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


**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.