Pay Attention

Romans 8: 9, 11-13; Matthew 11: 25-30

From the time we are kids, we are taught to “pay attention” to certain things.  Of course, as kids it’s necessary because it often keeps us safe and secure even from perceived dangers.  However, as we age, it often grows into judgment, stereotype, even guilt and shame, that seems to dominate our lives where we begin to think what we have paid attention to is truth.  But over that time, despite some of its necessity early on, it begins to overshadow who we really are, hide our truest self from ourselves, often distorting our image of God, but also separating and dividing us not only from others but from ourselves as well.  It makes it nearly impossible to deal with problems because we try to fix what was caused by it in the first place.

It’s that place of hiddenness and what has been overshadowed where Jesus tries to lead the disciples in today’s gospel when he speaks of what has been hidden from the wise and learned but rather revealed to the little ones.  As is often the case, he’s speaking after an experience with the Pharisees where they once again found themselves in conflict with one another.  One way in which what we “pay attention” to rears its head is when things aren’t good enough or it’s never enough because the Pharisees continue to look through life through a rather narrow lens, which is what happens to all of us over time.  When it came to John the Baptist, they had problems.  When it comes to Jesus, it’s still not good enough for them.  More often than not they weren’t paying attention to the right things and got so caught up in the law that they become blinded.  It creates this tension and conflict and eventually to the violent act of the crucifixion.  He doesn’t necessarily react to their way but rather tries to expand the lens and understanding, which they often weren’t able to see but saw him as a threat to their way of life and thinking for that matter.

Whether you know it or not, it’s also what Paul speaks of in the second reading today to the Romans.  It’s probably one of the most misinterpreted passages in all his letters because we try to keep it only skin deep.  We probably have all heard it interpreted as “sins of the flesh”.  Like kids, that may work for a period in our lives, but that’s not the deeper meaning to what Paul is speaking of nor is it what he’s challenging them to pay attention to in their lives.  If we take out the word “flesh” from the passage and insert words like ego, what we pay attention to, or even that Pharisee within us, that’s more the point that Paul is trying to make.  Getting trapped in that place in our lives often leads to conflict and even hostility towards God and others.  It’s not a deeper life in the spirit as he speaks of, but one of conflict.  It ultimately is what Paul tries in his writings to lead people to learn to let go of; not their body, but their control tower, their ego, what they have been conditioned to pay attention to and yet now stands as an obstacle, which in other letters he also calls it.  This point where we don’t feel satisfied or things are never good enough, for Paul, is recognition that we aren’t living from the right place, from the divine, from the Christ within our very souls.  If we want to seek solutions to a world of problems, we must first be willing to make that journey ourselves and face our own violence and blindness.

It is the invitation that Jesus gives to the disciples and to us today as the gospel continues.  He says to come to him all who labor and are burdened.  Come to me all of you that are struggling in one way or another.  This invitation isn’t just about handing our problems over to God and somehow they disappear.  No, the invitation that Jesus gives is to move beyond the struggle, often defined by what we pay attention to, and move to the place of the Christ and learn to live from that place.  It is the place where the judgement and stereotype, division and separation, begins to disappear.  It is a journey inward and a journey downward, and quite frankly, a journey that takes great humility to finally begin to admit that maybe what I have paid attention to is not the fuller picture.  It’s learning to live our lives inward out rather than the outward appearance of things defining us, who we are, and what we do.  It is a path that is quite difficult but the only path to a fuller life and where we finally become agents of change in the world.

All too often we try to deal with problems in this city, community, country, and world, by doing the same thing.  It leads to people butting heads and as we have seen in this city, a great deal of violence.  We are trying to solve problems with what separates and divides rather than moving to this deeper place within ourselves that unites us with God, others, and even ourselves.  This city and our lives do not need more separation and division and certainly do not need more violence.  But it will continue if we try to fix things by an old mindset.  The healing begins with me and you.  The healing begins when I can finally begin to ask myself, “What am I paying attention to?” and is it leading to healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and a more loving posture towards God and people or does it simply dig in my heels and lead to further violence.  If our faith and our religion are going to have any impact on our lives, it’s going to require change on our part, change in what we pay attention to, and be led to the deeper places of our lives, people of spirit and soul.  That is how we begin to make a difference here and everywhere, including our own families, in becoming the agents of change, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, while learning to let go of what only continues to separate and divide.  There’s no more time for any of that.  It’s time for a new way, a deeper way of living where we bridge differences and live lives filled with love, healing, and forgiveness.  First and foremost, what is it you find yourself paying attention to in life?

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Fasting for Life

Isaiah 58: 7-10; ICor 2: 1-5; Matthew 5: 13-16

I feel blessed because I’ve had the opportunity to travel to several Third World countries over the years, often with high school students. I still remember the first time I had left the country and had done one of these trips to Honduras. Needless to say, it’s a culture shock when you step off the plane in another country like this and see men standing around in many locations with machine guns. You quickly realize that you’re no longer in the States and are going to be pushed to look at life and people very differently than what we’re used to here. You know, I’m from small town Pennsylvania and I never had an experience of someone of a different color in my life until I had gone to college. My only experience was judgment, stereotype, and fear. That was it; but quickly learned that none of it was true when I began to enter into relationships with others. It didn’t seem to matter color, lifestyle, religion or anything else that is used to separate and put ourselves in a place of superiority.

The one striking thing we’d often push each other on in these different cultures and surroundings was to catch ourselves when we were being over-American. As Americans, we love to fix and we want to help to the point where we want to, in many ways, create “mini-me’s” around the globe. We think we’re the greatest and somehow know how to do this life thing better than anyone else. However, when we want to fix and we want to help, it also puts us in a place of superiority because we know better than “those” people. It automatically puts up a barrier between and prevents relationship. If there’s anything I learned, none of these experiences were about changing anyone else. More often than not, they were about changing me as a person and to let go of my fears and judgements, sometimes even about myself.

At the heart of the first reading today from the prophet Isaiah is about that, about fasting, but not int the way we use that word. Like most things, we water it down to make these things more palatable, like giving up food or something. That’s not the message of Isaiah though. Isaiah’s challenge is a much more radical fasting. He challenges Israel to fast from malicious thought, oppression, false accusation, and as I said, would include, fear and judgment. Israel also has lived with this complex of greatness, but that’s a hard standard to live up to forever. Eventually it begins to crack and Isaiah is inviting them into that place. Like us at times, they want to enter into these relationships thinking their somehow superior and above and thought everyone should be like them. Isaiah says and challenges today, to give it up. To give up that kind of thinking that stands in the way of relationship. He says to go and serve the poor, the hungry, the homeless. In our own day, we’d add refugees which is not a new phenomenon. It’s gone on for some time and we are left wondering what to do with a humanity that is not in need of fixing and helping but of healing and reconciliation. It’s not just about serving for our own need. It’s about a service that challenges us to go to the vulnerable places in our own lives that are in need of healing. It is so often in these relationships that we are pushed to that place.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. But not always. We haven’t as a country and we aren’t always in our daily lives. We can’t ignore our own darkness and the moments when we allow fear to control our lives. The light is the only thing that can help to illumine the darkness of our lives. It is so often that fear and judgement that we hold onto and often define ourselves by that prevents us from stepping out of the dark and entering into relationship with the other. Maybe it’s fear of us being moved to change that prevents us the most. When you think you’re the greatest there’s really no need for change. However, here’s the thing about greatness. You can never be it until you give up and surrender all interest in it. There’s no humility in that type of greatness, only pride that cuts our lives short from where it is that God invites us to grow in these relationships with one another.

Relationships are hard, not only others but with God. They require a great deal of effort on our part and an openness to change, me changing! It is much easier to crawl up into my fear and judgement and lock myself into my own little corner of the world but there’s nothing freeing about that. It is so often in the relationships that we have avoided because of our fear and judgment that have prevented us from an experience of the unknown, of another part of God which is then opened up to us. That’s the real desire of Isaiah and also the desire of Paul in proclaiming the mystery of God. The invitation today is to step beyond our own comfort. Maybe it is in service to someone different than myself that I have feared. The challenge is to not go into it with the intention to fix or someone change to your image and likeness, but low and behold, to maybe, just maybe, allow yourself to be changed. The more we fast from this fear and judgment and even malicious thoughts that Isaiah tells us about today, the more we are opened to hearts that are healed and vulnerable to a greater experience of love. In that we continue to grow into our call in being salt of the earth and light of the world.

The Pain of an Orlando Love

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I must say that by now I feel like I’m running out of things to say when it comes to mass shootings and the loss of so many young lives, senselessly, and the endless bickering that takes place following about things that aren’t even real to begin with; the loss of life begins and ends with agendas and so often the almighty dollar that we end up in a perpetuating cycle of hopelessness and helplessness, or so it seems, unable to make any headway of moving to a deeper place as a human race, to understanding, forgiveness, and love. There never seems to be any headway beyond this sense of my own personal rights toward a seeking of the common good of humanity.

This one, though, is different because of the layers of pain that encircle it and it’s placement in a gay nightclub. It gets tied into the sensitivity of lives that have already often faced the pain of being ostracized and the struggle with “coming out”, a religious extremism that is not limited to Islam but Christianity as well who are ready to attack and yet condone all at the same time, failing to see their own shadow and darkness that looms in their own hearts, failing to go to the depths of their own being to find that there is something, a common bond with all humanity, especially with those who have faced this sense of radical poverty in their own souls, and a deep wound of rejection of the self and even of God for being created in such a way until the redemption of being freed of the layers of guilt and shame that are torn away by the freedom that this same God provides.

As different as it is, there are too many similarities as well. The images of Virginia Tech or of Sandy Hook remained etched in the mind and heart. There is nothing more devastating than a life cut short in the midst of the honeymoon years, years filled with endless possibility. Despite the struggles of human life, and certainly that of this particular community, there remains a sense of hope, a life yet to be lived, dreams and expectations that still have not been cut short or passed into a sense of being jaded. There is an energy that comes with young people that we all wish we could bottle up and release on the days when we’re just not feeling it. We grow resentful of them, knowing at times that our own lives have not always turned out the way we wanted them to and the experience of failed love. If I can’t have it, then no one can, must be the thinking of these men that go and commit such heinous acts. Reality buts up against the extremes of the black and white world we have tried to live, feeling no way out, and in turn a pulse dies and so does everything that goes with it. Lives will never be the same.

Of course, in the midst of it all we want to blame. We seem to function best when we are victims of, often times, circumstances beyond our control, and certainly there is blame to be shared. Unfortunately, the one pulling the trigger can never be held accountable here in this time and space. He now ceases to exist upon his own choosing. Like so many like him, fear runs deep. It’s easier to run from your problems than to confront them and deal with them. Sure it’s the messier way, but deep within all of us there is often that same closet that keeps us contained, keeps our hurt and our pain buried in the corner, unable to face such trauma, unable to imagine the possibility of being freed from it all and thinking this is the only way out, a naive martyrdom. The only way out is death, and unfortunately, not a redemptive death but an endless death, a hell. Of course, I don’t know. I don’t know him or what was going through him, but hell had to be pretty damn close. All we know is that as humans, more than anything, we project our own pain onto the world around us; it seems to us as the easiest way of dealing with it rather than learning to love it for what it is and has been, so often not even close to what the reality really had been but rather an illusion we’ve held onto throughout life.

Then there is Love…”and the greatest of these is love.” There may be no other people who have struggled more with love than the ones who were in Pulse that evening, for everything that has already been said, and yet, in my experience, no other people that know how to love because and in spite of that pain. Over and over again, we have the reminder that there is something stronger than fear and pain, which so often erupt within us as hatred. No, it never brings back the lives that have been lost, now too many too count and even to name. But when we hear their names and see their faces, something deep within us should be moved and unsettled, a love that begins to penetrate the layers of our own hurt, stereotypes, judgments, fears, expectations, and all else that stands in the way of discovering and experiencing a life beyond our own and yet our own more fully. If we can ever move to such a place, the dribble that scales our hearts and eyes that we think is most important begins to fall away and we begin to see the other as something more and yet myself. For it wasn’t just 49 lives that were lost in Pulse that night. It was mine and it was yours, for at our deepest selves we are but one, united in love.