Shema Yisra’el

Deut 6: 2-6; Mark 12: 28-34

Even if we tried we couldn’t have chosen better readings than these, summing up the Jewish faith as the Tree of Life Synagogue continues to bury their dead and deal with the tragedy of last weekend.  For our Jewish brothers and sisters and for ourselves, it all comes down to the shema, the great commandment that Moses passes along to Israel today.  It’s a prayer recited three times a day, a consistent reminder to a people throughout the centuries, that, when faced with so many false gods and idols, even to our own day, there is but one God that sees us through this life.  Yet, like many of our own prayers, they tend to be words.  They can come easily off our lips and not have much meaning or while we continue to cling to our own gods that provide us comfort and safety.  It helps to know their meaning and why they stand as so important to people of faith, especially in the face of such tragedy.

Today we hear that context from the Book of Deuteronomy, in our first reading.  It’s Moses that passes the prayer along to his fellow Israelites.  If you can imagine yourself on the cusp of something new, that’s exactly where Israel finds itself in this reading.  After forty years of wandering in the desert they have finally arrived at the threshold of the Promised Land.  They can finally see it with the naked eye, lying just before them, and now there is this pause before passing through.  Of course, like us there is a sense of excitement and anticipation as they prepare to take that last step, but there’s also fear and resistance in facing the unknown, of what lies ahead for them after years of slavery and then wandering in the desert, Moses assures them that before the pass over, they can finally let go of all the other false gods and idols that they’ve had to confront about themselves in these forty years and finally enter into relationship with this one God that has seen them to this point.

It’s bittersweet, though, because as Moses passes on this message, Israel will now be left with a choice.  A choice that can no longer be made by him.  It’s now going to have to be their doing and from their own heart as to whether they trust this God so much that they’re willing to step into the unknown, into the life that has been promised for ages to come.  For Moses, though, it marks the end of the journey.  He never has the opportunity to walk into the Promised Land with them.  He’s taken them as far as he could and will die before they arrive.  It’s as if Moses himself becomes the final stumbling stone for Israel.  He had become their crutch in difficult times.  He’s led them through this, often with trepidation and his own sense of insecurity.  He’s gotten angry at God and at his people.  Despite not crossing over, Moses has already experienced the Promised Land.  He doesn’t need to go to this physical place because he’s already at home in himself and with God, within his very being.  It’s why the words mean so much coming from Moses at this time.  He’s done the journey with them and now they must cross over at their own doing, by affirming their own trust in this God.

Then there’s Jesus, who of course takes it to a new level.  He intertwines the two commandments, and as we’ve heard him say before, he’s well aware of how easy it is for everyone to recite this prayer and not really mean it.  Jesus, the one who manifests the shema now points the way that the same it true for us.  To come to an understanding, as his student does today, we have to make it our own and it is manifested by the way we live our lives, with a sense of integrity, that the prayer isn’t just something we say but rather prove by the way we love our neighbor.  The twist, though, is that we don’t get to choose who our neighbor is.  That doesn’t mean that Israel doesn’t try.  It’s what often causes tension between Jesus and the religious and political leaders of his time.  They want to decide who’s worthy of that love, a conditional love at best.  They want nothing to do with the Samaritans.  They want nothing to do with the Gentiles.  Of course, even when Israel finally passes into the Promised Land, even their immediate response is revenge and vengeance against their enemies.  It will lead them, time and again, into exile because of their own failure to embrace the fullness of love of God and neighbor.  Their false gods that Moses had told them they can finally let go of, find ways of creeping back in, wanting security, safety, fear, territory, and all the rest to rule the day and the prayer becomes words once again.  It’s not to say we don’t experience that tension between what God desires and demands of us through the gospels and our own frail humanity.  That’s a part of our human condition.  It’s when we abandon it and create gods for ourselves when the prayer becomes hallow and shallow, as we so often see in our own time and day.  As much as they desire the freedom that comes with loving in such an unconditional way, they’d prefer their own way and their own gods.

We can say the same of our own society and country.  We love to say how much we love God and how central God is to our lives and what we do.  But does it really?  Aren’t we just simply offering lip service as well?  We cling to false gods and idols in our day and age, reminding us that we find ourselves wandering through the desert as Israel had for forty years.  We want to decide it all rather than learning to trust the God of the unknown, of mystery, of the promise for all ages, the God who strips us of all of our own gods and teaches us what it truly means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength, and all the other ways we translate it, ultimately with our entire being.  Moses points the way.  Jesus points the way and is the way.  Yet, we still want to decide who’s worthy of our love.  We can’t say we’re anti-black, anti-brown, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, and all the rest, and still have the audacity to utter such words as the shema, of loving God with all our heart, soul, being.  That’s not the God of mystery and promise.  It’s our own god we’ve created for ourselves.  They’re words, and hallow words at best, at that point.  If we love any God, we love our own gods, as Israel did in those forty years, the gods of fear, safety, security, of what was known, of vengeance, and all the others they were forced to confront in those days in order to learn to love in the way God loves, unconditionally.

Like Israel, we’re given a choice as we stand at the cusp.  Our faith reminds us that we’re always on the cusp, the threshold of something new by this God of mystery and unknown.  Israel is given the choice to take that leap of faith, as we are this day and at this time, the leap of faith into the unknown.  Sure, with a sense of anticipation and excitement, but also with fear and trepidation grounding us in our humanity.  Are we going to take that leap of faith or do we run back, as Israel so often did, clinging to our gods and idols of fear, hate, resentment, certainty, safety, security, and all the rest.  All of those gods require so much energy on our part and only lead to a greater gap between each other and with God, trapped wandering in the desert, and without the freedom of love we desire.  The shema, and our own prayer, must be more than words.  Like Moses, it must become a very part of our being, a central part of who we are so that they are no longer simply words, but the very way we live our lives.  Words matter, especially when they’re prayer and a declaration of the one God over all other gods.  We stand at the cusp and are given a choice to love God with all our heart, soul, being, and only then our neighbor, all people, unconditionally, as ourselves.

Hungering For More

Wisdom 7: 7-11; Hebrews 4: 12-13; Mark 10: 17-30

We live in a time often referred to as the “Information Age”.  We all have little gadgets in our pockets that we can pull out and find a wealth of knowledge, information, useless facts, and you name it, all at our fingertips.  It’s become something like an extra appendage of ours as we carry them around, always in contact and answers without any kind of wait.  Yet, there’s a downside to it all.  We have, in many ways, lost a sense of mystery or the unknown, when we would have to wait for information or news and now it comes with just a click.  We’ve also lost a sense of truth and depth.  Ironically, the truth seems to always be the people I agree with and yet a deeper sense of truth is gone.  The very thing that was supposed to keep us connected has in many ways made us even less so, leaving us with a deeper hunger and thirst for something more out of life, a deeper sense of truth, wisdom, and connectivity.  All of us, as well, who learned computers early on learned first hand that they are binary, the ones and zeros, and nothing more.  That too feeds into the great divide that exists and separation that exists.  We never have to leave our corners but it also leaves us wanting more of the wrong thing rather than truth, wisdom, connectivity that can only come by allowing us to grow more deeply in our humanity rather than trying to make ourselves into computers.

Solomon, in the Book of Wisdom, points the way with such beauty.  Like us, he looked for satisfaction out of all the ways of the world, through power, position, wealth, possessions, even health as he points out today.  Yet, nothing seemed to satisfy the deeper longing in his heart.  All of the ways of the world simply seemed to pass and he was left all the more hungry for something out of life.  He takes the turn inward, growing in relation to the living word of God, and his life begins to change.  He begins to grow more deeply into the truth and wisdom that he desired, spelling it out for us today in such beautiful feminine language.  Solomon learns, as we all do, that the only way to wisdom isn’t through knowledge and information, nor even the ways of the world.  Rather, for Solomon it was growing more deeply into his own humanity, learning the nuances of life rather than the binary ways of the world, connecting with the deeper places within his heart and soul.  It wasn’t by accumulating anything, but rather learning to let it go and creating space for the true God and Solomon grows into one of the great wisdom figures.

It was the same for the writer of Hebrews and the community in which he writes.  This is a community that had grown stagnate and drifting away from its mission and purpose.  They had lost sight of their own deeper humanity and connectivity and had grown bored with the word, no longer capable of hearing and listening and being moved by the Word.  The writer reminds them and us that the true Word is living and effective, sometimes even when we aren’t expecting it, cutting us like a two-edged sword.  A relationship with the Word is the only one that can cut through the hardening that begins to happen in our lives or even the numbing that takes place by staring at screens, objectifying our humanity rather than growing more deeply into it.  Ultimately, it’s our own thirst for knowledge and thinking we need to know and accumulating information that leaves us hungering for more while feeling empty.  It begins the slow process of disconnecting us from our hearts.

Of course, we then come to the pinnacle with the story of the rich man in today’s gospel.  Here’s a man who had everything.  He had wealth.  He had power.  He had position.  Heck, he even thought he was perfect in the eyes of God and was in a very binary way.  He had the life so many dream of.  Yet, despite literally having it all, including a knowledge of this God, it wasn’t enough.  He was left feeling empty and still wanting more out of life.  He settled for hiding behind his own screen per se, when it came to God, rather than entering into relationship.  His way of thinking and this desire for perfection, often associated with being right and superior, became an obstacle towards God.  All we know is as the story is told that he leaves sad.  There is a deep sadness that hangs over this man and he walks away.  He’s sad because he couldn’t give up his possessions.  He was even more sad because he recognized that they also would never satisfy that longing within.  After an encounter with the living Word in Jesus, he doesn’t feel all warm and fuzzy, but rather a deep sadness of what his life had become and yet feels trapped within by his own choosing.  We never know if that Word finally penetrates his heart and moves him to a deeper place in his own humanity and to enter into relations with the most vulnerable, the poor.  It was easier to keep them at a distance.  Yet, the two-edged sword cuts him straight through where it needs to, straight through his heart.  Wisdom and truth aren’t found by accumulating knowledge, information, or wealth of any kind, rather, by letting go and for him, that seemed impossible.

It feels impossible for all of us.  We become possessed by our possessions, whatever they may be.  It may be easier to keep staring at a screen and keep accumulating information, but it will keep falling short and leaving us wanting more in life.  We desire that deeper wisdom and truth, that sense of connectivity and intimacy, but it’s not going to come in the ways we’re told of the world.  Rather, it comes through relationship with the living Word and through our relationships with others.  It comes through getting it wrong and failing more often than trying to present ourselves as perfect.  It comes with growing more deeply into our own humanity where we learn to see the other as ourselves rather than separate from.  Our hearts are easily hardened.  The heart of a nation and the heart of the world often stand frigid, resulting in the divisions and wars and continued poverty, sacrificing our humanity for worldly powers.  As with the rich man in today’s gospel, the choices are all placed in our hands as well.  Will we allow our possessions, whether wealth, information, phones, knowledge, or whatever, continue to possess us, captivating all our attention, leaving us hungering and thirsting for more out of life or will we allow ourselves to be possessed by the living Word, cutting through our hearts?  It comes with great price and cost but the promise of life eternal will always move us towards the truth, the wisdom, and the connectivity we truly desire and leave us fulfilled in this life and the life to come.

Convergence

acadia

“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods.  Wash your spirit clean.”  John Muir

“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”  Jacques Yves Cousteau

Mountains and Seas, unlike most other natural realities, have a way of pulling us out of ourselves and often moving us to the needed and necessary perspective on life.  For me, Maine has become the home of where the two converge into one, where climbing can lead to some of the deepest places and the depths of the sea move you to some of the highest reaching points of discovery, all at the same moment.  Even upon departure there’s a sadness that overcomes in that, with the return to the world of life and work, where depth and heights are all but a mystery, stagnant, and even discouraged, the longing and call to nature never leaves, that, as Cousteau points out, casts a spell and captivates forever.  Nature has the ability to seduce us in ways unlike much else, pointing to greater depths and heights that often can only be left to the imagination.

A great deal has been written about nature depravity that has become the norm in our culture.  The days of spending our summer’s as kids outdoors and using our imaginations has all but dissipated with time.  The use of electronics, structured play, and all the rest may have progressed us as a people, but the long-term impact of cutting ourselves off from what is most important and what provides us meaning in our lives will be hard to recover in the generations that follow.  Despite the relentlessness that nature can have on us, as we see through the extremes of weather plaguing the globe, its ability to show compassion and care for the wanderer and seeker isn’t to be overlooked.

Climbing a mountain or spending that week in the woods along the endless shoreline, resurrects that child within to expand the imagination and open the heart to new possibility.  Even in watching others hiking along side at times, it was fascinating to see that much of it was about accomplishing another task, just as we do in our work lives, in order to move onto the next mountain or the path that follows, rather than allowing ourselves to stop and be in the moment, allowing the natural world to speak to and with our souls.  More often than not it speaks a language that remains foreign to us, not dictated by ourselves but by the eternal and the unearthed creation in which we share and walk, hand in hand.

Over time the line and all that separates begins to fall away like scales from the eyes, noticing the intricacy of a freshly spun web, the movement of the fog that seems all too real in life at times, the fallen trees that have been given the proper reverence to return to the earth untouched in order to continue the cycle, all of this unfolding before our eyes and within our very beings waiting to be explored and discovered all anew as if seeing it for the first time yet over and over again.  The natural world, in all its beauty and wonder, provides us all with what we are often lacking in our lives, the natural silence in which can only be heard the groans of new birth breaking forth from the earth, mirroring to us the gift that is freely being offered to us in this very moment if we can only allow ourselves to stop, to breathe, to surrender, and to recall from where and whom we have come.  As much as things change, life and death and the perpetual mystery that surrounds remains intact, ever-true and ever-deepening, nature pointing the way to the naturalness of it all.

It was, though, the guide while whale watching, that reminded us all that we only but see the surface with any of it.  What lies beneath the sea remains unexplored and ever-expanding.  Her reminder to all, whether it was heard or not, is true of each of us.  We only see what our eyes allow us to see in any given moment while so much remains undiscovered.  We trust that what is unseen is there and contains much life but our own fears prevent us from embarking.  The mountains of Acadia, as breathless as the are to see, pale in comparison to what lies beneath in the depths of the earth and sea that continues to call us forth.  Noise, life, distractions, success, accomplishments, and all the rest act as faithful guards to the unexplored.  I don’t have the time.  I’m busy with work.  I can’t get away.  Excuse and excuse, at our own doing, keeps us safe from going to such places and not closing the gap between nature and ourselves, and even more so, closing the gap between me and myself and you and yourself.  Nature opens the door to another world, a world of possibility and healing, a world in which we desperately want to hide, or for that matter, avoid.

It doesn’t take long to begin to feel that loss when, after being immersed for days, we return to life and what often feels so unnatural.  The beckoning and longing only seem to deepen and yearn all the more as the days and years march on.  In these moments of my own life I’m not sure I could even stop myself from making that time to return in order to be found once again, breathing a sigh of relief that all is right with the world again and again, freely falling into the hands that wait.  Until then, the memories remain of the light dancing off the water, waves crashing against the sea, stumbles and falls, tears and joy, of all that the natural world continues to provide for me and so many others that feel that deprivation.  If anything, it stands as a safe place, a place that only wants you to be you and nothing else and where nothing else matters.  It allows us to stand naked, unashamed and unafraid, in all our own highs and lows, light and darkness, and even the glimpses of the shadows that provide shelter.  When the mountains and sea converge into one the consequence is a convergence in our own lives, standing in the tension of life and death, what stays and goes, while continuing to walk on and through, allowing mystery to be revealed step by step.

Radical Compassion

Ezekiel 2: 2-5; II Cor 12: 7-10; Mark 6: 1-6

If you didn’t know, the Dali Lama celebrated his 83rd birthday this past week.  83 and still going strong, traveling around the globe.  He may be one the of the last larger than life wisdom figures out there these days and still one of the great prophetic voices going.  One of his consistent themes is compassion.  He says “compassion is the radicalism of our time”.  One, it seems illogical to the mind to have compassion and radical in the same sentence, which is the point.  Two, the fact that we as a human race have to be reminded of being compassionate says a lot about us, that we could forget something so simple.

Now, when he speaks of compassion he isn’t speaking as we often associate it.  We have a tendency to make it into a pity party of sorts for people who have less than us, have it worse off than us, and really a sense of inferiority.  That’s obviously not his point.  He takes it from a more literal sense of being moved with passion to do something in the face of injustice, suffering, hurt and pain.  He recognizes that there is no wall that separates us from the other, especially when it comes to injustice and suffering.  It’s what makes his message so prophetic even to this day, a gentle message of compassion and love, radical for our time.

When we think of the prophetic voices, though, we often think of fire and brimstone, going out and beating the message over Israel, as we often hear in the first reading throughout the year.  It’s as if they have to be the loudest voice heard and yet often gets drowned out by all the noise.  It’s what the political and religious leaders often did.  Fire and brimstone was a way of controlling the masses and invoking fear into the people they want to control.  It’s not until Ezekiel, in this case, comes to a greater understanding of his own humanity through the Word that he begins to find that prophetic voice within and more often than not, the quietest of the voices speaking from the depths of his soul.  It’s why it is so easily drowned out by all the noise and the false prophets of their time and ours. 

It certainly doesn’t mean that somehow Israel changed all its ways and everything was great.  Israel rarely changes despite being freed from slavery.  They begin to feel entitled in that way and become hard of heart and a rebellious people as he tells us today.  Like us, change is slow and happens one by one more than an entire nation.  You’d think that Israel, of all, would know and understand the power of the Word.  Ezekiel tells us today that it the very act of consuming the Word and being consumed by it when he can begin to be transformed by it and all that separates fall apart.  It’s the religious and political leaders that want the division, not the God who sets them free.  Yet, the noise gets to them.  The fear gets to them.  They gradually begin to give in and become hard of heart, obstinate, and unable to hear the prophetic voice.  It gets drowned out.  It’s not just them that are called to be the prophetic voice.  It’s all of us.  Everyone of us that comes to this font is baptized priest, prophet, and king.  We only grow in that when we, like Ezekiel, consume and become consumed by the Word, moving us to this radical compassion towards a hurting humanity.

Paul runs into the same obstacle.  He’s struggling with Corinth today as he often does because they too are becoming consumed by false prophets.  His voice and message seems to be falling on deaf ears.  They become convinced that they don’t need that message and over time they begin to exclude, separate, become us versus them, leave people out of the celebration of their Eucharist, and all the rest.  Paul struggles greatly with them because he’s aware of all that they can be and yet they give in so easily to the noise of their time.  Paul, like all the prophets, aware of their own humanity and consumed by the Word, find the quiet in their lives in order to allow that prophetic voice to grow within them.  It never seems to overtake all the noise, but one by one people are moved to that compassion where walls no longer separate and we can see the other as ourselves, the other as Christ.

As we hear in the gospel today it was no different for the Word made Flesh.  Jesus struggles upon returning home today where they too had become hardened and jaded.  All they could see and hear are their own expectations of who he is, which of course is less than he really is.  They get caught up in the chatter and the noise of their own making and the word gets lost.  They consume the noise rather than the Word.  The crazy thing is that Jesus wasn’t even doing anything magical or even spectacular.  He, as we often hear, is moved to compassion for the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the one who has been pushed aside and considered outside the community.  They quickly take offense.  It pushes up against the noise and all that they had come to believe through the fire and brimstone, the voices yelling at them in their own time.

The readings challenge us this week to quiet ourselves from all the noise.  We have the noise coming from the media, the politicians, twitter, and all the rest claiming to be the one.  Yet, over and over they prove to be the false prophets, using that message for their own gain.  When we learn to quiet ourselves and turn off the noise of our time, the voice of God begins to break through, as we consume the Word the Word consumes us.  As with the great prophets, and the Dali Lama, we’re moved with compassion, literally moved with passion to do something, to act, to do what is right in the face of injustice, suffering, and hurt.  Otherwise, we continue to buy into what is being sold, leading us further astray, more divided, and hard of heart.  We pray for that quiet in our own lives and the reawakening of the prophetic voice within us, moving us to radical compassion.

A Path To Peace

Christmas Narratives continued…

There’s a belief that the problems we face and encounter in our lives are often of the psychological nature, which tells us there are a great deal of issues that encompass a broken humanity.  At the same time, though, it’s believed that the solutions to the problems are spiritual, a matter of the heart, which explains why problems seem to never end and this pursuit of peace seems rather insurmountable.  We’re not very good at matters of the heart.  It’s a challenge with problems and difficulties we face individually and so as a city, a country, and the world, handling heart and soul begins to make us feel helpless in the face of such suffering.  You may have heard Pope Francis mention yesterday on the eve of the New Year that humanity wasted 2017 on war and lies.  When we avoid the matters of the heart the pursuit of peace never seems possible.  It becomes much easier to inflict our pain and hurt onto others.  It’s easier to stay in war and locked in a violent cycle here in Baltimore than it is to do the difficult work of heart and soul that the gospel demands.  And so as we begin the new year we pray for peace but first in our own hearts and souls.

It is a theme that threads through Luke’s gospel even as we hear in the continuation of the Christmas narrative we hear on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.  She reflects and ponders and holds all these things in her heart.  Luke returns to it throughout the gospel but he’s not meaning the beating heart that keeps us physically alive.  He speaking of the oneness and union of mind, soul, and spirit.  He’s talking about how Mary steps back from all that is happening and allows the space of this mystery to unfold.  There’s no need to react or explain.  There’s no reason to attack their enemies.  Mary and Joseph, for that matter, have found that gift of peace and are at peace with the overwhelming gift which will now see them through the darkness of Herod as we hear on Epiphany on Sunday.  The gift that is given to them is then freely given to anyone who dares open themselves to it being offered.  When we find that peace and become that peace within our own hearts, as Luke describes, not even the harshest reality of war will stop us from facing the broken humanity and to truly work towards peace.

When we fail to seek healing and solutions as a heart matter and rather resort to a shallow political system here in the city as well as the country, we’ll continue to get the same results, trying to solve issues from the same level in which they were created.  Both extremes of the political narrative use fear to control and manipulate, just as Herod and Caesar Augustus did, who Matthew and Luke reference.  They try to bring about a peace that is rooted in fear, as we heard on Christmas.  They thrive on keeping people in the dark, separating and dividing.  At some point we have to face the fact that it no longer works for the people, especially the Joseph and Mary’s of the world, the poorest of the poor.  It no longer brings peace nor the pursuit of the common good.  Like Herod and Caesar Augustus it’s about building their own kingdoms and making politics into a god.  It’s how we have the problems that exist and that’s not the way to solve it.  It’s a matter of the heart.  It’s a matter of the soul that is necessary in these days.  We can’t stand for another year as we did in 2017 here in Baltimore.

It’s easy to pray for peace and we’ll continue to pray for peace on this World Day of Prayer for Peace but we also turn to Mary as our model on this feast of the Mother of God.  She is the one that teaches us to ponder, to reflect, to hold all these things in our hearts.  When we lose that space, as we have as a society and culture, we react and react and react to every blessed thing that is thrown our way and we become part of the problem not part of breathing peace and healing into hearts that hurt.  We become what we hate about the other.  Demonize the other.  Cut off the other.  Fearing what we don’t know and clinging to what we think we do.  We no longer have that space in our own hearts, as individuals, community, city, nation, world, for the sense of mystery that Mary ponders.  We hold on, and hold tightly, to what we know, what we see.

Our problems may be psychological but the solutions are a matter of the heart, are spiritual.  The path to peace is a difficult one.  It lies beneath the surface and is often what we can’t see or know.  It’s what we so often fear.  Yet, if we want that peace we have to work at it, not politically but in prayer, in silence, pondering the healing that is needed and take a contemplative stance towards a hurting world.  The Herod’s of our time can just as much be us if we don’t do our own work and on this feast we turn toward the Mother’s guidance in Mary, to ponder, reflect, and hold this mystery close to who we are that we may seek that oneness and union, not only within our own lives, but in the city and nation.  The pain runs deep in this city and nation and if we’re not willing to do it differently we’ll only perpetuate and mirror 2017 by wasting another year and another chance for the breaking in of the Christ which calls us to a new way, to a changed heart, to an opportunity for hope and peace that is rooted in the Christ, looking up and gazing into his mother’s eyes, pondering what sort of greeting this might be.  If we want peace then it must first begin with me.

Meaningful Wandering

Isaiah 63: 16-17, 19; 64: 2-7; Mark 13: 33-37

Although no expert other than what I’ve studied in Christian classics, I do know that one of the main themes in the writing of Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that of wandering. Tolkien saw wandering as a journey in and of itself and necessary, even if we don’t particularly care for it or if it feels lost. He is the one that coined the phrase, “Not all those who wander are lost.” If you’ve read or watched any of the stories you know the characters are often on the move from one place to another, often facing obstacles, at times wanting to give up and questioning the purpose of it all. Yet, they remain persistent in the pursuit of what he’d consider the idyllic or archetypal king, just as we do during this season as we seek that idyllic king in the birth of the Christ at Christmas. Wandering, even as the Magi will do, is necessary in order to create the space necessary for something new to begin to take shape.
The same is true for people Israel. As a matter of fact, they have made an art out of it as part of their history and the same is true when we hear from Isaiah today and will through these weeks of Advent. They find themselves on the backend of the Babylonian Exile, a life of bondage and enslavement, and as they return home they return thinking they can pick up where they left off, that home would be the home they had always known, despite history telling them otherwise. More often than not they believe it is God that wanders from them, abandoning them in their hour of need, but Isaiah in his lament towards God, speaks of how they find themselves in this position that they have been all but familiar with of wandering from what they have known and still creating space for what is new.
However, they hold onto the expectations of returning to normalcy and they return with the expectation that the way they’ve experienced God before would once again be the same. They wanted to return to what was, but after years of exile and now wandering themselves they begin to see that that’s not true and they can’t return home in the way they left. Home was no longer home for Israel. They feel lost and alone. Isaiah, though, at the very end of his lament reminds them of who this God is, the one who has seen them through the Red Sea and the one that has once again brought them out of exile to return a changed people. He uses the image of a God who is like a potter and the people his clay. And like the potter and his clay, it’s always being reformed into something new, softening the edges, molding it into a new masterpiece. It is a finished product that is never finished but refined as they turn their faith and trust to the one that has remained steadfast and faithful, this God of mystery that leads them from what had been known into the great unknown. Like Tolkien, Israel searches for that idyllic king and not always recognizing that it is them that are being called to change and to become.
The same is true of Mark’s community as we now switch gears from Matthew’s Gospel. Mark is very bare bones compared to Matthew and very much focuses on his community in Rome and learning how to hope even in the midst of suffering, just as it often was with Israel. Mark’s community was in constant tension with Nero who was a tyrant and bully towards them. They were often to blame as a minority for all wrong-doing and so they consistently felt the wrath of him and his people. It was a city that lived in fear of what he was capable of at that time and Mark’s community was an easy target. Today we hear near the end of the Gospel as Jesus’ death is soon imminent. Much of this chapter is filled with this ominous language that seems more like doomsday. But that was the reality in which they lived. It wasn’t so much God that they feared coming in the dark of night or early morning, it was the political leaders of the time under Nero and so they had to be at watch and aware while resisting the fear that was imposed upon them. Needless to say, this often led the community to feel like they had no home, wandering aimlessly and suffering at the hands of others. The language we hear was a message of hope for Mark’s community, as Isaiah was today, for faithful followers of the way who had no home and needed to continue to trust this faithful God who has seen them through and is constantly molding them into something new. They find themselves wandering from what had been to a new life being formed even through their suffering.
As we begin this rather brief Advent season, we come mindful of our own wandering. In many ways, in the world we live, we seem to always find ourselves in transition from what has been known and yet wait with anticipation for what the newness is that God is inviting us into and to trust entering into the unknown. We too seek that idyllic king who is always molding and forming us, more often than not when we find ourselves wandering and waiting; not necessarily lost but often feeling that way. We pray for the grace to wander as a people, in our very hearts and souls that are being called to be cleansed of our old way of thinking in order for that space to be created for the embodiment of love at Christmas. It’s hard. It’s painful. And at times we want to go back to what was, clinging to our old gods. In moments of grace, though, we are invited to let go and surrender as we wander while opening ourselves to the gift of new life and the embodiment of God’s word in our lives, changing us forever and yet still being molded and formed into something new and unknown.

Illusionary Violence

Shortly after the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I received an email asking if we, as a parish, are prepared if something like this were ever to happen.  Now first, I’m not sure anything can prepare you for something like this, other than possibly a sniper attack in a war zone or consistent trauma in your life; but secondly, I’m not convinced I want to be prepared for something like that.  I can certainly understand, from a logical and rational point of view, but it also feels, as someone who is supposed to trust deeply in this higher being we call God, that it’s giving into fear, which is antithetical to the consistent message of Jesus in the gospel proclaimed every Sunday not to fear.

Safety and Security may be the two greatest illusions we hold onto and quickly buy into when we react to horrific acts like this.  Our immediate response is more guns or at times, build walls, anything that’s going to give us the false sense of security that we desire to make us feel safe.  We pad ourselves in whatever way possible, building a fortress in order to appeal to what our eyes can see, “I’m safe now”, but deep down, in the unseen, the heart of the matter continues to exist.  It never quite strikes at the deepest fear we cling to, which is death, but in those moments our automatic response is to consume more of what we know rather than sit with the unknown reality that all who are hurting are left with in their lives.  The consistent underlying message when giving into fear is that I will do everything possible to avoid what really could have been me.  It very well could have been me or anyone else sitting in that church on Sunday or a movie theater or a classroom or at a concert or whatever the next setting will be, knowing full well that there, unfortunately, will be another, and each time it is me.

More often than I’d like, including less than a month ago, I have written on this blog the continuous struggle with violence that we witness and perpetrate in our lives.  Violence goes beyond the horrific acts of gun violence as well as other means that we have all too often witnessed in this country, a consistent reminder that there’s a problem.  More often than not, though, we’ve bought into the culture of violence, through our words and actions.  These men, and yes, it is consistently men as well, are a mere microcosm of the deeper issue that continues to spread throughout the country.  We consume it daily through news outlets and social media and many times spread it ourselves.  We consume it in our conversations, in our gossip, in our lack of respect for human life and all creation.  The simple reaction to our problems is to blame and invoke violence against the other, feeding into the death of the soul of a nation, bankrupted of any moral standing, putting guns, walls, drugs, things, before the very dignity of the very person that is most impacted.

Now I’m not one to necessarily always buy into the understanding that we are all divided.  Unfortunately, division sells and sells big.  Fear is such a deeply rooted reality in our hearts and souls that we appear attracted to it and drawn into it consistently, quickly buying into any fix as to take away the eternal pain of separation while building up a false narrative of the kingdom.  Our problem, as consumers, is that over time we’re lulled into believing it all, even if we know deep down that things aren’t right.  In our own infatuation of the illusion of safety and security we will find a way to cling to anything that is known and certain, often to avoid the fear that only continues to grow exponentially, leaving us in a frenzy.  It happens in us as individuals but collectively as a country as well, mindful that that illusion was shattered in this country after the events of 9/11.  Since then, violence has spiraled, divisions have been set in place, even if they are illusions, extremes have positioned themselves, all feeding into this fear while the rest of the world watches and waits, looking from a place a part from us, understanding our hurt and pain in a way we know not and seem to refuse to look at and consistently find ways to avoid.  We have grown a part from ourselves and each other, now leaving us with more violence than our hearts are often able to bear.

I honestly cannot imagine what it was like in that church on Sunday and maybe I don’t want to either.  My guess is it started like any other Sunday, people catching up with one another, asking about family and friends who may be sick, the small chit-chat that happens on a typical Sunday morning.  There were no thoughts of feeling unsafe, no thoughts of what separates and divides people.  They were a community that gathered under a common purpose and with God at the forefront.  In an instant, lives were changed forever and many eternally.  It wasn’t long after that the predicted responses would begin and hurting lives would once again be turned into politics and more violence, separating and dividing.  We hear about guns don’t kill people, good people need guns, if the government makes any changes they’ll take away all our guns, as we know best, it’s all or nothing, benefiting corporations, feeding a consumer culture rooted in fear, safety and security.  We react and lives are left shattered in the process.

I have no answer even though it seems like I write about this so regularly anymore.  I’m not sure there really are answers when we don’t even know the right questions to ask.  Conversations are directed from backstage, inciting fear, and without even thinking, we give into it so quickly, again, believing what we are told and so often afraid to go to the depths of our own being to evaluate what’s most important to us.  We will never have the safety and security that we think or believe we should have.  It’s a mere illusion and an illusion that is fed by a consumer culture.  More than anything, we need to learn to have a patient trust in the slow workings of God in our lives. 

There is so much healing that needs to happen in our lives, not just the hundreds whose lives have been shattered by traumatic violence that goes beyond the city, but each of us who find blaming the other individual or group for our problems, throwing tantrums in trying to get our way.  Not only do we need healing but we need to grow up and accept responsibility for ourselves and each other.  We do this not by continuously buying into these illusions that feed our own fears, but in learning to embrace the paradox and mystery of life and death.  Our lives are not comprised of only half the mystery, the half we like while living in fear of the other.  Rather, with each passing breath in every given moment a gift is being given to live, but at the same time to let go and trust in the unseen power of God.  For all who have faced such trauma and are reeling in the grief of loss while they still cling to life, it’s all they have, and quite frankly, it’s all any of us really have.