A Wilderness Solitude

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Wilderness appealed to those bored or disgusted with man and his works. It not only offered an escape from society but also was an ideal stage for the Romantic individual to exercise the cult that he frequently made of his own soul. The solitude and total freedom of the wilderness created a perfect setting for either melancholy or exultation. ~ Roderick Nash

Today is our final day on the land portion of the trip to Alaska and begin the transition to the ship early tomorrow morning. For the final day I opted to set out on a guided nature tour down the Cooper River with our guide, Blake. It provided a little more time to simply sit and be in the presence of the majestic nature that surrounded us, from snow-capped mountains to the depths of the forested national park that surrounded us on the ride.

I’ve been so struck by the number of young people and listening to their stories of what brought them here to Alaska in the first place. So many started with doing similar type trips at some point in their lives and then find their way back for one reason or another. The same was true with this guide who spends the rest of the year in Minnesota with his wife but still manages to come here for ten years to work the river in one capacity or another, from salmon fishing to white water rafting with visitors from around the world who come here to Alaska seeking something. What may start as a vacation for some turns into something much more when they encounter the vast lands that continue to speak volumes and for generations to come.

Blake mentioned how is father has given him a hard time over the years, wanting him to use his college education to be a part of the work force, in the corporate world. I’m guessing that’s what many parents would expect of their sons and daughters. He did it for a time and yet never felt satisfied, as if there were something more for him that exceeded the expectations of his father and his education. It was amazing just how much he knew that river, every twist and turn that led us further down and deeper into the forest. He knew it. He feels it. He lives that river like nothing else and keeps returning despite the demands and expectations to “grow up”, whatever that might mean.

There’s something inviting about the river. Those that know me know that the river has not always been my friend over the years. After nearly losing my life while white water rafting nearly thirteen years ago now, I feared returning to it, despite it often calling my name to return. I may never white water raft again, but I haven’t allowed myself to be paralyzed by fear to return in one way or another. Today was yet another one of those days and listening to Blake speak about it reminded me today just how strong the current can be within us to seek adventure and take risk in our lives, even if it means breaking down the stereotype of what we have called success to live a fuller life, one that continues to feed us in a way that many others will just never understand.

I have found that it is practically necessary to return to nature, even when it has arisen fears within us that we feel will paralyze us for life. I think about Phil the other day who had been attacked by the grizzly in Denali. He may have to face the aftershocks of such an encounter over the course of his life, but it’s not going to stop him from living from that deeper place, that place that runs deeper than fear, the river that runs deep within our soul, yearning to be emptied into the vastness of the sea that continues to feed.

As much as it has been a place that I have had to face my own mortality, the encounter and experience of water remains the place that grounds my very being. Maybe it’s because I have witnessed its power and has taught me to reverence and respect it. Watching it flow so quickly around me today reminded me of the strength that it has to bring about life and death, so often when we least expect it. Yet, there we were, snow-capped mountains, freezing water temperatures, trees in full bloom, and trying to take it all in at the same time. The vastness of the lands around us pale in comparison to the vastness of what landscape of the soul that lies within. Sure there are parts of us that will terrify and feel as if we’re out of control, but a trip down the Cooper today reminded me that it’s not just me but all of the natural world that continues to be invited into deeper mystery and when we can finally begin to let go and accept it, all we can feel is the wind blowing through our hair taking us to places we never could have imagined!

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The Call Home

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22

In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks writes that his purpose for the book is that he needed to find his soul. As a political pundit, he believed he had gone so far from who he really is that the writing of the book was going to become the roadmap back to his truest identity. He began to realize that he was living a lie and contributing to the larger problems in politics, some of the time didn’t even believe what he was saying but just saying it because it was his job. He believes, and is often evident in our country, that there is no longer a moral code by which we live, that politics has taken the place and we see where that gets us. It’s divisive and a shallow identity, leading us down the same path that Brooks found in his own life, a loss of identity, a loss of soul.

This feast we celebrate today, the Baptism of the Lord, reveals through Jesus our own truest identity. If we can just believe with our heads and our hearts who we really are, beloved sons and daughters, not only of ourselves, but of everyone, the world can be a much different place. Yet, as much as we are baptized into it as Christians, somehow we forget. We begin to think and believe that we are something other than beloved. We begin to think we’re the color of our skin, our sexuality, the amount of money we have or don’t have, our ideology and politics, and we begin to live our lives that way. It’s a search for identity that takes place in this city and I believe it’s the struggle going on in this country. As time passes, like people Israel, we find ourselves so far away from our center that we have forgotten who we really are and we must go and search.

The struggle for identity is the lifelong struggle and part of salvation history. Israel, whom Isaiah writes of in today’s first reading, struggled themselves as a people. It’s easy, even in our time, to begin to think we are something else. How easy it is to think I’m something else. How could Israel not when their experience has been exodus and exile, their experience is war and violence. When that becomes our reality, we begin to think it’s who we are. We wander. We stray. We find ourselves on the periphery and the fringe, exiled from our truest self. But make note, as we hear in this reading and we heard during Advent, the voice continues to cry out. Even in the midst of the dryness, the desert, the voice continues to call us back to our home, back to the place of humility, this crib that we have come to throughout this season. The voice that cries out in the desert is the voice that proclaims the identity of Jesus, the beloved in which I am well pleased.

It was an identity struggle in today’s gospel today as well. In all the early communities, there was much debate as to who John the Baptist was. Now Luke resolves it by writing him out of the scene all together. Before we hear of Jesus’ baptism John is already taken into custody by Herod, and instead, Jesus is lumped in with the other people who have been baptized. It’s not that Jesus was somehow better than others, but rather, at the deepest core of all of us we remain the same, our truest identity in Christ, beloved sons and daughters. What the magi sought for last week and is revealed in Bethlehem is revealed to the people, to the nations, as the Christ. It’s who we really are as people, and if we believe it with our hearts, our lives our changed, the world is changed.

As we come to the end of this Christmas season, our search for the new born King will continue in ways we may never know. We’ll find ourselves like many of the characters we have met, wandering around the periphery wondering who we really are, realizing we have lost our way, trying to follow the voice of one crying out from the desert of our lives. Christmas doesn’t end here, but continues daily in our faith journey as we continue to seek out our truest identity, to give up living the lie and that which no longer works, to seek the voice that calls from the place of humility, this crib, which reminds us of who we really are, sons and daughters of God. When we believe it with all our being, life is changed forever, just as it did for the world on that first Christmas. We are the sons and daughters of God, beloved and with whom is well pleased.

A Holistic Healing

Leviticus 13: 1-2, 44-46; Mark 1: 40-45

As we listen to these stories of the healing of the man with leprosy, I think it’s good to keep in the back of our mind that, when we do hear them, it’s pretty certain that there is going to be more than just a physical healing that takes place. Of course I have worked with many sick people, to the point of terminal and nearing the end of their lives, and it so often seems that the physical pain becomes secondary to what it can do on the inside. It’s the isolation, the separation from family and friends, the disconnect from the community that begins to take a toll, sometimes causing greater pain than the physical part. Not to say that many don’t suffer greatly in a physical way; there are many that do. Some of it, I dare say, is that we don’t like to face it. It’s easier to separate and isolate than it is to look suffering in its face, despite the fact that we are constantly being invited into this mystery of life and death, truly one and the same mystery.

It’s what goes on with the guy in the gospel today and his encounter with Christ. More than anything, this guy wants to be connected to the larger story, the story of community. His leprosy has kept him separate and in isolation and we see his immediate response is to want to go and tell everyone. First, of course, he’s told to follow the precept of the law and show himself to the priest. We hear that account in the first reading today from Leviticus in the message delivered from the Lord to Moses and Aaron. “He shall dwell apart” is the command that is given to those with leprosy. Do we have any idea what it does to the human person when they are disconnected from the larger story of the community? Think about it, even to this day we still try to separate and have a hard time going to visit those who are sick and dying because our own mortality is put on the line and in such great vulnerability, we are tested deep within, connecting us with suffering and death itself, and ultimately, to the larger story of who we are, the mystery of life and death, where suffering is so intricately connected. We live in a culture that avoids death and suffering at all cost. We can’t bring ourselves at times to face it.

But as we know, Jesus has a way of turning things on its head in the gospel accounts that we hear on Sunday. Yes, it is the man who suffers from leprosy that has lived isolated and disconnected, separated from community, but not by his own choice. He doesn’t choose to isolate and separate. He doesn’t choose to disconnect. It’s those who consider themselves the insiders that make the choice for him and it is them, too, that have become disconnected from the larger story, the great mystery of our human lives, the interconnectedness of life and death and suffering. They want nothing to do with the suffering. They want nothing to do where their own vulnerability is going to be put on the line. They want nothing to do with those that have been deemed unclean, less than human, separated from their deepest desire, to be one. Yet, the only way we become that one is to embrace the mystery in its entirety. They go out, as the gospel tells us today, to encounter the Lord. It’s everyone that is need of conversion and an encounter with the Lord, not simply the man suffering with leprosy.

It may just be appropriate that we hear these readings now that we stand just a few days away from the start of Lent. We focus so much on what we’re going to give up that we sometimes forget that it is a season of change and conversion, growing in holiness. So often it’s the very leprous parts about ourselves that we cut off that are in need of healing and conversion. We learn as kids how to protect ourselves and keep ourselves safe in times of darkness, but as adults, it’s stands in the way of living life in its fullness, a life of being one. As we approach the season of Lent, we can begin to ask ourselves where are those places within us that we have cut off, turn away from, can’t handle, that we don’t like, the places that have become so often our sin, that place of death within. For all we do to separate, even other people and within ourselves, God now tries to pull together and reconcile, to make whole and one. That’s where real healing and growth takes place, when we no longer have to live separate from and disconnected from the larger story of life, our lives, the great mystery. God now invites us into those places that have become separated and leprous in our lives to bring us back into wholeness and holiness as we seek the healing touch of the Lord.

Journeying Downward and Outward

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Genesis 12: 1-4; Matthew 17: 1-9

While I was doing my train trip two years ago, I had blogged a post entitled, “Faces in the Sand” ( http://www.herodescent.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/faces-in-the-sand ).    I had written it while I was at the monastery in the desert out in New Mexico, literally in the middle of nowhere, twelve miles off the main road down a long dirt road.  I had happened to look up while I was out there and saw what looked like faces in the sand, hence the name of the blog!  In that moment, I had thought about all the people that had gone before me in that location, the desert mothers and fathers that are a part of our faith.  At that time, I felt a sense of peace because it was as if they were all praying for me at that moment to trust and to grow in faith, even if it meant going places that I would rather not go.

I thought of that post when I read this first reading from Genesis and the story of Abraham and Sarah.  Just think about it, their families probably thought they were crazy for what they were about to do in their lives.  Keep in mind that they both well advanced in age, often felt unsettled because at times it seemed as if God had not come through for them, and all of a sudden they are being directed to go out, to leave everything behind in these advanced years of their lives and head out to a new land.  The crazy thing is, they did it.  They left where they were not knowing where they were going and God provided.  God provides them with a son, Isaac, and Sarah literally laughs in God’s face.  Yet, when we leave behind and go out to the distant lands, into the desert of our lives, God somehow reaches us on new levels, trust builds and faith deepens, God provides.  They could take such a leap of faith in their lives because they have done much of the hard work and the journey within.  Up to this point in the book of Genesis it hasn’t been very good news and in comes the call of our father in faith, Abraham, to once again put his trust in God and go out.

For the disciples, who too are so often the faces in the sand for us, it wasn’t about going out to distant lands but rather a journey down, a journey that takes, sometimes, even greater trust and faith.  Abraham and Sarah had life’s experience and wisdom behind them but not so for the disciples.  They are new to this pilgrim journey.  They haven’t yet made the journey down and yet, love the experience of being on top of the mountain.  Peter wants to build tents and stay right where he is, along with James and John.  Imagine, any of us in that position would want the same thing, to stay put where they had just seen the glory of Jesus revealed, all is good in the world at that moment, and not a care in the world.  Yet, Jesus leads them down.  As much as Abraham and Sarah go out on their journey, the disciples, as it is for us in this season of Lent, we journey down into the depths of our beings, so often to the places we’d rather not go.  We know how it proceeds for the disciples as we move towards Palm Sunday and Good Friday when they face head on the evil, darkness, and shadow they face within themselves and it isn’t until they are led to those places, into the muck of life, will they be able to go out like Abraham and Sarah.  It will only be in some of the most trying times of their lives where they will learn to trust and their faith deepen.  When they do, they too will go out, but now a new people knowing truly what their lives are about.

As we pilgrims continue this journey, we come mindful of the centuries of those who have gone before us, the many “faces in the sand” which continue to encourage and strengthen us on our own faith journey and desire to take it seriously.  This Lenten season, for us, is about the journey of the disciples and where Jesus leads them, to the cross.  It will only be in facing the Jerusalem of our own lives where we will grow and deepen in faith and learn to trust God with all our heart and soul.  This is a journey, in many ways, we do alone, but at the same time, together, joined with these centuries of mothers and fathers of faith who lead us down to where we’d rather not go in order to leave what we know and trust the call to go out to distant lands being that faith and trust to all the world.  We pray, this season, for the courage to go and to respond to the call of God to let go and to respond with such conviction as Abraham to the unknown of our lives and world with such deep faith and trust.

On the Fence

2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-23; Ephesians 2: 4-10; John 3: 14-21

I had the opportunity this weekend to check out the Goretti Players perform their spring musical, Celebration. One of the main characters in the show is a man by the name of Mr. Rich. He’s an older gentleman who begins to come to the realization that his life is pretty empty…he can no longer feel and no longer love, and yet, sees it in the young people around them and wants what they have. The problem is, he has created an artificial world for himself. He wears artificial hair, makes artificial body parts, likes artificial flowers, and so he lives in this artificial and fake world where love just can’t happen. But now he finds himself on the fence…he sees the emptiness of this artificial world and yet desires more. He wants something more than the fake; he wants to live and love.

It is the predicament that Nicodemus finds himself in throughout John’s Gospel, the only one that he appears in. He is unlike any of the other characters we meet in John’s Gospel, like the Man born Blind, the Samaritan woman, or Lazarus, all who go through this gradual process of coming to faith and fully committing themselves to Christ. Nicodemus struggles and finds himself on the fence. His noted quality that John points out, is that he always comes to Jesus in the night. Obviously light and darkness have significance in this Gospel. So today he comes to him at night for many reasons, certainly seeking that same love. Yet, he too knows the fake world that has been created for him. He is one of the only religious authorities that comes to Jesus in this way, but has to do it at night because of his status, this artificial world where he is comfortable, but unfulfilling. In the night because of the increased pressure that is on Jesus and his impending death. Because of this world he lives in, and despite the desire of his heart, he can’t be seen with Jesus.

He does gradually grow throughout the gospel. The next time he appears in chapter 12, he actually stands up to the religious authorities, yet quickly backs down because of the pressure then put on him in sympathizing with Jesus and then feeling that rejection. In the end, the final place he appears is at the death of Jesus, but even here it is Joseph of Arimathea that takes the lead in anointing Jesus’ body for burial. This fear and uncertainty puts him on that fence between the artificial world, that becomes our world of sin, and the world that Christ invites to of love and life.

In that musical Mr. Rich couldn’t look at himself for years in the mirror because he didn’t like what he had become, this artificial self and couldn’t stand the sight of it. Yet, the message from the young man was to look into the eye of God. Nicodemus has to keep looking into the eyes of Christ, even if it is at night, and the more he gazes, the more he can begin to leave behind the artificial world and move to the life that Christ promises. Paul tells us today , though, that we can’t do it ourselves. We often need God to push us off that fence to the other side before we can stand naked and surrender ourselves to the life and love of Christ.

Even the writer of Chronicles in today’s first reading understood this. He gives this litany of all that they had participated in, this artificial world of sin and fakeness. He reminds them of what happens when they enter into this world…remember exodus, remember exile, remember the desert, remember feeling abandoned and empty. If you return to that artificial world you have created for yourself, you will once again face that same destiny. Yet, John tells us that the darkness of that world is what we like and want because it’s what we know and are comfortable with, but a world that is dead and without opportunity for life.

As we enter into these last weeks of the Lenten season, the invitation remains the same for us on this journey. We are invited to surrender to the other side of the fence, to the life and love that Christ promises and leave the fake and artificial world behind, knowing its emptiness and its lack of fulfillment. If we want to love and live the way Christ calls us to, then we have to leave it behind, continue the gaze into his eyes, and allow God to push us over and off the fence. We are assured, as people of faith, that the life and love we desire surely awaits.

Turning things Upside down

Exodus 20: 1-17; I Corinthians 1: 22-25; John 2: 13-25

Before about 2 months ago, the name Jeff Bethke meant absolutely nothing and may still mean nothing to most of you. But if you spend anytime not he internet or youtube, you’d probably be familiar with his video that he posted entitled, “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus”. To date, there have been almost 20 million people that have viewed it. Of course, the natural inclination by “Church people” when the video posted was to, like Jesus, crucify him…prove him wrong, tell him how he’s wrong, and so on. However, if you spend anytime getting to know why he did this and who he is, you will see that he actually is a practicing Christian, attends church like us, and after reading about him on a spread in Time Magazine a few weeks, simply wants to engage people in conversation because he believes religion is no longer authentic, that it has become too political, divisive, and all this other negative stuff, that it has driven people away from the faith. He agrees that his theology may not be the best, but does believe that religion needs to be turned upside down, and is necessary at times because it loses sight of its mission and purpose of leading people to a deeper and more intimate relationship with Christ, with God.

Even Jesus challenged religion as we hear in today’s Gospel. He’s angry at what has become of the Temple, and in many ways, wants to turn it too upside down. You have to understand the make-up of the Temple area at that time…there was the street, then this inner courtyard, and then the Temple area. The place we find Jesus today is that inner courtyard area, which was also the place that the Gentiles came to pray since they weren’t allowed into the Temple, and so the market has moved from the street in tot this area of prayer. It angers him, but also because the religious leaders were allowing this and at time profiting from it…again, losing sight of their mission and purpose of leading people to the Father; Jesus himself identifies it as the Father’s house.

In the first reading we hear something we are all familiar with, the Ten Commandments. Again, keep in mind the bigger picture of this story because the Israelites also lost sight of what was most important…Moses was taking too long up the mountain, they became impatient, they were getting anxious, and so build this golden calf. When Moses does return, he too, like Jesus, becomes angered by what they have done! Of the 17 versus that we hear today, about ten of them are about what is most important, that being the relationship with this God. How easy it is to lose focus on what is most important. Seven of the ten commandments are about relationships, and yet, most of our time is spent getting lost in the other three!

Paul too has that experience with the Corinthians, who he rightfully turns upside down. He mentions today that Jews demand signs and Greeks, wisdom, but he says you already have what you need…we have Christ crucified! Stop looking out there and losing your focus on what is most important, that relationship with Christ. That is why we come here and what is most important about religion, and why at times it needs to be turned upside down…we lose sight of the all-important relationship that we are invited into with God.

During this season of Lent we are being invited to be turned upside down by Christ, because we too lose sight of our mission and purpose and what is most important. We focus too much on politics, jobs, finances, sports, and everything else that has a tendency to pull us away and lose sight of what is most important, that relationship with God. What, in my life, needs to be turned upside down so I can begin to grow in that relationship with God? That’s why we are here…to grow in that intimate relationship with the crucified Christ in this Eucharist and once again regain our focus on our mission during this season of Lent.