Hopeful Grief

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There are times where I just can’t work. I feel like I don’t have the energy to do much of anything and push myself to go outside for a walk, get fresh air, escape the confines of “stay at home” orders. It can be quite depressing and with very little purpose. The saving grace is some arts and crafts time with the kids which focuses me on their youthful energy, despite the feeling of wanting to go right back into hibernation when they leave. These are hard days, even for an introvert. Sure, it may be my natural inclination to find time for self-reflection, but I’m also a person who loves making connections, not only with others, but within myself and even assisting others to do the same. There is, if I could ever admit it, a grief unlike any other I find myself going through right now, after a year of tremendous moments of grief, all seemingly to be different than the one before.

As I stand on the proverbial threshold of another year of life, my 48th birthday and the beginning of my 49th year, I am mindful of this grief. Although there’s often a grief on such thresholds, this one seems very different, one coupled with hope. It was a year ago at this moment in which I officially resigned my position of pastor and found myself, what I like to call quasi-homeless, and searching for a place to land and land quickly. I think back to such moments now and wonder how I had the muster within me to do what I was doing, stepping away from a life I knew well and yet was killing me on another. There I was, on the threshold not quite knowing what was lying ahead but willing to take a step, and it is just one step at a time, to a healthier life. It is a threshold, as I didn’t know then, leading me to the “home” within myself and not necessarily needing to know a street address I could call my own because somehow this home would give me all I needed.

Thresholds and transitions are always staged within grief. It always marks the end of one chapter or book and the beginning of another. I didn’t know when I stepped through how it would look, and at times, still do not. We can never fully know what we are getting ourselves into at any given moment. The threshold we find ourselves standing at these days seems only to vastly grow wider. It seems as if there’s no end in sight to the confinement of our homes and lives. It explains the lack of energy at times of simply wanting to lie on the couch, slide the screen of my computer, and every other distraction I manage to find during the day, all because I know there’s no crossing this threshold at the moment. All any of us really can do is stand and dream of what lies on the other side and begin to tap into the creative energy which seems to have laid dormant in our society for all too long.

We can’t seem to run from the “stuckness” we’ve found ourselves and the lack of creativity associated with it. It feels all the more visible these days, unable to outrun. When we’ve allowed ourselves to create and recreate reality television programming, sequels to endless movies, is it any wonder we’d be somewhat drawn to movies like Groundhog Day when it’s the life we’ve often settle for before we’ve reached this threshold. It has been about doing the same thing over and over again, insanely believing it will somehow be better the next time around. It never is and yet we try. I’m reminded of the words of a therapist who had told me the trick with eating a delicious slice of cake. There is nothing like the first bite when we can taste all the succulent flavors hitting the various parts of our tongue. However, we’re never satisfied with the first bite. I know I’m not. We immediately live with this false sense of hope each bite following the first will not only compare but outdo the first. It never does. Yet we try, over and over and over again, believing if I try just one more time somehow this will work and be the best. Take it from me who loved to jump around, it doesn’t. It has nothing to do with the cake in the first place. It was the lack of satisfaction and creativity in my own life, numbing the grief rather than confronting my own pride, filled with arrogance and ignorance as if I knew what was best. I didn’t. It wasn’t about the cake. It was about me. It’s hard, packing up, nowhere to go, quasi-homeless, looking to land, standing at thresholds, wondering what’s next, a new year beginning, confined to home. Who wouldn’t be grieving? It appears we are now unable to avoid it.

Grieving, though, can easily turn into depression. We see it everywhere around us. Whenever the cruel parts of this world catch up with us and force us to slow down and even stop, we’re simply left with ourselves. Sure, there have been other moments but not in my life do I remember being confined in such a way. I’m not who likes this feeling to begin with, knowing my own anxiety as I wrote in the previous post. It has led to restless nights, questioning in ways I haven’t before, and lots and lots of writing, trying to make sense out of things beyond the rational mind. It’s hard to listen to reports knowing there’s nothing I can do. I suppose some of the grief comes from feeling helpless in these moments, when we know there is greater risk in venturing out than there is staying home.

There is, though, hope. We see it in the world around us as pollution decreases in these days, crime has fallen, people are finding ways to connect and assist, it is a moment when we can all empathize with one another. The place we call is getting a much-needed rest from our utter destruction out of our own selfishness. I was struck on Friday watching Pope Francis walking alone in the darkened square facing out to a quieted and rainy city of Rome. There was simply a light in the midst of it all, guiding him along his way. We have been blinded not by light but by our darkness, our grief. We have believed what has led to darkness to be the light. We seek something and someone beyond ourselves to give us the answers to our difficult questions. It’s not to say we can’t find answers through our relationships and connections, but it is only deep within ourselves, our home, where we find what it is we seek for in life. We can’t help ourselves to be mesmerized by the darkness and its lure of artificial light. We’ve settled for superficial, less than, the loudest voices, glitz and lights, an impossible dream, and so on. We have not sought the light; we’ve wandered in the darkness, and whether we can admit it or not, we’ve liked it despite its ability to fulfill us.

This is the threshold in which we now stand. It feels even more relevant for me as I embark on another year of life following a year of tremendous upheaval and yet great peace and fulfillment. I’m not sure I’d even be in the place I am today, standing on such a profound threshold, if it wasn’t for the year which has passed, resigning, months living and working at Bethlehem Farm, countless miles traveling back and forth as my father was dying and his inevitable death, questioning what’s next, quasi-homeless, do I start my own business, and so forth. Is it any wonder there’s grief? Is it any wonder the threshold carries such magnitude? I know, though, I don’t stand there alone right now. A year ago, I felt it was a crossing I had to do on my own. Little did I know a pandemic would close out an already unusual year for me, and for that matter, welcome a new year. Yet, it’s what is reality at the moment, the one thing we try most to bypass. It’s a time for creativity, questioning, grieving, self-reflection, wandering in a darkness and seeking what really matters, our deepest values. We mustn’t fear the darkness of our own lives; it carries many of the answers in which we seek.

The grief we experience right now is real and profound. It contains all we have become and all we can be. It contains all our regrets and our dreams. It contains all our fears and hopes. We need not pass up the moment being given to us. We are given the time to do, individually and as a society, an examen of who we have become and question what we take beyond the threshold. As vast and wide as the threshold appears, it’s as narrow as the “eye of a needle” and so we only take what really matters now. It feels like tremendous loss, as if we can’t live without so much, and yet it’s the path towards the freedom we love to tout and the meaning and purpose we really desire. If moments like this don’t lead to deeper questions, we may never move to a place of deeper consciousness and continue to settle for our selfish ways, feeding a pain shared by one another and a tired earth. It doesn’t undermine the loss of life, the great suffering, and the utter darkness some experience in these days, but it is only hope and courage allowing us to take the next step for ourselves into the next year of our lives. For myself it comes in the form of a birthday, but for all of us it comes in the form of a new birth and a new world in a post-pandemic world, but first we grieve a world we can’t and mustn’t take with us beyond this threshold.

Undeliverable —>

Smack in the middle of Dante’s Circles of Hell is the sin of greed accompanied by the punishment of knocking rocks together for all eternity. It’s a spot often reserved for clergy (a blog for a different day), but one we certainly all participate in, a culture and society fully immersed in consumerism and the need to have, whether for a sense of security or even a sense of identity. Without a doubt, companies will do “whatever it takes to satisfy our customers,” without looking at the consequences of the employees and their own well-being, creating a hostile work environment. It is certainly something to reflect on during this time of gift buying and shipping as we go about the norm of accumulating more “stuff” this holiday season.

If you have read this blog regularly you know that I spent the better part of the past year living and working at Bethlehem Farm. To say that it has changed me profoundly would be an understatement. During the holiday season, though, I opted for a break to intentionally look at what’s next in life. Having a little time, I thought I’d do a side hustle to pass some time and so opted for a temp job with a worldwide shipping company which I began last week and quickly ended a few short days later. As I sit and write this, it was that image of Dante’s circles that came to mind about my experience of what it actually means to “satisfy our customers” at whatever cost.

When I told the supervisor that this was it for me, I explained to him that I have been a boss, a supervisor, worked in retail, delivered pizzas, and a whole other plethora of jobs over the years but none has been more inhumane than this one. There were two reasons I stopped myself from walking off the floor that morning. One, I feel for the people who rely on this for their survival. Second, because I felt for the people who were there, already short in number, who’d be left filling the hole I had left. As much as I often felt pain working on the farm, it was a pain that had meaning and purpose. The pain my body and soul has endured the past few days was empty. It was, as Dante describes, a living hell, and how quickly it left my body as I walked out of FedEx for the last time.

I couldn’t imagine, why, on the first day I had worked, people were cursing while they waited in line for a security check as they leaving the prison-like compound, and once through, running to their cars or to the bus. It didn’t take long to begin to understand the pain that went much deeper than the physical pain of moving boxes from a never-ending line along the conveyer. It was a pain of emptiness, a pain that lacked meaning and purpose. It’s a pain you can’t escape by simply taking a day off because it’s one that plagues the human condition. When it comes to doing anything to satisfy customers, bear in mind it comes at a great price, creating an environment of constant transaction, even when it comes to employees. As the driver approaches your house or business, remember there is a line of people out there somewhere moving all the packages, thousands upon thousands, to try to meet the “demands” and “expectations” of customers who await the perfect Christmas gift, the tree, dog food, heated toilet seats, an endless line of televisions, and anything else you could imagine.

If Dante was correct on anything, it was the placement of greed and gluttony next to one another in hell. They seem to feed off one another seen in the microcosm of that hub. The glutton experiences a personal degradation for overindulging. It comes blasted with selfishness and a coldness that runs deep, most certainly void of a humanity. In the deepest of human conditions there is a desire for more. It’s a “more” that we try to fill with countless possessions we “live to deliver”. We await with bated breath for the package arriving and overreact when it doesn’t, taking it out on another; our own form of transaction. However, what you may be unaware of is what happens prior to that package being delivered, hopefully with a smile, but without a doubt absent of meaning.

Behind all of our desires there are people who’s lives are impacted, lives that are treated more like animals or machines than they are humans, all to “satisfy our customers”. In these few days entering this compound and nearly unable to walk back to my car because of the pain, I’ve had the time to think and observe as boxes raced by me. I’ve had to think about the level of violence that is associated with our gift-giving and our incessant need to have more. Does any of it really satisfy? I have thought about my nieces and nephews a few times, giving me the incentive to work through the pain, especially for the ones that are still believers in the make-believe. I know their anticipation on Christmas morning. For the rest of us, though, there’s something wrong. There is something wrong with our values and priorities because this experience is a microcosm of the countless warehouses we pass driving along the highway, of the retail outlets with shelves bulging at the seams to satisfy our wants, jam-packed delivery trucks making deliveries with unrealistic expectations to satisfy customers but often at the price of an employees well-being. There’s a problem with the hell we have created.

The question I left with today as I limped to my car and sat gingerly behind the wheel, staring out the window as the rain fell was simply, when will it end? When will it change? If we maintain our own blinders as to how we participate in the madness, the price will continue to escalate as to what it does to our fellow human beings. Yet, if it doesn’t impact me directly and don’t see it with my own eyes, it must not exist and I can believe the blowhards that it’s all for the good. I’m not sure I could have believed any of it until I saw it with my own eyes and felt the pain myself.

I know the consistent response is that it offers people a job. That’s the conundrum that we face. It does provide a job, but it needn’t come at the price of violence against the dignity of the worker, where breaks are offered, free of grudge, putting the person along the line above “whatever it takes to satisfy”. I’ve been bullied, yelled at, not convinced I’ll actually receive my paycheck, given unrealistic expectations, witnessed the lack of fairness in the face of competition, lied to, and been the cog in the wheel of an eternal conveyer belt, watching package after package pass by and being sent to someone, somewhere to try to satisfy or maybe to try to take away the deeper longing for more in someone else’s life. You tell me if you’d ever work in such an environment? Will we ever get over our way of looking for more and trying to fill it with “stuff”? Will we ever value the worker, the human person, more than doing “whatever it takes to satisfy our customers”? Will we ever move beyond a simply transactional mentality to something more transformational?

All I know is, as much as I participate in it myself, I couldn’t, in good conscience, participate in this way. Almost every morning I wake up thinking about the other employees who are trapped, seemingly enslaved, in such a sick system. All I could do is feel for them, all who have worked next to me along the line, who stay, and hope for their sake that they too recognize they are worth more than “whatever it takes to satisfy our customers”. For all of us on the outside feeding this machine, just stop and at least remember how that package arrived and the people “on the bottom” who are responsible for getting it there. They, we, all deserve better than hell.

Hung Up

Anyone familiar with my history knows that water is central. As much as I have a great love of the ocean and find the water extremely healing, spending hours at a time in Maine near the ocean edge, it’s also been a source of great pain. Over the course of my life I have learned just how powerful water can be and how quickly life can change when you encounter water in a violent way, leaving its mark in ways that run currents deep within my very being that will flow through me for life.

Yet, there I was finding myself kayaking nine miles down the James River, not allowing that deeper fear of water to stop me from enjoying what I love most, just being outdoors and breathing in the air breathing through the surrounding forest, coupled with a refreshing splash of water with each dip of the oar pushing me forward. There are elements, though, that still arise that sense of fear and anxiety within me as I venture down the river. There’s something about keeping your eyes forward when you enter into an area of more rapid flow over the rocks, fearing getting caught up in the shallowness of the water and the rocky ground below.

It wasn’t far down the river when I found myself hitting one such area and getting hung up on a rock, unable to turn the kayak forward. The automatic response is one of fear and anxiety, as if going to tip over and falling into the water. I’m not sure why that would be such a fear knowing that it’s late summer and the water has a refreshing feel to the skin’s touch. Rather quickly, in trying to break myself free, the kayak tipped just enough to allow the water to begin to enter it; the flow coming directly into its opening. There was not much I could do to stop it, but without fear or any anxiety, I simply sat there and allowed things to happen as it was. The safest bet on the water is to not grow anxious in an anxious situation, even though it feels most natural.

It was then that I realized that I couldn’t do it alone. There was no “pull myself up by my bootstraps” in this situation, but rather the help of another was going to be required to dislodge me from the situation and set me free to further the journey down the river. All seems so simple after being dislodged but the experience of becoming hung up, the anxiety leading into that rapid, the letting go and allowing yourself to drift as you enter the experience, and knowing that the water has a mind of its own, allows you to recognize that much is out of our control and the help of others on the journey is a necessity.

There was a day when I would not have even considered going onto the river in that way. It became much easier to engage the river from the sidelines and simply “remember” what it was like during the days when I wouldn’t think twice about doing it. Sure some of it comes with age and wisdom, but for me it was that deeper sense of fear of what would happen to me and being turned upside down, out of my control, knowing that the river has a mind of its own, just as life often does. It’s easier to engage life from the sidelines and to simply be a judge of what’s going on. It is though a less fulfilling experience of kayaking and even life. Allowing ourselves to engage the fears and anxiety, even when it seems like the kayak is filling quickly around us, will always open us to being hurt but it’s the only way to experience life and love. The two accompany one another and even complement one another more than we can even begin to imagine.

As I’ve taken the time to reflect, and even laugh at, the experience on the James River, I think about how far I had come from that day back in October 2003 when I thought my life was coming to an end on the Youghiogheny River. The sense of panic at that time, along with tremendous fear of being trapped, had led me not only to great regrets in my life but has also opened the door to greater understanding of the human condition and how easily it is to no longer jump into the river and simply sit on the side wondering and regretting a life that could have been. It’s only in picking up the oar, jumping in the kayak, and even becoming lodged in the rocks, that reminds you that pain accompanies life and yet nowhere near the pain of loneliness that comes with disengaging from life and all it throws at us. With the help of others and a simple awareness of the real reality around us allows us to flow humbly down a river, enjoying every minute of it, and yet never becoming swallowed up by its great power.

Rubber Hits the Road

Acts 6: 1-7; IPeter 2: 4-9; John 14: 1-12

For the first four weeks of Easter much of what we’ve heard from Acts of the Apostles were these great speeches of Peter on Pentecost, reminding the people of what they are about as followers of the Way.  It’s about Christ crucified, raised from the dead, and the descent of the Holy Spirit moving them forward.  He was a witness of these events and expresses that experience of this paschal mystery, as the Opening Prayer eluded to today.

But today the rubber hits the road.  We all know from our own lives and experiences that all the talk of Peter can be just talk when it rubs up against the realities of people’s lives.  Despite Peter reminding them of who they are in this deeper inherent dignity that they share in the Christ, today it appears that it’s about to all fall apart around them.  There are these two groups referenced to today in Acts.  There are the Hellenists, the Greek-speaking followers and the Hebrews, the Aramaic-speaking followers and those who we might refer to insiders.  Many were witnesses of the events and hold true to the letter of the law and it begins to push against this new-found freedom of the Hellenists who are taking the community in another direction.  It creates this tension and animosity between the two all hinged on this prejudice that the Hebrews have against the Hellenists.

All of this, over the fact that the Hebrews wanted nothing to do with the Hellenists and wouldn’t help to take care of those in need, in particular, the widows.  They were blinded by their own prejudice and couldn’t recognize the need of the other.  It puts the disciples in a difficult place and they feel overwhelmed by what’s happening and fear an early split in the community and so find a quick-fix.  They appoint and anoint Stephen and these other, now what we call, deacons, to care for the widows who are being neglected.  However, they too are Hellenists and so on a deeper level they never address the real issue.  They don’t address the issue of the prejudice and find a fix to the problem.  It won’t go away, though, and will eventually lead to the first council of the church, the Council of Jerusalem where this tension will come to fruition and will become the stumbling stone to so many of the folks who only saw things one way, creating their own letter of the law, their own blindness.

It is that stumbling stone and cornerstone that Peter speaks of in today’s second reading.  Paul uses that language in his own writings and quite honestly, the stumbling stone and the cornerstone are one in the same, Christ Jesus and what it’s going to be to be followers of the Way.  The resistance they face in that early community is often resistance we face in our own lives.  We become so attached to the way things are done and what we have deemed as the only path that one must follow that we become blinded by our own narrow-mindedness.  It becomes our stumbling stone without even knowing it half the time because it becomes so entrenched in our lives that it becomes our own prejudice that we fail to see.  Like even the early community, for many of us we’d rather die than face the change in our lives that would lead to a fuller life.

That has been the over-riding message of John throughout this season and will be the Way that the disciples will now have to face and decide if they’re willing to confront as the approach Jerusalem and the crucifixion of Jesus.  Jesus is well aware of the difficulty of choosing to follow the Way and so offers words hope to a make-shift community that is about to experience pain and that stumbling stone in the Cross.  Of course we know that they pass through and experience that same freedom as the Hellenists but doesn’t mean it gets easier.  They will quickly learn as a community that this paschal mystery that we speak of is not a one-time deal but a lifelong process of conversion.  The community will have to learn that it must die and recreate in order to become the new creation that the Gospel has spoken of these weeks and to bring to fruition the words of Peter the past few weeks, that deep down, despite this prejudice that has existed and this tension that has risen up in the community, there is this inherent dignity that lies at the heart of who they all are, Hellenist and Hebrew alike, that can only be realized in this process of conversion and transformation, this process of cycling through the paschal mystery of life and death and life again.

It’s not easy for any of us and quite frankly, we become our greatest stumbling stone to change.  Our blinders become so think that we often fail to see the more abundant life that we are created for and allow ourselves to die for the letter of the law.  We become trapped as individuals, community, even nation and world, when we don’t open ourselves up to these tensions and allow ourselves to fall into them.  It’s messy and it’s difficult but it is the path of the Way and it’s what the followers of the Way had been called to.  Sure, maybe there are different paths, but at the heart of it all, when the rubber meets the road, first and foremost it is about conversion and the transformation of our own hearts, creating space within for the Mystery to change us, free us, and lead us to a more abundant life as individuals and as community.

 

A Man and His Raft

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**Spoiler Alert**  For some time I had thought about putting experiences from life and ministry into book form.  It’s taken me some time to even begin to have the courage to begin it and will take me much longer to do so, but it is finally in process.  For the first time, though, I share what the “Introduction” of that book would sound like which begins to spell out the “classroom of life”.  Until then, I’ll keep on writing and compiling!

It was October 2003.  It was a pivotal time in my life as I began my final year of priestly formation in preparation for Ordination in June 2004.  After seven years of formation, a switch in diocese, many adjustments, fallbacks, and growing in leaps and bounds, the day of anticipation was near and I can finally begin to feel it and accept that this is where God wanted me to be and who God wanted me to be and do with my life.  I had found some semblance of peace.

Then it happened.  Over Fall break, a group of us guys loaded up the cars for Western Pennsylvania to do some late Fall white water rafting.  Following Hurricane Isabel earlier in September and plenty of rain the following weeks, led to rather swollen rivers along the East Coast, including the Youghiogheny River.  I remember it as a cold, damp, and dreary October day with trees already beyond peak of the colorful season.  In some ways, that image can still describe the events that unfolded for me as we ventured down the river that morning.

This was not my first time rafting.  I had done it before and loved every minute of it, even, on occasion, falling out into the water, gasping for air as the water rushed through the rapids.  This day in October, though, was different.  As we approached the first rapid, I knew what to do if anything should happen.  Go with the flow of the water.  Don’t try to step on the bottom for fear of getting your feet stuck in the rocks, risking broken bones or drowning.  I knew it all, except one thing.  What do I do if I become trapped under the raft?  

I had no answer to it, but as we made our way into that first rapid, it’s quickly where I had found myself.  One of the guys in front of me had knocked me out with his paddle and there wasn’t much to do.  It took a moment to realize where I was and what had happened.  No one ever mentioned what to do in this case.  I realized I was trapped.  I had also realized, no matter how hard I pushed, I was not going to get the raft from on top of me, considering there were several full-grown men above me.  This is all happening so quickly now.  What do I do?  I remember things flashing before my eyes as I moved along with the raft above me.  My ability to hold my breath was beginning to wane.  In a flash, I thought my life was coming to an end.  That experience where everything and everyone flashes before your eyes was happening.  It was no longer someone else’s experience; it was my life.  This pivotal point in my life, the peace I had worked towards and God was leading me to, ordination on the horizon, and my life was about to end.

Needless to say, more than ten years have passed and I sit here writing, so I have made it to the other side and miracles have happened, but not before moving into some of the darkest moments of my life and the hardest questions that I ever had faced and a “me” I was finally, well, after years of fighting God, had to confront of who I really am, or better yet, let go of who I had seen me to be.  In many ways, my life was quickly coming to an end and I didn’t even know it.  The life I wanted and dreamed of, gone.  The life I thought I should have and expected, forgotten.  In a moment when I least expected, my life was coming to an end.  What was and is and ever shall be, plunged into the depths of the waters of the Youghiogheny, bound into a life that feared living.  A boy and his raft and only after years will a man begin to emerge.

I feared everything.  I feared going to bed.  I feared getting out of bed.  I feared, most especially, putting a pen to paper in my journal not knowing what would come out, or worse, who would come out.  An experience of a raft on rough waters, a cloudy, damp day, drowning in a life and world I had created and over time, would be no more.  Drowning, trapped, and suffocating had and have now become universal markers for life’s experiences that still at times scare me to put to paper.  Not because of what I would face and write, but more so who would read them, how they would be interpreted, and how they might be misunderstood.  What I feared most was that in no way was I worthy to write these words of these experiences and in no way would it ever meet the expectation of perfection in the eyes I had viewed life.  A fear of what others may actually think of life from the lens of a man who has carried a raft with him his entire life, using it as a place to hide and protect from the many dark moments that have been lived, and yet, not understanding at that moment how that raft would become the whiteboard on where I would begin to learn the meaning of life.  

On the pages that follow is that man’s story, my story.  It is a story that only I can tell but one relative to many lives.  It is a story of hope.  It is a story as seen through the lens of a sensitive man who was often afraid to admit that about himself.  It is a story about a man who loves God and leading others on that journey in finding God.  It is a story of a man who will create conflict in faith in order for others to find faith, for “when I am weak is when I am strong.”  On these pages is a story of a man who sees everything as a classroom, including the river and that raft.  Everything has something to teach and lead if we are open to and listening to everything; the same is true of us.  If we are awake in the moment, the consciousness of the world will speak and we will hear, maybe for the first time or in a new way.  One of the hardest things is finding and paying attention to that voice, trusting it, and speaking it from the place of worthiness within when so much has pointed you towards unworthiness throughout life, or so I thought.  This is a story of a young boy who has died and has come back to life as the man God is ever-creating him to be.