again, the natural world has something to teach and to help us to understand not only about itself, but about ourselves and even about God.  In not only helps to fill the chasm between the head and heart, it helps to fill the chasm between humans and the natural world, where everything belongs.

The freedom necessary to not live an “artificial” life as Muir speaks about, requires a letting go, surrendering, and living a life filled with the grace of detachment.  No, not in the sense of not caring, but rather in its natural sense, where I can surrender outcomes and trust God no matter what happens.  Otherwise, we predict the outcome, which in and of itself, is an illusion, artificial.  And we’ll do it to ourselves again and again.  The natural world teaches us to be free, to go where the wind blows, and to accept not what should be, but rather, what is, gradually dispelling the artificialness and leading us to a holiness and a wholeness, reminding us how Muir is correct, in how little we really need to experience the fullness of our lives.

 

Fake News

James 5: 7-10; Matthew 11: 2-11

You can’t seem to turn on any news these days without hearing something about “fake news”. There seems to be this blurring of lines between reality and some fictional world that is created, probably for a variety of reasons. Of course, there is the making up of a story, which is simple for most of us if we think about it. But there’s also the reality of people believing it, that we’ve crossed a line where we start to think that the “fake news” is real and reality is somehow lying to us or is wrong. It’s not a great line to be crossing for any of us and in many ways shows a lack of depth on the part of our culture and society that we can no longer discern these aspect of our lives and the world.

I’ve been thinking, though, that this is not something new. We’re all familiar with the famous Christmas letters that we often joke about. It’s often us presenting to others some kind of illusion of perfection of our families, telling others how we think things should be rather than the real real, such as the suffering and struggles that make up who we are as well. We become so dissatisfied with our reality that we have to resort to our own “fake news”, often to avoid our own grief, our anger, our dissatisfaction with life many times and our own “fake news” becomes a way to avoid our reality. But, we also all know, it eventually catches up to us when the illusions we construct begin to crumble before us. You see, this God we encounter is one that deconstructs what we construct in order to recreate us into something new, into the Kingdom as it continues to unfold within and beyond us.

It’s where John the Baptist finds himself today as we find him in prison. He’s a very different person this week than the one we encountered last week. Remember, he was the one down in the Jordan baptizing people. He was chastising the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. He was going after Herod for his marriages. He was preaching this rebellious messiah that was to come to overturn the government and religious leaders. Yet, today, he’s somewhat somber. Of course, we would as well when we know our lives are nearing the end as he’s about to be beheaded.

For all this time, John was preaching one message and now we find him today asking whether Jesus is really the one. This entire narrative that John has been preaching is no longer the reality that he had hoped for. Jesus isn’t who he was supposed to be in the eyes of John. John thought Jesus should be someone else. His own narrative that he constructed is now beginning to crumble as he faces the reality of his own life through his own mortality. His idea of Jesus and his idea of God no longer works and once again God is opening John up for something new, despite being at the end of his life. The more narrow our vision of what we think things should be is a good indicator that it’s more about building our own kingdom rather than allowing the Kingdom to unfold within and beyond us. It’s us wanting to control and for John, he now finds all that being deconstructed to be recreated into something new. It’s what we prepare ourselves for at Christmas, the breaking in of God.

But it takes a great deal of patience on our part for that breaking in, just as we await the birth of a child. We hear that from James in today’s second reading. He’s writing to the poor who are losing hope as they find themselves being oppressed by the rich. They too are paying the price for a narrative that the rich are putting together about the poor and, like any of us, are quick to judge. As much as James tells them to be patient with the unfolding of the Kingdom but he’s also warning them about judging the other. Our judgments are also part of the “fake news” that we create about others, not just ourselves. However, all those judgments say much more about ourselves and our own dissatisfaction. James isn’t telling them to allow themselves to be walked upon by the rich. Rather, he’s telling them not to become what it is that they hate by doing what’s being done to them.

As we move into the final days of the Advent season and continue to seek the breaking in of the Kingdom, we are challenged to see where we allow our own “fake news” to take hold of our lives, avoiding the reality of our own lives. We do it individually and we do it communally. Certainly the internet has escalated all of it but it is something that we have always had to deal with in our lives, constructing our own narrative and building our own kingdom often to avoid reality. God can only meet us in our reality and wants to meet us in our reality. It’s in the healing of our hearts, the seeking of love, mercy, forgiveness, and freedom that opens our hearts to the breaking in of the Kingdom.

We all know what it’s like to be John and wanting things to be something other than they are, but at this very moment, on the Third Sunday of Advent, God desires to meet us where we are. Not where we think we should be or who we think we should be. That’s our own “fake news” narrative. But where we have allowed ourselves to be imprisoned and made ourselves smaller than we really are. The Kingdom is vast and wide. It’s that Kingdom we desire and it’s that Kingdom that we are being invited into being broken into our lives and world at this very moment, into the reality we are being called to embrace.

The Transforming Power of Love

Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1 John 4: 7-10; John 15: 9-17

The Lord had revealed to the nations his saving power…

In talking to some friends about all that has gone on in Baltimore the past couple weeks, I mentioned the observation that what I found most sad, beyond all that we had transpired, was the number of people that were clamoring for power, politically, religiously, and socially. There are the people that have to put others down to bring themselves up, there are those that feel their going to swoop in and save the day, and certainly those that take advantage of people in moments of vulnerability. Now I’ve said this before, that, if you have go out looking for it or taking it from others, then you really haven’t found true power; as a matter of fact, it is more an abuse of power than anything and certainly not the power that Jesus speaks of and commands today in loving one another. The saving power of God is revealed in Christ and as John tells us in the second reading, is Love.

In the midst of the social, political, and religious context of Jesus’ time it wasn’t much different. It’s a tension that has always existed and will always exist as long as humans are around, of this power of love that Jesus speaks of and the perceived power that comes from roles, vocation, class, status, and place in society. It’s not to say that some of it isn’t necessary but it becomes an issue when our identity is wrapped up in the role and lose sight of the larger picture and our larger connection with humanity, in Christ and love. We live in a time when the positions and roles still have more credence than love. What hasn’t helped is that we’ve sentimentalized the message of Jesus and watered it down from the radical call that he was commanding of his disciples and for each of us. Ultimately it’s what will cost him his life because the power he gives and is not only casts out sin but at the same time sheds light on the shadow of these systems in which he lived and the systems that we live and participate and the brokenness and dysfunction that follows. It’s not that he was trying to shame anyone, put people down, show himself as better, or anything like that, but rather loved and shed light on the blind spots in order to grow and heal them.

He shows it himself in this image, this social structure, that he presents of slave and master in today’s gospel, where for Jesus, loving means meeting the disciples where they’re at, as friends. Although they may have had perceptions of him being something that he was not or saw him as superior to themselves, such as slave and master, he breaks down even that social structure. When we live in that mindset, we lose sight of who and whose we are and the humanity that we share and it makes love nearly impossible for our lives. It becomes about the perceived power that we hold over others, which of course, is not love at all; it’s for our own agenda and wants. That’s not to say that we don’t love in a way that really isn’t love. We are all taught along the way what we think is love but really often is not; but God wants to take us to a deeper place, to that place of love through love and in love. Love meets us where we are. Love heals. Love reconciles. Love sheds light and frees us. Love because the eternal bond that makes us one. If what we do, how we think, or whatever leads to division and thinking that one is better than the other, we’re pretty much guaranteed it’s not love.

Peter runs into that same tension with Cornelius in today’ first reading from Acts. We hear as Peter approaches that Cornelius falls at his feet in adoration and Peter quickly cuts him off and reminds him that he too is a human being. Now he was different when he arrives, on the surface, but Peter had found that true power within, the divine, and so he somewhat glows when he shows up today. How different he is, though, from the Gospels, when he anticipated a “better than” approach to now even breaking down the social structures between Jew and Gentile, those baptized and those not. Peter has found his deepest identity and it has nothing to do with what he does, but rather who he is, only through love and now he can do nothing but give it away and then through that breaks down the barriers and walls and begins to lead people to a deeper place beyond role and status and structure to a place of love.

It’s radical what the disciples were called to and what Jesus modeled to them and for us. It went against everything that the social, political, and religious structures wanted and threatened them, but most importantly, because it revealed their own vulnerability and their own limitation and the shallowness of what they thought was power; the power of this love leads not only to his death but to the risen life. That’s what none of them ever could have anticipated! Jesus challenges us and leads us to that deeper place of conversion in our lives. Where have we tried to put ourselves above others, forgetting our own identity? Where have we stepped on others and taken advantage of others to get what we want rather than living and showing love?

The gospel demands much of us today because it demands us to change our lives and the way we see others and to meet where we’d want to be met, right where we are. It challenges us to question our motivations in life. It challenges us to evaluate the systems that we participate in and how we to need love to cast light upon us so we can grow and to, like Peter, become the saving power to others, to become love. It’s the only way we can love, where there is no longer slave and master, but friends. This I command each of you, he tells us, love one another. Not in a sentimental kind of way, but rather, move below the surface and allow love to shed light on our own hurt and what we hold onto so that we may become love in order to live the command of loving one another.