Counterfeited Fantasy

See the source image

There’s not a more symbolic place in the United States than Disney World & Disneyland, standing as bookmarks on the far ends of the country. You know we’re in, as we all too often like to say, unprecedented times when they shut their doors to the public due to the coronavirus outbreak. If you’ve ever been you know it can be quite the magical place, as intended. It’s a place to escape the reality of daily life and enter into, in a sense, an Eden, where all seems right with the world. Of course, it’s not true. There are still overstimulated and screaming children who become overwhelmed by the choices they have and wanting to do it all, while running on fumes for lack of sleep and endless hours of walking!

It’s not, though, the point of this post. These theme parks are symbolic of more than America’s happy place or the place to escape. They are symbolic of a culture and a society, deeply rooted in our history, of avoiding suffering and a fraudulent belief we can always be happy if we just avoid the suffering and pain. If I can live Disney all will be well. After centuries of this deeply-held belief, we have been given opportunities the confront this illusion. Just within the 21st Century alone we’ve been given the chance, the events of 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008, and now once again, the pandemic having spread across the globe.

Generally speaking, a delayed response shouldn’t be to hard to believe by any of us, knowing how we’d prefer illusions over reality. Knowing this, it should also not be hard to believe so many quickly believe “fake news”, conspiracy theories, or without a doubt, our incessant need to blame others for our problem. There is no doubt we now face a “war” against an “invisible enemy”. There’s also no doubt it’s a “virus” causing extreme hardship. Sure, it comes in the form of the corona virus, but there’s a deeper war we’re being called to combat. In time the coronavirus will be resolved in one way or another. However, the deeper war is one we oft refuse to confront and it is the illusion of our “happy place” where everything is “perfect” and we’re always “right” and often avoiding the good. As Disney closes its doors to the public, we once again find ourselves on the threshold of this same door, to claw our way back to this “happy place” where we can avoid all sense of suffering and pain or finally slam the door shut on a way of life that just is not working and is tearing us apart as people.

Our lack of preparedness for a crisis, as well, should not surprise any of us. When we do all we can to live the Disney-dream, there’s no reason to be prepared and to be pro-active. Everything becomes reactionary because we’re always trying to deflect pain and suffering. If this time offers us anything, it will hopefully be self-reflection because it’s not only ingrained in a society, it’s ingrained in everyone of us throughout our lives. It’s no one’s fault but our own and the more we project the “invisible enemy” beyond us, we will continue to avoid not only pain and suffering, but reality itself. It would be great if I can spend my life riding through the darkness of Space Mountain or dress my best in the fairytale of Cinderella’s castle, but at some point we’re all pushed to confront reality and to see it’s just that, a dream, an illusion, and unfortunately, a lie. Our eyes are opened to the regrets from chasing an illusion of culture, society, and even our own lives. There’s no “living the dream” just living reality, including the cruelty and heartlessness it can throw at us at times. Yet, all will be well.

Now I’m not here to knock Disney. I’ve been there myself. I enjoyed the experience, despite long line and outrageously expensive prices! Yet, even that is indicative of the illusion we consistently face. We believe we can buy the happiness we seek out in this fantasy world. If I just have one more item everything will be right and it will take that pain away. However, as we learn at Christmas, it may take the pain away for a day, but it seems as if the more we accumulate and feed into the illusion, the deeper the pain and anxiety. We are, after all, an anxious people. Spending years working with young men and women assures me that this won’t change any time soon. We have, after all, raised them in such an environment. If there’s any glimmer of hope, many of them choose not to feed into this illusion, seeking a simpler way of life. Sure, there is a downside to it, but it is an opening to change.

I mean, who wouldn’t want Disney if we can do it. We’re always winners, we’re always on top, we’re always the best, we never have pain and suffering. It sounds heavenly and anything else like hell. However, my own life’s experience reminds me that both are intricately intertwined within me and the more I try to avoid hell, pain, suffering, the deeper the hole and the more I need to feed the illusion of the “heaven” I’ve tried to create through Disney. Ironically, Walt Disney’s original intent was the create an experience affordable for a family. The price of “heaven” has become out of reach to many average families. All of these facets are woven into the fabric of our culture, society, and religion in America, the greatest fantasyland on Earth.

So once again we are given the opportunity to allow the illusion to finally die. Will we? Quite frankly, the rest of the world already knows it’s not real. It’s only us who choose to ignore it while others around the world use it against us to feed their own. No, it’s not a pessimistic view of the world. It’s the real reality. We can only see such reality when we enter into the reality of our own lives then we begin to see how we have fallen for it as well. We want the real Eden and we settle for Disney. We want truth and yet we settle for fake news. We want honesty, yet we settle for believing only the people who tell us what we want to hear. It’s time, not only to wake up, it’s time for us to grow up into a culture and society which can serve in the 21st Century before the world continues to quickly leap ahead of us.

So much is being revealed to us in this moment of pandemic and pandemonium. It’s revealing how little our fantasy serves us when the cruelty of reality awakens. It’s revealing how selfish we can be with a sense of immortality rooted not in faith but in fantasy. It’s revealing how easily we can succumb to fear not by a virus but at the thought of a shattering illusion we believe defines us as a people, and one in which we have allowed to define us. As long as all is “perfect” in my own little world who cares about the rest. The earth is groaning along with the people right now calling us to change and to confront our own “invisible virus” as a society and culture. Will we embrace it or do what we have done in the past, feed it, eating us away not from foreign lands but right within. Quite frankly, they may be the most foreign of all lands to us as Americans. It’s a call to go within and confront our own fantasies and finally seek healing for the “invisible enemy” eating at us for centuries, since first placing foot on Plymouth Rock and from that point forward trying to destroy anything getting in our way.

 

 

To Hell With Rodgers!

See the source image

FYI:  Headlines can be misleading!  I’m really a fan of Aaron Rodgers!

“If our love of God does not directly influence, and even change, how we engage in the issues of our time on this earth, I wonder what good religion is.” – Richard Rohr

About a week ago I did something that I often try to avoid. I commented on a Facebook page (Crosswalk.com). I mainly did it because the title of the article posted was misleading. The caption simply read, “NFL Quarterback Aaron Rodgers Questions How Anyone Can Believe in God.” Out of curiosity, I opened the link, listened to the actual interview, and followed by reading some of the comments (always a mistake) only to realize most, if not all, actually read the article or listened to the interview with his girlfriend and podcast host, Danica Patrick. This may come as a shock, but that’s actually not what Rodgers said in the interview.

So, I commented. It was within minutes before a gentleman replied, chastising me and “threatening” me to prove him wrong. He was so certain that it’s what Rodgers said, inferring Rodgers would pay the price eternally. Now, I’m smart enough to know there was nothing that pointed to a sense of “openness” to dialogue with this guy, signaling religion is very black and white, with very little gray in his thinking. If I could only be that certain! Now before I go further, what Rodger’s said was he didn’t know how anyone could believe in a God that would condemn most of whom and what was created by the same God. If you actually take the time to listen to the podcast, Rodgers exemplifies a rather mature understanding of God and faith, practically opposite of what I encountered with the gentleman who replied to me, and quite frankly, proving Rodgers’ point in the first place.

Spiritual writers agree, as Rohr does in the quote leading off this post, that the maturity and health of a society are often directly linked to the health, or even lack thereof, of religion. I am well aware that there are many ministers on the frontline who work tirelessly seeking transformed hearts. I was one of them myself. However, the general degree of healthiness is abysmal, seeming to be hanging by artificial means. Religion, all too often, comes down to dogmatic statements, moral truths, purity codes, and creeds, all fine in and of themselves. However, when religion remains at that level, around means of control, belief, and a fear of a God that Rodgers speaks of, few are challenged to go to the greater depths the gospels demand, you are lacking in one thing…go, then come, follow me. The “burden of proof” needed to be placed upon religion is not about the accumulation, but the degree it teaches in simplicity, letting go, and a radical interior poverty, the changed heart that is desperately needed in society.

When religion begins to fail, just as it is with a failure in leadership, a vacuum is created for other gods to be manifested, and most certainly in the way we want to see the world. We become masters at projecting that image onto God, as if the Divine somehow chooses sides and it’s always our side that stands on the higher ground, moral principle, etc. In other words, pride. Now if we view it in that way, we can see the gods we have created in our political system, seeking a savior that will give us all we want. I believe early on in Hebrew Scripture it’s called the golden calf, with shiny, glittering gold and shrouded in incessant noise. We have two parties (yes, both) who have established creeds, moral truths, dogmatic statements, but maybe most dangerous, purity codes built in as to who’s in and who’s out. It’s a natural codependency that comes from an addictive culture. One will lead to heaven, the other to hell. One will lead to salvation, the other eternal damnation. Of course, both believe they’re right and the way, the truth, and the light.

This is where religion has served so many wrong. Religion, as an American institution, continues to cling, in shameful ways, to an image of God that does not suffice. Too much has been studied to know of the relation between images of God and our own background. Purity codes, in whatever purpose they serve, serve only to maintain the people who want to somehow attain “eternal life” while watching the rest be damned, as if somehow this is God’s plan. The arrogance and ignorance associated with such thinking, in the form of pride, prevents our eyes from seeing others, let alone ourselves, as human beings, but rather winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, heaven-bound and hell-bound. The gods we create become attached to issues and agendas that serve the purpose of the gods and the religion they serve. These gods are not about serving the common good, rather, they are about serving themselves.

Religion has failed us and continues to do so while clinging to a autocratic god that is always out to get us or at times, even a god that has no grounding in truth, both of which are bankrupt of any moral compass to point to the real truth. There’s almost an expectation that politics will fail us. However, when religion fails us there are real consequences. The gods we ascribe to, of winners and losers, rich and poor, or any other way, are never the gods transforming hearts. As a matter of fact, they thrive on division, competition, comparison, so that there is never a level playing field of humans journeying towards the same truth. It’s about pride, a pride that never admits wrong-doing, a pride that shatters the soul.

If you want to work for change, do it first by demanding more out of religion. Whether it stings or not, Aaron Rodgers is correct. If religion is about fear, then consider yourself afraid. If your religion is about winners and losers, consider yourself lost. If your religion is about certainty, consider yourself missing the marrow of life. If your religion is about purity codes and who’s in and out, consider yourself out. If anything is learned of the gospels, it’s that God is much more in the paradox than what we believe to be pure and certain. In the end, it simply leads to blame and victimhood and never affording ourselves the opportunity to look at our lives through a new lens of a transformed heart. True religion moves us towards integration, not separation.

The days of blame and victimhood must come to an end. Both stand in direct opposition of the faith and trust that a mature religion teaches. If our religion is not leading us to freedom, courage, truth, life, then I dare say, as Rohr says, then what good is it? It’s time for each of us to pause and ask ourselves the deeper questions that plague us. It’s time to demand more from religion than the gods we have settled for, lacking real leaders and settling for authoritarians. If we continue to settle, we mustn’t ask why things never change for the change we really desire begins with us, a change of our own heart. For then their eyes were opened and their hearts burned within them…demand more.

Welcome Home

IMG_1081 (1)

Welcome home! They were the first words that I heard as I walked through the doors of Bethlehem Farm some seven months ago for what I thought was going to be a month. “I can do anything for a month,” I told myself. I needed something to do in transition and they were willing to take me in on short notice. Talk about trust, here I was, a middle-aged man who had walked away from the life I was living, not married, and they were willing to take me in! So on a Monday in late April I arrived on the front steps to that greeting, welcome home, only to find that there was something more to it than I could have imagined, a place that has not only been home over the months but a place that has aided me in finding the home within myself that seemed all but lost and relationships that surpass that of time. Better yet, had helped me in finding a home never had found.

It was just a few short days prior to arriving there that I had received word that my dad was hospitalized. I wasn’t sure if I should actually come to such a remote part of West Virginia, nearly eight hours from Burton Street, where I had grown up as a child. However, at the time my own life was out of sorts and rocky at best and I needed, as I had told them, some sense of stability. Not only was the life I had known been allowed to shatter, but I hadn’t realized at the time that the passing of my dad was just about two months from the time I walked up the front steps of B Farm. I needed stability, though, and so I went without really knowing what I was about to get myself into in the coming months. Some three hours later, dozens of high school students also arrived and the stability I was looking for was going to need to be put on hold. I was going to need to jump fully in to learn what the farm was all about along with the high school students who were arriving from around the country.

It was the beginning of an experience that words still fall short to describe. There is absolutely a sense of home, and the men and women I have lived and worked with during this time are more than just colleagues or some other formality, they are family and friends. It falls short on words because words often don’t come close to describing the home that has been discovered within myself during this time, literally getting my hands into the grittiness of the lives of others, the earth, chicken poop, bread and food, but not necessarily in that order, has broken me wide open! For someone who has a strong connection to the Christmas stories you’d think that the grittiness would have already been well-known. However, life’s circumstances and states in life often prevent us from finding that home, even more ironic since I had devoted so much of my time and life to such an endeavor. It was literally, though, digging in dung and dirt where I found that grittiness, at times moved to tears by it.

The progression of my dad’s health seemed to deteriorate daily. There didn’t seem to be an answer to anything. There was still hope, but over time, even that began to wane. I would travel back and forth when I could, often running out as soon as we sent off another group from the farm. There were moments, though, where I found myself out in the field by myself or with Shannon, who too came to the farm looking for something. By the afternoon we’d often work in different parts of the garden, leaving m alone with my thoughts, a farm tool, and the earth. Even as I write these words, I find tears coming to my eyes because it seemed like yesterday there was so much unraveling going on within and beyond me. It was all an act of trust, from the very beginning, not knowing where any of it would lead. At times I could look back and wonder how on earth I was able to venture through such turbulent times in my life.

There was something about the digging, and digging deeper. There was also something about the process of baking bread and kneading it. Both actions have similar qualities of digging and kneading, pushing and feeling, breaking through the surface which seemed so thick. It all has a way of grounding you in the process. The results are not immediately experienced, just like farming, but over time there is a gradual change and life begins to poke through. There’s something about that physical push that often broke me open and brought to the surface all that seemed buried within. There was a deterioration going on in my own life. No, the consequences are not the same as my dad, who lost the battle with cancer, but death has come this year in my life, both in the passing of him as well as in my own life, both of which stand in stark contrast to the perennial. Everything seemed to be passing, slipping through the fingers, like the crumbling of dirt in the field.

I now stand on the cusp of the longest time I will have spent away from the farm all year. After seven months of farming, cooking, canning, growing, learning, and becoming, more sound and grounded myself, it’s time to take home on the road for a while. Sure, there is some hesitation, but none like I had when first venturing to southern West Virginia back in April. Looking back, it was a cancer of sorts, that was also killing me from within, but mine had a cure. In some ways it feels as if the year has become full circle for me, back where I began, but moving forward from a very different place than when it felt like it was falling apart around me. Bethlehem Farm and welcome home has a deeper meaning than simply returning to a place. It’s about returning to a center. It didn’t take long to realize why so many returned to the farm, year after year, to this special place. Surrounded by a rather chaotic world, whirling around, it stands at the center of authenticity and the quest for wholeness in life, to grow into the life that had been intended from the beginning. Everyone arrives on those steps for very different reasons. Some simply for the act of service it provides, as for countless high school and college students; yet, even they leave different than when they arrived.

Others, like myself, though, come looking for something else because of our stage in life. The countless conversations with the college students have been one of the best parts of the time at the farm. Sometimes it was just the silence of working in the field or even the quiet of the kitchen when no words were needed. There was, here, no longer this sense of hierarchy I have had to live with, but rather a level playing field and equal grounding. There was no special clothing, unless you count work clothes, that differentiate one from another. There was no special title or expectations or anything else. As a matter of fact, there’s simply a nakedness that comes from the experience, a vulnerability that reminds we are all human and life really is passing, none of which needs to be taken all that seriously. As much as I have been a part of their journey, they have been of mine as well. They walked the journey of my dad’s death with me and kept me grounded even through my own. They could sympathize and empathize but at the same time, their lives weren’t destroyed by what was happening in mine. That’s the grounding I was looking for within myself, summed up and found through those simple words first uttered as I, and countless others, walk up those steps at Bethlehem Farm, “Welcome Home.”

The Fourth Day?

Anyone who’s had the privilege of attending a Kairos retreat knows that the finality comes with a simple question, “what’s next?” How do we go about living the “fourth” day after having three life-changing days, meant to catapult us into a new awareness and consciousness after an intense time of self-reflection and diving into the unconditional love of others that often goes unseen in the busyness of our lives or our judgments that infringe on our ability to feel that love. Needless to say, when any of us return to the limitations of ordinary, chronos time, which subsists in Kairos, the answers are not nearly as easily seen and we are often lulled back into the routine of our daily lives, longing for more of the Kairos experience that fed the deeper parts of our hearts and souls while becoming enslaved to the ways of the world and often ways that have assured to make our lives easier and more stream-lined.

Time has a way of controlling our lives. Since the inception of the internet and phones that have become attached to our sides, it only seems as if time has increased in speed and intensity. There’s always someone and something that needs our attention that we find ourselves swallowed up by an ever-ticking clock of time, always behind, wondering why life has lost some sense of meaning and purpose as we race to the clock and the need to move at the speed of the world wide web. Text after text seems to consume our time, among other things that grab our attention. The experience of Kairos seems but all a distant memory, finding ourselves limited by time and losing our connection to the eternal.

The celebration of Easter reminds us of the Kairos moments all while unfolding in the chaos of the events leading up to the transformative event of life and death. For the disciples there’s no sense of the eternal in the bowels of hell that they find themselves in during the moments following the unimaginable events of the crucifixion. It’s as if all the suffering of the world comes front and center in the lives of the disciples and they’ll be left with trying to sort out what it all means and do they become like the Pharisees and political leaders of their day with further enslavement to darkness, invoking fear, swallowed up in pride and control or do they allow the pain of the world to be transformed in and through them? Do they allow themselves to transcend the time of their day and learn to embrace the eternal, the Kairos moment that they were invited into during these days, reminding them as well that there is more to this life? For the disciples and the earlier followers of Jesus, the fourth day is all that follows and the choices that they’ll make.

More often than not when our lives become about racing against the clock and trying to please others by our instant response to life’s problems, we have a tendency to lose sight of the bigger picture of what really matters. It was no different for the disciples. Yet, all the choices that they would make in the days that followed would have lingering effects on the unfolding of the early community. We find them, more often than not in the days following Easter, locked inside the Upper Room, a significant spot where Jesus, as prophet, foretold their own unwillingness to follow the will of the Lord. The memories that must haunt them in those moments following the events, trying to make sense of what they had done and how they had contributed to the impending death of their friend, the one in whom they claimed they loved and pledged their loyalty. Yet, in the darkest of moments, when the sense of Kairos had all been but lost, they found themselves caught up in the reaction to the events, worried more about how it would impact them, looking for a quick fix, and simply trying to rid themselves of the problem and the chaos that seemed to be closing in not only on Jesus but on them. Like them, we can only run so long before our own pain catches up with us and our own unwillingness to see even our own lives from the larger perspective. All we can see in those moments, trapped in chronos, is the pain that we try to outrun or what forces us to lock ourselves in the Upper Room out of fear, wondering as to what the world, our own world, would think if they had known, that we were one of them.

There’s nothing Easter-like about the actual resurrection narratives when it comes to the disciples. It’s not until the story unfolds that we meet the early communities and the courage they exhibited in the way they proceeded, knowing that even in the darkest of days, God was somehow leading them and revealing the next step in life as to what would lead them to this burning love that exuded in their hearts. They too, like us, need to pass through the agony of the Cross of our own lives, where it feels as if time has all but stopped before we catch a glimpse of the eternal, the Kairos. The death of the self that we cling to as well as the disciples can sometimes feel like the most painful. It’s all we have clung to in order to protect what we have most held onto, our own pain, our shame, our own judgement against ourselves, out of fear of being found out by the Lord.

For the disciples, and us, Jesus doesn’t avoid that place but, in the eternal, appears in their very fear and pain and begins the process of transforming it as they recall what had first begun in Galilee, gaining new perspective. It wasn’t about the disciples doing just as Jesus did. It was about the disciples now tapping into the very love that burned in their hearts and living it out in their most unique way possible. For the disciples, and us, it’s about becoming their truest selves, the embodied love of the Lord, that allows the agony of the Cross to be transformed into an Easter event. Living the fourth day for the disciples is living from a new place, the place of Kairos in their own hearts and yet within the tension of a world that always seems to want to grab hold of hearts and souls.

Easter, and the life found in the emptiness of the tomb, reminds us that we often avoid the very reality that prevents us from living a life of faith, in what ever way God chooses. Kairos moments need not be limited to retreat moments but become a way of life, where, no matter how many times we find ourselves being consumed by the way of the world and enslaved to time, moving at the speed of light or as quick at least as quick as Google can search, leaving us anxious, afraid, and even lonely at times, the experience of Easter, the Kairos moment, the embodiment of love, will remind us always that we never settle and never become satisfied with anything less. We may find great comfort in the Upper Room of fear, shame, hurt, pain, or our own enslavement, but it will never give us the love we desire. The love of Easter frees us from bondage, from our own enslavement, to a place of freedom, where we can simply be the people God created us to be. In those moments we learn that it’s not just about the third day, but every fourth day that follows and how we are to live the paschal mystery faithfully in our lives. These are the Easter moments of our lives where our own death, even the death of self, leads to the life and love that we most desire of and for our lives.

Encountering Hope

John 18: 33-37

One of the themes of John’s Gospel, as I see it, is that anyone who comes in contact in a personal and intimate encounter with Jesus has hope of a changed heart.  It appears that there is always possibility, no matter who the person is or their position, something seems to happen in the encounter that surpasses the other gospels.  That includes the encounter we hear today with Pilate.  Unfortunately, because of the other three gospels Pilate has been type-cast and so it’s hard to look at him through a different lens.  He’s simply the enemy who gives into the conspiracies and fears of the religious leaders of the time.  The same is true in John’s Gospel; he’ll wash his hands clean.  But there’s something very different about the encounter with Jesus here today that is unlike the rest.

The tell-tale sign of all of this in John’s Gospel is what often follows the encounters, no matter with whom it takes place.  There’s chaos.  It seems like a rather odd sign that somehow God is at work but after the initial encounter, it appears that lives are turned inside out and upside down.  It appears that what they thought was right no longer is.  It appears that what was considered norm somehow seems to fall away and they all begin to see in a different way, as if a new created order begins to take shape out of the chaos.  This is the real point of John.  The gospel writer takes us back to the beginning of Genesis where God creates a new created order out of the chaos, whenever God speaks.  So, when Jesus speaks, and they listen to his voice, the chaos that ensues turns into a new created order.  It’s not a one-time deal.  There seems to be a need for consecutive encounters before anyone begins to trust that voice of truth but eventually leads to belief.

So today, the one who is seen to have unlimited power, or so he thinks, now has his chance on the stage when Jesus encounters Pilate and vice versa.  Pilate walks into this situation thinking he has the ultimate power and that Jesus is just going to be like the other religious authorities of the time, merely a push-over.  He thinks this is open-shut case until the actual encounter takes place and for the first time, Pilate begins to experience before him true unlimited power.  Like all the other characters in the gospel, his head starts to spin and chaos follows.  He doesn’t know what to make of this guy Jesus who turns the tables and puts him on trial instead, leaving Pilate looking for a way out.  The chaos that Pilate experiences within himself plays itself out with a constant change of scene.  He’s inside the praetorium now and then goes out to the crowd, and goes back and forth not sure who to trust or believe.  It’s as if he keeps returning to the crowd because they feed his power, rooted in fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, reminding him that Jesus threatens it all, fearing to appear weak.  Yet, he keeps returning for more in encounter Jesus.  There’s something appealing about Jesus in this encounter.  Does he trust the screaming voices of fear or trust the voice of God speaking within?

Of course, Pilate succumbs to the fear but we never know how the story really unfolds for him.  He thinks he can wipe his hands clean, but does he really?  He’ll eventually go onto ask his most infamous question, of “what is truth?”  It is often interpreted as Pilate’s finally giving in to the religious authorities but is it possible, for the first time, Pilate shows signs of question and doubt of his own limited power in the face of the unlimited power of God, standing before him.  Pilate gives into the destructive force of chaos but would it change in subsequent encounters with the Lord, if there were more time.  When both the political and religious authorities see themselves as having this unlimited power, fed by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, they place themselves as the agents of salvation, trusting in worldly power rather than the eternal kingdom that Jesus promises.  Yet, because they can’t see and become blinded by their own power, they see that kingdom manifested in an earthly sense, marked by land boundaries, within their own kingdom, now under threat by this new “king”.  Once again, though, the blindness of power leads to a misunderstanding of Jesus and the kingdom that lies within.  If we look to religious and political leaders as somehow offering us salvation, we too need to check ourselves and our own fears.  It’s the way they preserve their own power, clinging to what was rather than arriving with a sense of openness.

As much as every character that encounters the Lord in the Gospel begins with a sense of hope and the possibility of something, the thought of change scares people back into their own way of thinking.  More often than not Jesus invites, over an over again, to see things differently, to gain a new perspective, even to being led to chaos, to questions and doubts.  That’s the point, though.  If we never question the earthly powers we cling to and all that we think gives us power, we simply become part of the crowd yelling at the top of our lungs to crucify!  We can no longer hear the quiet voice of God, the breaking in of the kingdom within our own hearts, leading us to greater fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.  Quite frankly, it leads us more deeply into chaos, not just in the world but in our own hearts, which is then played out on the world stage.

If there is any semblance of hope for us it’s that in a time when we find our world often spinning out of control, controlled by fear, and the thought of change, unmanageable, it’s that only God can bring a new created order out of such chaos.  If we allow ourselves to step out of the way and trust in the true God, in our own encounters, then change is possible and we don’t need to find ourselves stuck as a country and world.  The chaos and level of uncertainty says more about us as people and this ongoing idea that somehow, whether religious or political, leaders can pull us out of such chaos.  We’re more like Pilate than we’d ever care to admit.  It’s so easy to be allured by the fear and the noise of the crowd and world.  It is only, though, by creative means, that a new created order, through the ultimate power of God found deep within, can lead us out of the chaos, that quite frankly, we created and only God can transform.

Faith’s Uncertainty

Jos 24: 1-2, 15-18; John 6: 60-69

We’re at a turning point these days.  It’s a turning point in the life of the Church.  It’s certainly a turning point in our collapsing political system.  All we’d need is for the same to happen in our economic structure and we’d be opening ourselves to major transformation.  Turning points, though, are quite difficult.  We’re no longer over here where we used to be and our old way of thinking and yet we’re still not over here, crossing into the promised land.  Rather, as uncomfortable as they are, turning points land us straight in the middle, in this liminal space where nothing seems certain and what we had deemed knowable at one time no longer is.  A “dark night” as the great mystics would define these moments.

Turning points, as people Israel finds themselves in the first reading, as well as the disciples in the conclusion of the Bread of Life discourse in John, often leave us with two choices, as it does for all of them today.  One, they can proceed as Joshua and Jesus will, in faith and trust of the God that has seen them this far, trusting not in structures but in the very essence of who they are or they can retreat.  They can retreat to their old way of life, their former way of life, and abandon it all while clinging to what they can be certain of, no matter how dead and non-life-giving it really is, as some of Jesus’ followers do in today’s gospel.

People Israel finds itself on the cusp of the promised land as they proceed with Joshua.  It would seem like a rather simple question and answer that is posed to them today, as if they have much choice about moving one step closer to what has been anticipated for forty years now, wandering through the desert.  Yet, as easy as the answer is as to who this God is they will follow, there’s been nothing certain as the forty years proceeded.  Remembering their own history opens them up to hesitation and even a desire to life of slavery in Egypt.  It’s hard for us to imagine that anyone would want to return to such a life, but it’s what they had known.  It’s the structure in which they operated and lived and so anything other than continuously opened them up to fear. Despite not the essence of who they are, they’d rather cling to structures than step into the unknown.  It was and is much easier to retreat to our old way of life and our old way of thinking where we can be certain and all-knowing, rather than taking that one step forward to a new way of life, a new way of thinking, a new way of being people.  It’s scary on a personal level let alone on structures that find themselves disintegrating before our very eyes and need to!

There is, though, in today’s gospel a sense of tragedy and a sense of sadness in all of it.  John tells us straight out that some leave.  They just can’t handle who this Jesus is and the very identity in which he leads them.  Understand, though, that they too were under intense pressure to conform to the ways of the political and religious systems of their day.  They lived with this sense of oppression but their identity is wrapped up in it all, binding them to a system rather than to their essence as people.  Some just couldn’t handle what was being asked of them and so it was easier to leave.  Self-preservation would stand with greater importance than taking this leap of faith.  Heck, even some of those that stay are nothing to be cracked up about.  Not only will they have Jesus killed but he will also be betrayed from within the community.  If he was aware of this, it only begs the question, why did he pick such people as leaders in the first place?  It’s a question with no answer but certainly one we can reflect upon in our own turning points in the Church and politically.  They finally stand before who it is they had awaited and still can’t handle it.  Of course, because they still haven’t let go of their old way of thinking and can’t see beyond what they expected rather than who they have received. 

Peter, although probably unaware of what he’s saying as he often is, probably says it best to his fellow followers and to us today, asking not where to go but to whom should they follow.  Peter recognizes in those words that if we cling to anything other than the essence of who we are, the very one we can’t cling to, we will fall into the trap of self-preservation and clinging to structures, trusting institutions, rather than putting our faith and trust in the person of Jesus Christ.  It’s the essence of who we are that calls us back here each week to this table and it will be this very essence that will see us through these turbulent times.

You know, they’re only bad if we allow them to be.  The very premise of John’s gospel is that of glory, that God can take any situation and allow it to be transformed into a new way of life and thinking.  Of course that requires an affirmation on our part, as it does through Joshua today, that we will only follow but one God, the God that has continuously throughout history seen us through the deserts of our lives.  The God who has seen us through the darkest of nights, teaching us to trust and what it really means to have faith.  It is the God who marks us from the beginning with that very essence of who we are in relation to God.  Honestly, it’s too easy to retreat.  It is, though, our deepest sense of faith and trust when we can stay and commit ourselves to the living God who brings us to these turning points of our lives, into this liminal space.  As it is with people Israel and the disciples, we are left with a choice in these uncertain of times, do we put our trust in the God who has and gives life from the very beginning or do we retreat?  More often than not we retreat, out of fear, but with hope that the promised land remains just one step ahead.

Love On Trial

Acts 4: 8-12; 1John 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18

Many of you have probably seen the video of Pope Francis from the past week or so when the young boy gets up to ask him a question and can’t get it out because he’s just sobbing.  His father had died and believed to be an atheist and he was concerned about his well-being.  It’s a lot of pressure on the young boy, not only losing his father which is traumatic enough but also worried about whether God is taking care of him.  Pope Francis calls him up and hugs him and speaks to him, showing him just a great depth of love.  First, it’s a good reminder of how we as adults influence young people by our words and actions and what it is they absorb from us.  Also, ironically, though, it’s that depth of love that has often got Pope Francis in trouble with the religious zealots.  Any zealot, religious or political does not leave much space for such love.  They often just can’t receive it.  In the end it’s not simply Pope Francis or anyone else who shows such love that is put on trial, but rather Love itself.  It’s love working in and through him that is put on trial and in doing so exposes the zealots for who they really are.

It’s no different for the early community that we hear of in today’s first reading from Acts.  They literally are on trial for the healing of this cripple.  Like most healing stories, though, including in the gospel, it’s more than just the healing that perturbs the zealots.  It’s the fact that as John tells us in the second reading today, the claim their place as children of God.  They can no longer be touched by the political and religious authorities because something has changed dramatically in their life.  The ones healed finds themselves no longer bound or defined by the temporal authorities of their time and that causes unrest.  But like Francis, their approach in life is very different than those who have closed themselves off in fear.  To regain that status as children of God it doesn’t mean that they become kids, like that little boy who simply sees the world through a black and white lens, but rather are moved to a place where the Love who had created them is now the love working through them.  That very love casts out all fear and in doing so exposes it for its shallowness and narrowness in thinking and understanding.  Not in their wildest dreams can they begin to imagine a God they can’t control of sorts.  The zealots no longer stand as the mediator but Love itself.

There is that same connection in today’s Gospel because in some ways Love is on trial in the person of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.  He too just found himself in this long interaction and conflict because of the healing of the blind man which comes just prior to today’s reading.  That man, too, has been reclaimed as a child of God as well and begins to live into this newfound freedom.  He’s no longer bound by any of the authorities, including his own family.  His healing not only exposes the fear of the zealots but also their blindness towards love and the person of Jesus Christ.  But Jesus isn’t done with them yet.  He then proceeds into this discourse of the Good Shepherd who then calls them out for being false prophets, hired workers who care more about themselves and their own narrow beliefs.  Like that young boy with Pope Francis, they have yet to move forward in life and continue to live in a very defined world which again leaves very little space for love.  When their narrow beliefs clash up against the human person they choose their belief and the law over the well-being of the person and unable to show them love.  This is the reason why they become such a threat to the zealots, including Jesus himself.

He pushes it though in today’s gospel.  He reminds them that there are still others beyond the gate who will hear his voice and he’s called to lead.  The one thing about insiders and even zealots is that they think they possess the truth.  It’s hard to love and to seek that truth when you think you already have it and possess it.  Love, on trial, again exposes their own fear for what it is, attached to the ruler of the world.  They are unable to love with such great depth until they allow themselves to fall into this mystery of our faith.  Right after the passage we hear today we are told that they begin to divide.  They want nothing to do with Jesus or Love.  They’d rather convict love than to open themselves up to change.  Jesus will lead the children through the narrow gate where there is a sense of seeking and wandering and a desire for love.  The insiders and zealots are left behind at their own doing, and yet, are blinded to that reality.

This is common language in much of our prayers this Easter Season.  We hear over and over again of being the children of God and it’s easy to reduce that to just another nice thought.  But for John it’s the stone rejected that becomes the cornerstone, to once again be moved to the place where we stand as children of God against a hostile world and a world that seeks knowledge, truth, and certainty while leaving very little room for Love.  All these years later we continue to put Love on trial and even convict love over our own narrow beliefs that hinder us from embracing the love that created us and tries to work through us.  It’s what makes the disciples untouchable.  They see as God sees, exposing the fear and hurt for what it really is and rather than rejecting the person, they do as the Good Shepherd has taught.  They love and with that the world is transformed not by them but through them and the love freely given!

Love’s Acceptance

Acts 10: 34, 37-43; I Cor 5: 6-8; John 20: 1-9

If you spend any time surfing the internet, you know full well that you can find someone out there who’d have an argument for something you want to believe, even if it’s not true; actually most likely not true.  We call them conspiracy theories.  They’re nothing new but we have certainly lived through many of them.  It seemed as if the birther movement would never end.  How about George Bush being responsible for the events of 9/11?  Of course, every time there’s a school shooting there’s always some conspiracy out there that somehow there’s a mastermind behind all of this working the ropes.  It says something about our faith when we succumb to much of it and how fragile it can be at times.  So when we don’t agree with reality or prefer to think that reality isn’t reality, when we can’t accept it, then we’ll just create a new one that agrees with how we think things should be, avoiding reality itself.  What’s worse is that now we have virtual reality.  When we’re totally dissatisfied we can just create a new one through technology in order to avoid what is.  We avoid our own pain and suffering and then also avoid it in others.  It creates a false sense of life and almost instills a sense of paranoia.

They’re nothing new, though.  Even what we celebrate today had many conspiracy theories surrounding it and they come out in the characters we encounter through the Easter season.  One of them is uttered from the mouth of Mary of Magdala this morning that “they have stolen the body”.  Just as the political and religious authorities conspired for the death of Jesus that we marked on Good Friday, they will now conspire once again to cast doubt and fear into the heart of the followers that somehow what had taken place actually didn’t take place.  When they conspired towards his death they thought they had their problem under control.  They thought that if he can be contained in this way and then simply get rid of it, they can maintain their sense of control and the illusion of power.  They can continue to oppress the people in this way and suppress them at the hand of authority.  They knew, though, that if word continues to spread and takes on flesh that Christ had been raised, it would spread like wildfire and so conspiracy theories are born in order to control the fire.

We hear, though, throughout this season from Acts of the Apostles that it just can’t be contained.  That this gift of life and the Spirit was not going to be contained by fear.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t suffer nor face great pains as a community.  We hear that throughout the early days.  But they learn to accept the eternal life now which dispels all fear.  Over time, and through this process of conversion of heart, the words of Jesus and the Word made flesh, becomes who they are; they make it their own and they become unstoppable.  They will certainly be tested and challenged by the authorities, but the embodiment of the love freely given will change them forever.  Whenever they find themselves doubting and questioning or even beginning to believe the conspiracies over their experience, they will once again be drawn into this mystery of life and death.  That’s what they ultimately learn in relationship with Christ.  You have to embrace it in its entirety.  You cannot have life without death.  They go hand in hand.  We want to separate and feel it can’t touch us, but surrender, sacrifice, and letting go needs to be a part of who we are if we are to become a community of love.  When we separate mystery in that way, we begin to create alternate realities and virtual realities in order to avoid what we most dislike, the fact that we can’t have it all and that we’re not immortal.  The more we avoid it, the more problems will continue to mount here and across the globe.

Paul reminds us in his letter to Corinth today that if we are to become this community of love then we need to leave things behind.  We need to leave behind bitterness and malice.  We need to leave behind our fear and our confusion.  We need to leave behind our paranoia and conspiracies that we cling to and learn to accept reality for what it is and only then can we begin to change.  It’s the encounter with the divine love and our participation in that divine love that changes us and allows us to move from simple lip service to a changed heart.  It’s easy to say I believe in God or I believe Jesus is risen from the dead.  It’s a whole other reality when we embody it.  For John, it comes down to that, back to the beginning of the gospel when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.

That’s what it’s all about.  Problems continue to mount.  Poverty continues to spread.  Homelessness is everywhere.  Injustice happens here and abroad.  Yet, the fragility of our faith often prevents us from falling into the pain and suffering of the world and to bring about its transformation through love.  Only love can do that.  Fear won’t do it.  Conspiracies won’t do it.  Virtual reality won’t do it.  Paranoia won’t do it.  Only love and it’s a love that is freely given.  When the disciples head to the tomb and find it empty on Easter, it doesn’t move them from a place of darkness right away.  But something begins to stir within them, deep within them, and they know they can never go back.  They can no longer live in an alternate reality and they’ll know deep down that the conspiracies are simply words rooted in fear, fear of change fear of the authentic power of Christ crucified now raised from the dead.

As we enter into these 50 days of Easter, we pray for the grace to have that same movement in our own lives.  Like them, we often want proof with our own eyes.  We want to see it.  Well, none of us can prove anything like that and that’s certainly not the message John conveys in his gospel.  For John, it’s a deeper sense of knowing that we truly long for in life, a knowing that can only be embodied and not simply words that can sound shallow.  John wants us to move towards a deeper faith, embodied within a changed heart.  That’s the community of love that is being offered and the only way to live more deeply in the reality of our own pain and suffering, offering us hope of not an alternate reality or a virtual reality, but a reality rooted in hope and love, a reality rooted in Easter.  We pray this day that we may become that community of love in order to cast out all fear and darkness from our lives, the community, and the world.

Community of Love

The Passion of Jesus Christ According to John

I can’t say I’m a fan of shows about lawyers.  It’s not that I have a thing against lawyers, but it often seems that there is some deal of manipulation that takes place in order to convince people of the truth, even if it’s not the truth, simply to make a case.  Of course, it’s not even about television programs like Law & Order or anything like that.  We even see it when we catch any news.  There’s always a “legal expert” who’s going to try to convince you of something, that they know the truth and to cast doubt into the other’s case.  We hear it from Russia probes to “porn stars” and everything in between. It creates this sense of chaos and confusion leaving us with the same question as Pilate in today’s passion, “What is truth?”  It’s hard to tell sometimes.

That is what John seems to create in his account of the passion and death of Jesus that we hear every Good Friday.  It’s hard to determine what really is the truth and there seems to be utter confusion and chaos.  What only reinforces that is this enmeshing of politics and religion.  When the two align against Jesus he doesn’t stand much chance of making it out alive.  It comes down to at that point people’s power that they’re unwilling to surrender and over time, chipping away at any trust they may have of Jesus, invoking fear, confusion, and chaos on the scene.  For John, though, that’s where it all begins.  If you think back to the beginning of the bible as we know it, the creation accounts in Genesis, order is formed out of chaos.  Now, for John, this chaos that ensues towards Jesus’ death, is once again going to create a new order.  Not in the sense of control but in a new creation and new life that will flow from within.

When you think about it, even the charge brought against Jesus would not necessarily warrant death.  The crowd says that he claims to be Son of God.  However, again, from the very beginning, they too are sons and daughters of God but over time begin to sway from trusting that voice of the divine, giving into the fear, chaos, and confusion, and used by the people of power to bring down this guy Jesus.  This new created order that John says community is to become is a community that is once again rooted in that ancient of beliefs, that they are sons and daughters of God but from the beginning are lost from due to sin, due to thinking that they’re more than that, that they are God.  But when there is pressure from the authorities, who try to convince that they hold the truth and will manipulate into believing, it’s the voice of the divine that is crucified.  It is the community that now stands trial as to what and who it is they are going to become in the midst of a hostile world.  Will they follow the ruler of this world or of the Kingdom, as Jesus claims in the Passion account.

All leading to the climactic scene of Jesus on the cross, standing, as John tells us, literally in the middle of the tension and in the middle of all the hostility being cast upon him in these moments.  But unlike ourselves often, Jesus takes it in.  When vinegar and bitterness are placed upon his lips, unlike the other gospels, Jesus drinks.  He consumes the bitterness.  He consumes the anger.  He consumes the fear.  He consumes chaos and confusion.  He consumes all that is thrown at him, appearing that the world has finally won.  There is finally a verdict and the verdict stands with the status quo.  It stands with what we so often choose as well, to destroy the one who is perceived as the problem in order to make ourselves feel better.  It’s so much easier to spew hatred and bitterness upon the world, but Jesus consumes it.  He consumes the bitter herbs that are cast upon him but not to show violence towards the world.  Rather, to transform it.

Yet, it’s still not finished.  When that bitterness is consumed by Christ, and rather than casting judgment upon them and the world, a lance is cast into his side and blood and water flow out.  In that very moment of consumption of all that the world has thrown at Jesus, a new community is formed.  Just as blood and water flow from the womb of the mother, now blood and water flows from the side of Jesus and a community of love is formed.  All the bitterness, chaos, and confusion are transformed and recreated into new life and this community is birthed.  It’s no longer based simply on doctrine.  Even Jesus stands trial for that and nothing can be found against him.  It’s not a community based on ideology or anything else.  Rather, it’s a community of love that flows from the side of Jesus.

We come to this second prayer of Easter as we reflect upon the passion according to John.  John isn’t about a community but shows the path towards a community that is rooted in love.  From a God who humbles and comes down to the earth, to a God who humbles and gets on his knees and washes the feet of the disciples, including Judas, to now a God who points to yet a deeper love and an opportunity to participate in that deeper love by going into the depths of the earth, into the new tomb as John tells us in order to transform all that has died.  Blood and water flow from the womb, blood and water flow from the side, blood and water will flow from the tomb and this new community of love will form.  That’s what John believed to be true of any community that puts the Cross at its center.

As we come to venerate this Cross in a few moments, we come with grateful hearts.  Sure we recognize the sacrifice that has been made for us, redeemed for our sins, but it’s much more than that.  It’s not just about something being done for us.  It’s also about something being done to us and in us John would say.  We can’t stop short in being a community of love.  We must take those final steps, when we find ourselves on trial ourselves and juror at times.  Which voice is going to give us the eternal truth?  Do we form our lives and community around popular opinion and what’s most acceptable or will we take the often more difficult path of trusting the divine.  We too stand at the center of it all and are often left with choices ourselves.  It’s very easy to become consumed by chaos and confusion and to spew the bitterness of our own lives onto others and the world.  It’s easy.  It’s going with the crowd today, so easily convinced.  In that moment the divine is crucified again and again.  Yet, we come with gratitude because God continues to invite us back to this very place and in this moment, calling to mind to our own truest identity, as sons and daughters of God.  If it were only as easy to convince ourselves of that then blood and water would flow from us as well, co-creators in this world.

In the midst of hostility, bitterness, confusion, fear, and chaos, Jesus stands trial.  It’s the alignment of the feast and the hour as we heard last night and that time has finally arrived.  We pray for that grace, in these moments of our own lives, that we too will choose our own bitterness and hostility to be transformed by the divine in order that we may continue to become that community of love that John desired.  It takes a great deal of sacrifice and pain along the way, letting go, and allowing ourselves to be transformed by Love in order to be love.  On this Good Friday we pray for that grace for Love to touch our hearts in a deeper way, through our own chaos and hostility, touching the blood and water as they flow in order to make us a new creation, a community of love.

Demanding Change

Matthew 17: 1-9

Did you ever wonder about the other nine?  They always seemed to be excluded or left out of some of the best moments in the gospels.  It seems, like today with the Transfiguration, that it’s always Peter, James, and his brother John who get singled out and are given the chance to experience things that the others don’t.  Let’s be real.  The three of them aren’t even the most stellar of candidates to single out.  We know Peter from hearing the stories.  Next week his faith will be tested.  He doubts.  He denies.  He runs away when things get tough.  A little further down this journey the two brothers will be fighting amongst themselves as to who’s the greatest and who should sit at the right and left of the Lord.  More often than not, these three are about power and grabbing for it in ways that never seems to end well.

Even in this gospel that we hear today they are told one thing to do and that’s to keep their mouths shut when they get down to the bottom of the mountain where the other nine are located.  Now, I’m one of six and I can tell you that if three are separated to go experience something that the others don’t, one of two things will happen.  Either they’ll come up quickly to find out what happened since it was a secret or the three will taunt the others that somehow they’re better than because they had something that the others didn’t!  It’s life and it shows where they are at on this journey, still children themselves in faith.  Like most, it won’t be until something is demanded of them before it’s all put to the test and who and what will stand the test of time.

It appears in these instances that Jesus is setting them up to fail, but maybe not fail in the sense that we often understand, but rather setting them up to fall apart and that they will do.  The journey following the transfiguration in the gospels is one on the decline.  Everything has been building to this point and from here on they will go down the mountain literally and figuratively, into Calvary, to the Cross, into their own hearts and souls.  When their lives are demanded of them as the gospels go on, they will fall apart but they have to fall apart in order to once again build community on its true foundation in Christ.  Up to the great test of the cross and their childish faith, not much has been asked of them.  And as we know, even what is asked doesn’t seem to happen, like keeping their mouths shut about these experiences.  It’s about that power that they think they have in their agendas, in their thinking of being better than, in talking about who’s the greatest, probably jealousy and all the rest that we are familiar with in our lives.  Jesus could transfigure all he wants to these three, but at the moment, it doesn’t mean much of anything but can easily be used as an experience to build themselves up.

But the whole event casts a shadow upon them which is when they become fearful.  They become fearful of themselves, more than anything and what this is all going to mean to them as the journey continues.  It’s no wonder why Peter would rather stay here, stay put, because they’ve been given something without having to give anything in return.  Nothing has yet been demanded of them in this journey of faith.  This downward journey of transformation and conversion will eventually push them to change.  We all know that none of us changes easily.  We, like them, are often pushed to the brink, to the cliff, before we will finally surrender and let go, opening ourselves to change and transformation.  It comes, so often, when our own mortality is put on the line before we can finally begin to ask what’s most important, what do we value, what gives us meaning, and quite frankly, what is it that I need to finally let go of in life.

All too often we hold on way to long rather than surrendering to the demand of the gospel to a change of heart, to grow into an adult faith of trust and mystery.  That is what is revealed to them on that mountain in today’s gospel, but for them, not yet.  For them, their center remains outside of them and beyond them and has not yet moved within.  When they are finally confronted with the cross and everything begins to crumble around them, they will be left with the opportunity to mature in their faith and become the disciples the Lord summons them to and quite frankly, promises them from the very beginning.  They will begin to form community around the eternal, around the transfigured Christ.

On this feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, sure, it is about the Lord’s transfiguration before these three would-be disciples, but in the end, it’s about what is going to be demanded of them in their own lives.  If they could stop for a minute, maybe the most important thing that is revealed to them in this shadow is to listen.  If we can learn to listen on a deeper level, beyond all the noise of our lives, the truth and the promise will begin to reveal itself to us.  It will reveal itself to us as individuals but also as community and where it is we need to grow into the promise that is given in this moment.  The day always comes when something is demanded of us and more often than not, it’s giving up what we think has given us life or giving up what we believe has given us life but no longer nourishes and nurtures us.  That’s where true transformation can happen in our lives.  As we listen, what is it we are holding onto in our lives, individually and collectively, that holds us back from the promise.  It is in that space that surrender is being demanded to live a life of faith and trust in the promise shown in the Transfiguration.