Return to the Source

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

As the Christmas Season draws to a close, it culminates with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.  Like so many of these other feasts, the risk is always to make this simply an historical event of years past.  I think when we do celebrate any of them, it’s good to return to the source.  I don’t mean return in the sense to going backwards to days when it meant something.  We have a tendency to do that not only in the Church, but in this country as well.  To return to the source is to be able to ask ourselves the meaning behind these events and then interpret them in the day and time in which we live.  It’s how we grow and prevent ourselves as Church to trying to turn back the clock.  Returning to the source of the Baptism of the Lord, just as we did with Epiphany and Christmas itself.

Of course, the source of the baptism is the River Jordan.  Symbolically there is something significant to the Jordan as well as to water itself.  Obviously, we still use it to this very day.  Being plunged into the water, by adults as was typically done and is still encouraged, meant being plunged into the underworld, as water often symbolizes.  It was a descent into the soul to allow our deepest identity to be revealed, so that when we emerge, as Jesus does, we are identified as a beloved son or daughter.  You would literally be held under water until you could barely breathe.  Certainly, we don’t want to go back to something so extreme, but the meaning gets lost in what we do.  It gets lost in simply dropping handfuls of water over the head of a child, not necessarily to emerge a changed person, but to become a part of, to belong to a community.

It becomes, as it is in the Christmas celebration as well as in the gospel, a turning point, a transitional time from our old way of life while taking on and embracing the new way of life now, in Christ.  Luke marks it even greater.  If you listen closely, Luke wants to make an even greater transition and turning point by eliminating John the Baptist from the scene.  We’ve become accustomed in the other gospels to hear of John baptizing Jesus; but not in Luke.  By the time Jesus is baptized Luke has already been imprisoned by Herod.  There was often confusion in the early communities over John because he was such a charismatic preacher.  Luke finally makes the break to remove John from the scene, marking the end of the time of the prophets to the fulfillment of the prophecy in Christ.  The community, gathered with Jesus in the water, take on that new identity now, no longer as followers of John, but an identity in Christ.

This is actually what made these communities such a threat to the many systems of their day.  Their identity and lives were no longer wrapped up in the socio-economic reality of their day or even of family, because of their being plunged into the Jordan and into their own underworld, their soul, they emerge as dangerous people to the systems.  They become freed of their own attachments to them and can no longer be touched by the ways of the world.  You could imagine as these communities then began to grow, as we hear in Luke’s second volume, Acts of the Apostles, they meet tremendous opposition from the religious and political leaders of their day.

Our reading from Isaiah as well marks a rite of passage for Israel.  Like us, they clung to their old ways and becomes known by repeating their same mistakes.  Over time they believe that it is about the social and political norms of their own day, which often leads to war and conflict.  When we pick up today, they are emerging from exile once again.  They are told, though, as this emergence begins to take place, that war is no longer necessary.  The old way of doing things for Jerusalem would no longer suffice and fulfill.  They are, instead, return to their own source, to the one who has led them out of slavery and out of exile.  As a matter of fact, more often than not it’s when we separate from the source when we find ourselves in exile, losing sight of our own deepest identity.  The call for Israel, in this rite of passage, was to return to that source and once again find life, to find comfort and their truest power not in the ways of the world, but in God.

The invitation as we bridge Christmas and Ordinary time is to return to the source of our own lives.  Most of us aren’t given the choice to be baptized, because we have made it more of a belonging and becoming a part of something, but we have the choice to seek, as the opening prayers says today, an inward transformation.  If we find ourselves still clamoring to the socio-political ways of the world, we may find ourselves in exile or feeling like we’re in exile.  We’re invited to be plunged into our very soul and once again reclaim our deepest and truest identity.  The dove reminds us that it is peace we seek, but the wail of a dove also reminds us that inward transformation is a painful process of letting go and being set free from all that binds itself to our heart and soul.  We desire and pray for the grace this day to return to the source, to take the plunge, so that we too may emerge as Christ does today, mindful of who we really are, sons and daughters of God.


Simplifying Life

The thought of packing is probably one of the most challenging parts of moving. It’s amazing how much you can accumulate over time, and often without even knowing it! An even greater challenge is that I am moving from a house to a suite in a rectory, which means considerable downsizing must take place before I move.

A short time ago, as I began this process, I had this thought while driving. “If I were to die today, what of this “stuff” would most matter?” In that very moment, I felt free to rid myself of stuff that I thought had some significance for me. All that stuff I put on the “maybe” pile moved to the recycling or garbage pile, simply because of that benchmark that came to me while driving.

Through the experience of participating in many international service trips to places such as Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras, there has always been something within me that has pushed me to a simpler life. Yet, as a part of the culture and society we live it, it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking I “need” different things. Somehow the right book would have the right answer that I was looking for in life. Out there was the right article of clothing that I just had to have, including an obsession with Life is Good gear which fills much of my drawers!

But in these moments of transition, it becomes yet another invitation to discern what is most needed, what would matter if I were to die today. As I sit here looking around my office typing this, I think, not much of it. So much of it I don’t even realize is even there most of the time. Maybe it meant something at some point and there was some sentimental value to holding onto different things, but there remains that nagging feeling to simplify life. Do I really need all this stuff? What would matter if I died today? Quite honestly, not much of it, if I were honest with myself.

I think of that passage when Jesus sends out the disciples taking nothing with them. It was an invitation to trust that somehow God would provide and also give the opportunity to be in solidarity with so many that they meet along the way, the poor, crippled, lame, and the other characters we encounter in scripture and in life who are not there for us to change, but rather to somehow change us and soften us and form us in a way that we evangelize not simply by our words, but more so by the way we live our lives.

At this moment of change, downsizing, and most importantly, simplifying, another door opens into trusting what Mystery has in store next; nothing is coincidental but rather providential and preparation for what is to unfold in the days, weeks, and years to come. For so long the thought of getting rid of some of this “stuff” seemed somewhat impossible, because each has meant something at one time or another, and yet that nagging invitation is to let it go and trust that more doors and windows will open with God providing all that is needed in living more simply.

Measuring Success in Transition

As I begin the next ministerial transition in my life, defining success often seems to be the topic of conversation, not only within myself, but I heard a great deal of it over the past few days. There are obvious questions that are asked, “So since you did so well here that means you’re going to a larger parish now?” or even “What did you do wrong that their sending you to the city?” or one of my favorites, “We just got you broken in.” I’m still not exactly sure what that means but I’ve heard it quite frequently. I had to bite my tongue many times in conversations to give people their due and allow them to feel the way they feel. I so often wanted to say, “If it was all about breaking me in then somehow I have failed; both needs to change.” But I didn’t. Again, as much as I wanted to, I knew I needed to give people the opportunity to express themselves in whatever way they chose.

Here’s my take, in many ways I can measure “success” by how I’ve changed in the past years at this assignment. Maybe better questions to ask are, “Have I learned to trust myself, others, and God a little bit more?” or “Have I learned to trust my heart a little more than my head over these years?” another, “Have I learned that there’s a lot more that I don’t know than I do?” still more, “Have I learned to let go of things and not take them so personally?” or “Have I gotten to know myself in a deeper way and accepted, warts and all?” and maybe most importantly, “Have I mirrored it to others?”

Needless to say, I will be spending some time with those questions, but if I even can say yes in the most minimal way, then there has been success. I am a firm believer that, as a leader and even more so, a man, that where I am internally will be reflected in my external environment. I dare say that often what is missing in leadership are people that have an internal structure that acts as guide in creating healthy external structures. It goes back to, “You can’t give what you don’t have.”

As I tried to explain where it was that I was transitioning, I often got blank stares. Some didn’t understand. If you were so successful here, why there? I had expected that some would respond in that way. However, for some time now there has been something deep within me that has been stirring, and when I finally made the decision to pay attention to it, reverence it, and acknowledge that it was real, I grew to trust that this was more about God than it was about me. I don’t even know why, but as I said, sometimes it’s learning to accept that I don’t know it all, even if I think I do at times, and trust God’s lead in taking a leap of faith.

I have been quite successful, in many different ways in each of the assignments that I have accepted. There has been a lot to show for it, just in relationship alone. There are structures that have been put in place, vision set, decisions, both difficult and anxiety-filled, that have been made, and I can sit back and say, well done. And that’s all good. And that’s even great, if I must say so myself! But in the end, ah, ok, but is that what’s most important? For me it’s about changing hearts, even my own at times, it’s about growing up, it’s about growing deeper in love with self, others, and especially Mystery, and learning to integrate it all into a healthy me that helps me to lead and create in a healthy way. At the end of the day, at the end of an assignment and transitioning to the next, knowing and accepting things aren’t perfect but I’ve done my best is sufficient, knowing that it’s time to pass the mantle to the next and allow him to take it to the next level; it’s about trust, trust, trust and learning to surrender control.

Transitions are hard for all of us because it means change, grieving, letting go, and once again facing the unknown. But as I mentioned to pastoral council, in the words of Dr. Seuss himself, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I am so thankful that those words crossed my path these days because it becomes a mantra for me. Sure there is room for tears, but I can smile because I had the opportunity and even a little success, both seen and unseen!