Then Come, Follow Me

These words have been with me the past few days in this journey of faith and understanding. Whenever they appear in the Gospels, they are typically preceded by some form of surrender and “letting go” which often does not mean a hill of beans to the disciples until it means everything. The most obvious is always what they can see with their eyes, of giving up possessions, wealth, and all the rest that is demanded of them, but it isn’t until they encounter utter darkness that it begins to mean something all-together different. It changes not only how they see themselves but the very God that calls them. Maybe it’s why we so often avoid the biggest leaps in our lives, knowing that what is demanded of us may be the very life we have grown to embrace over our lifespan, that has given us some form of secure identity in which to cling.

Let’s be real. It’s never easy to give up anything. We can easily convince ourselves in some kind of rational fashion that we can’t live without certain things or people because of some form of attachment that has grown over our way of relating to them. We create for ourselves, a form of dependence, rather than the interdependence that is demanded of us through our way of relating to God and mystery. Once it moves to a point of clinging or dependence, we begin to lose sight of the gift that lies before us, within us, and even beyond us. We create for ourselves our own gods that bring us comfort, certainty, and some form of security that we as humans look for, especially when it feels as if everything else around us is falling away and the world that we had once known ceases to exist.

For the disciples, and I’d say for most of us, it’s our way of thinking, our way of seeing the world, and the very illusions, all of which are too small for us, that become our greatest obstacles and even leads to a deep loneliness with and within ourselves because we live our lives separate from our truest selves, the self in which God created us to be. In an act of rebellion and violence against our truest selves, we choose paths and make choices in life rather than allowing the path to be revealed to and within us which demands way too much trust, faith, and patience that we often just don’t have time for in our lives and in the fast-paced world in which we live. This rebellion, violence, and fighting often manifests itself in the world, but at its core, it’s a fight against ourselves, against the darkness which we avoid within ourselves but see quite clearly in the systems, structures, institutions, and world in which we live. It’s not until we begin to become aware of the fight against when we realize we’re often fighting the wrong battle. It’s not that anything of the world need not change; our systems have become dysfunctional and self-serving. It by no way means, though, that the change first must begin with me, with us.

This is where the rubber meets the road for the disciples and us, when we become aware of what needs to change in our lives, what it is we have been fighting within ourselves, and to learn to love in a more radical way, even the areas in which we most fight and cling. When the disciples finally face that utter darkness, the novelty of what it is they see with their eyes, in which they need to surrender, becomes practically inconsequential to the greater battle which lies within and before them. The layers of life which must be shed, often rooted in fear, becomes the stumbling stone of their lives and our lives if we are to live from that truest place. Rather than identifying with the lifestyle in which they want to fit and what will define them, they choose, in freedom, to step out into the darkness of a life unknown, identified with the deepest sense of mystery. Then come, follow me.

It would be great if the gospel ended for the disciples and us when it is mere possessions that they are asked to give up. It would also be great if it ended, as it appears with our eyes to end, as simply gazing at the Cross and awaiting a day of resurrection. Following me, though, if we follow through with the message, isn’t simply about Jesus doing something for us. It’s only a half-truth. The other half is the demand we avoid and seemingly fail to see out of fear of what is being asked. Unfortunately, it’s what creates the co-dependent systems we find ourselves all too often operating within. The other half demands something of us and yet it feels like everything in those very moments. God can surely lead us to the cross just as Jesus does his disciples. But following doesn’t end at a gaze. Rather, following demands a humiliation we’d rather not encounter, a humiliation that leads straight through the Cross, hanging naked and exposed just as it does for Jesus.

The Mystery that culminates in Holy Week and the continuous call to follow is not a play in which we stand as bystanders, looking on and giving praise for a job well done come the Resurrection. If it is, we’ve missed the point of being true to ourselves and to the very God that has created. This is the violence and rebellion we do against ourselves. The journey of Jesus is our journey as well, not only the truth and the life, but also the way. When we allow ourselves to enter into the drama and the utter darkness, the humiliation of coming out of a life, a thinking, an illusion once lived and clung to only then can the mystery we celebrate and live begin to make sense in a deeper way. Like the disciples, all else become inconsequential to the great surrender that is being asked and demanded in order to live the deeper truth of who we are, rather than settling for a gaze or the role of bystander or victim of a world thrust upon us. Instead, we learn to live from the inside out, and for that matter, upside down.

What precedes, then come, follow me, is consequential to the call of discipleship and the radical love in which God demands. What follows, though, is even more consequential. Giving up what we see with our eyes is often incomparable to what has been buried within our hearts, often avoided out of the very humiliation that now stands before us and the Cross. For the disciples, and us, to truly follow as Jesus demands, we must move beyond a gaze of the Cross to bearing it in our most challenging moments, knowing that He walks and carries it with us. It is the only path to the freedom our hearts desire and the only path to the radical love that the gospel demands for we are created in the very image to love and to be loved, finding our deepest value, worth, and truth, in love. Then, and only then, come, follow me.

Dear God…

For many years now I have spent a great deal of time writing Letters to God.  I believe it all started after seeing the movie under the same name, of a young boy struggling with cancer who thought God was the only one who would understand, despite the unending doubts and dissatisfaction of everyone around him.  It all began in similar fashion for me as well.  They began rather briefly without much depth, often with a question that burdened me or something that just didn’t make sense.  It was a way of getting out of me what so often seemed to become internalized, and being freed from the burden that often became associated with the question, the thought, the experience, or whatever it may have been in that time and space.  Needless to say, the way we have internalized experiences is not always the way it really happened.

Since then, I have written literally hundreds of pages, binders full of these letters that I would not want to share with anyone.  There’s only one person I have, but that’s a story for another day.  It wasn’t simply, at one point, being accountable to someone larger than myself, like God, but to another person who could mirror back, free of judgment, shame, and fear, my deepest thoughts and experiences.  It’s funny, if you would have asked me when I was young what I wanted to be when I grew up, a writer would never even have crossed my lips.  Always, a teacher, but also meteorology a close second.  The natural world still fascinates me and feel at home there, but it has also given me much to write about, and more importantly, a path to redemption over and over again, seeing creation as God’s first and greatest act, and myself intimately connected.

The letters, though, over time, have become more complicated and more nuanced.  I often have to return to them for my own reference, unsure where some of it even comes from, supposing a place deep within me.  It has become a place where I can freely be myself and allow my imagination to engage on levels I could not have imagined even existed, a place where I can often become lost, wander, and over time, be found while finding myself.  They are letters that are filled with quotes, movie scenes, and other images and metaphors that become attached as a means to going deeper and to discover with greater certainty, the One in which the letters are written.  Not only has it been a discovery of the complexity of mystery and the unknown, but how true it is of my own life and how easily any of us can allow ourselves to become imprisoned where and when we feel most comfortable, exiled from the very mystery we fall in love with, even when we feel as if we don’t belong.

I never knew if God was really listening, just as it is with people.  I often wondered if God understood what often felt like one misunderstanding after another.  It’s never been about the peripheries, the trappings that often capture our attention as humans, but rather a quest for the marrow of life, what makes it tick, what gives it meaning and purpose, what and who gives life.  I’m just as guilty as the next, believing there’s an easy answer or fix to what comes at us in life, but it often takes a blow to knock that type of illusion from our hearts and eyes, when we begin to experience that God has been listening all along; I just wasn’t aware of how much he was listening because of the illusions that crippled me and were used as a crutch to hold onto what was never real in the first place, but was a way to protect, to feel comfortable, to hide in fear from what it was I desired the most.  It was hidden all along and in plain sight.  It wasn’t God’s fault, revealing the path, step by step, but rather my own inability to let go, to surrender, to the very mystery that captivated me from the beginning.

So here I sit writing, in a similar format, with questions that in the past would have seemed insurmountable but now are a part of this ongoing quest for truth and love.  Dear God; they are sometimes the easiest words to put on the paper.  The doubt of God listening never seems to completely disappear, and maybe that’s the point.  It’s in that doubt where courage is found to write what comes next in that letter or any of them for that matter.  At first the words that followed came out with great trepidation, not always wanting to put into words what was really going on within me because somehow, once out, they become real, as if words being breathed become embodied in some way.  When I’m asked if I’ll ever share such writings, I hesitate.  My experiences, like any, are very personal.  They’re about difficulties with identity, love, heartbreak, struggles, questions, joys, and all the rest.  Of course, that’s what binds us all in the human family.  We all have a story to share and is important to share that story so hopefully one day the words that follow, Dear God, will lead me in that direction.

A friend shared with me a quote from a book this week (which has a lot of great quotes) entitled, Poverty of Spirit.  The author says this, “We are all beggars.  We are all members of a species that is not sufficient unto itself.  We are all creatures plagued by unending doubts and restless, unsatisfied hearts.  Of all creatures, we are the poorest and the most incomplete.  Our needs are always beyond our capacities, and we only find ourselves when we lose ourselves.”  He goes onto write, “Left to ourselves, we still remain the prisoner of our own Being…if we attempt this [hiding], the truth of our Being haunts us with its nameless emissary:  anxiety…in the final analysis we have one of two choices:  to obediently accept our innate poverty or to become the slave of anxiety.”  I’m convinced we are all beggars when we utter the words, Dear God, but I’m also nearly certain that we come begging for the wrong thing.  More often than not we come to God begging for answers, only leading to a greater anxiety when answers are not found.  The true invitation to losing ourselves is living into the unknown of the very question that leave us with doubt, restlessness, and unsatisfied hearts.  The answers may, and probably never will, come, but in time we begin to embody the question that God has placed in our hearts and begin to step into and out of our deepest selves, our truest selves, where we no longer need to cut off or shun who it is within us that remains prisoner.

What started as two simple words of imitation of a young boy in a movie, Dear God, has led me to many places within myself and beyond that I will never fully comprehend, but it also leads me to this point in my life right now.  Somewhere in the pages and pages of writing, God has led me to a choice and an invitation to enter into the unthinkable, of surrendering myself to that interior poverty that scares and yet is most enticing and seductive.  As I said, it’s never been about the peripheries, the pomp, the dress, the performance, but rather about this journey that binds us all, from our own sense of exile, crossing threshold after threshold, to a deeper understanding of the promised land that lies within and yet so far beyond my own comprehension.  Needless to say, it comes with a sense of fear, stepping beyond the walls that have held me tightly and have given great comfort, but that too is simply a passage, a threshold to cross, just as any new birth, into an unknown world.  The difference is trusting that journey and trusting that whatever follows, Dear God, will once again be yet another invitation to a new way of living, a new way of loving, a new way of learning to embody the deeper questions of life and living that revelation as, again, God’s first and greatest act of creation.

Convergence

acadia

“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods.  Wash your spirit clean.”  John Muir

“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”  Jacques Yves Cousteau

Mountains and Seas, unlike most other natural realities, have a way of pulling us out of ourselves and often moving us to the needed and necessary perspective on life.  For me, Maine has become the home of where the two converge into one, where climbing can lead to some of the deepest places and the depths of the sea move you to some of the highest reaching points of discovery, all at the same moment.  Even upon departure there’s a sadness that overcomes in that, with the return to the world of life and work, where depth and heights are all but a mystery, stagnant, and even discouraged, the longing and call to nature never leaves, that, as Cousteau points out, casts a spell and captivates forever.  Nature has the ability to seduce us in ways unlike much else, pointing to greater depths and heights that often can only be left to the imagination.

A great deal has been written about nature depravity that has become the norm in our culture.  The days of spending our summer’s as kids outdoors and using our imaginations has all but dissipated with time.  The use of electronics, structured play, and all the rest may have progressed us as a people, but the long-term impact of cutting ourselves off from what is most important and what provides us meaning in our lives will be hard to recover in the generations that follow.  Despite the relentlessness that nature can have on us, as we see through the extremes of weather plaguing the globe, its ability to show compassion and care for the wanderer and seeker isn’t to be overlooked.

Climbing a mountain or spending that week in the woods along the endless shoreline, resurrects that child within to expand the imagination and open the heart to new possibility.  Even in watching others hiking along side at times, it was fascinating to see that much of it was about accomplishing another task, just as we do in our work lives, in order to move onto the next mountain or the path that follows, rather than allowing ourselves to stop and be in the moment, allowing the natural world to speak to and with our souls.  More often than not it speaks a language that remains foreign to us, not dictated by ourselves but by the eternal and the unearthed creation in which we share and walk, hand in hand.

Over time the line and all that separates begins to fall away like scales from the eyes, noticing the intricacy of a freshly spun web, the movement of the fog that seems all too real in life at times, the fallen trees that have been given the proper reverence to return to the earth untouched in order to continue the cycle, all of this unfolding before our eyes and within our very beings waiting to be explored and discovered all anew as if seeing it for the first time yet over and over again.  The natural world, in all its beauty and wonder, provides us all with what we are often lacking in our lives, the natural silence in which can only be heard the groans of new birth breaking forth from the earth, mirroring to us the gift that is freely being offered to us in this very moment if we can only allow ourselves to stop, to breathe, to surrender, and to recall from where and whom we have come.  As much as things change, life and death and the perpetual mystery that surrounds remains intact, ever-true and ever-deepening, nature pointing the way to the naturalness of it all.

It was, though, the guide while whale watching, that reminded us all that we only but see the surface with any of it.  What lies beneath the sea remains unexplored and ever-expanding.  Her reminder to all, whether it was heard or not, is true of each of us.  We only see what our eyes allow us to see in any given moment while so much remains undiscovered.  We trust that what is unseen is there and contains much life but our own fears prevent us from embarking.  The mountains of Acadia, as breathless as the are to see, pale in comparison to what lies beneath in the depths of the earth and sea that continues to call us forth.  Noise, life, distractions, success, accomplishments, and all the rest act as faithful guards to the unexplored.  I don’t have the time.  I’m busy with work.  I can’t get away.  Excuse and excuse, at our own doing, keeps us safe from going to such places and not closing the gap between nature and ourselves, and even more so, closing the gap between me and myself and you and yourself.  Nature opens the door to another world, a world of possibility and healing, a world in which we desperately want to hide, or for that matter, avoid.

It doesn’t take long to begin to feel that loss when, after being immersed for days, we return to life and what often feels so unnatural.  The beckoning and longing only seem to deepen and yearn all the more as the days and years march on.  In these moments of my own life I’m not sure I could even stop myself from making that time to return in order to be found once again, breathing a sigh of relief that all is right with the world again and again, freely falling into the hands that wait.  Until then, the memories remain of the light dancing off the water, waves crashing against the sea, stumbles and falls, tears and joy, of all that the natural world continues to provide for me and so many others that feel that deprivation.  If anything, it stands as a safe place, a place that only wants you to be you and nothing else and where nothing else matters.  It allows us to stand naked, unashamed and unafraid, in all our own highs and lows, light and darkness, and even the glimpses of the shadows that provide shelter.  When the mountains and sea converge into one the consequence is a convergence in our own lives, standing in the tension of life and death, what stays and goes, while continuing to walk on and through, allowing mystery to be revealed step by step.

A Liberated Critic

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; 2Peter 3: 8-14; Mark 1: 1-8

The Advent Season raises up this rather peculiar character this week and next, John the Baptist.  He really is one of the more complex characters we encounter.  There is this rather hipster vibe that he portrays by what he wears and eats and just wandering out in the wild, the desert.  Yet, at the same time, he comes off as this rather fire and brimstone kind of guy, together just making him complex and very much a paradox to himself.  He is one of the great prophets, along with Isaiah, whom we hear from this season, pointing us, often, right into the desert.

The one thing about the Baptist, though, is that there is a sense of freedom and liberation about him.  In these very brief encounters, despite his strong words, it comes from a place within.  He even mentions today that one mightier than I is to come and he shows that in his words and actions.  He remains grounded as a prophet in the eternal Christ, giving him the freedom and integrity to be who he is, despite the hesitation of the leaders towards him at that time.  In John’s Gospel he’ll go onto say that I must decrease and he must increase, in reference to the Christ. 

We all have that prophetic voice within but all too often it becomes separated from the Christ leading more to a rather self-critical voice instead.  We all know what that’s like and have seen it in ourselves and others when it’s more about criticizing but not coming from a deeper place.  It is part of Israel’s storied history as it is ours.  If they are consistent with anything it’s separating themselves from the Eternal and they end up becoming their own worst enemy.  Here they are, again, moving out of Exile, a second exodus for Israel, and they quickly begin to return to their old ways.  They resort to their own critical voice and despite being led from exile remain far from free nor liberated from what it had done to them.  They become the source of discrimination, war, and oppression, clinging to an institutionalized god who no longer serves.  As a matter of fact, when we cling to the critical thoughts that aren’t grounded in the Christ, they begin to strangle the divine and squelch the voice of the Spirit working within.  Israel remains symbolic of our own story as individuals and nation.

Then there is the Baptist.  As I said, a rather peculiar fellow that we encounter and yet often feared by the religious and political leaders because of this liberating element to him.  More often than not they don’t like what he has to say.  They become his greatest critics, and as we know, eventually leads to his beheading.  Even that becomes symbolic of cutting off that place where so many of the self-critical thoughts come from.  That wasn’t the case with the Baptist though.  It’s what they never understood about him.  His prophetic voice wasn’t coming simply from some heady place.  It was coming from deep within his very foundation.  What appeared to them as fearful thoughts was actually the eternal working through the Baptist from deep within his heart and soul.  That’s the freedom and liberation that this complex character exemplified.  For John, this message of repentance, of totally turning around and looking at life differently, being grounded in the eternal is what it’s all about.  John never forgot his own place and it wasn’t the Christ.  One mightier than I is to come.  I must decrease and he must increase.  It’s the mantra of the season.

And so we have these two great prophets pointing the way to freedom and a deeper way of life, an about-face to be liberated for the eternal.  The avenue to that freedom, though, is through the desert.  Isaiah tells us “In the desert prepare the way”.  Other than when he’s jailed all we know of the Baptist is through this desert experience.  Many throughout our history have physically gone to the desert to experience the wildness of their own hearts and souls, to see what they were already feeling within.  Maybe that’s why so many are drawn to the Baptist at that time.  It becomes symbolic of the soul’s journey for so many in Scripture, the vast, wide, emptiness that we often fear becomes the place of transformation, freedom, awareness of our own critical voice and liberation from within.  Our lives and the about face is from being led from the external world to the interior world which holds the eternal.  This is what makes Isaiah and the Baptist who they are.  It’s what separates them, so often, from activists even of our own day.  It comes from the depths of their souls and they know it as truth, as the eternal.

Peter reminds us in the second reading today, thankfully, that God remains patient with us through this process of transformation.  The more the eternal is freed up from the strangle of the critical and we become aware that the critical is not God, the more we begin to experience not the institutionalized god we have come to know but rather the God of mystery and freedom, and true freedom at that.  Like Israel we can say we’re free all we want but if we’re still holding on from within we haven’t experienced the divine in that way.  Peter reminds us that what is not of God will all be dissolved anyway so why not open ourselves up to mystery and to the unknown God.  Be eager for peace.

As we continue this Advent journey and encounter these redeemed prophetic voices of Isaiah and the Baptist, we pray for the awareness in our own lives of that critical voice that is still in need of being liberated.  God desires so much more for each of us and yet we tend to settle for much less.  When we move from being led by that critical voice to being led by and with love, our lives are changed forever.  We, like the Baptist, are complex creatures often in need of love and redemption more than anything.  This season we’re invited into the desert of our own souls, with a very patient God, where a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day, to experience our lives and how we see ourselves and the world in a very different way.  No longer grounded in criticism, control, and fear, the institutionalized gods we create in our lives, but rather the God of love, freedom, and liberation, pointed to us by the Baptist himself.

Seeking Our Truest Self

Isaiah 53: 10-11; Hebrews 4: 14-16; Mark 10: 35-45

One of the central teaching of the writings of Thomas Merton, whom Pope Francis referenced when he spoke to Congress, is what he would call a tension between the true self and the false self. By false self he means, in simple terms, the illusion we create for ourselves of who we think we should be, who we want others to think we are, our ego, it’s a small self that we create that often protects us from being hurt, which itself is an illusion. By true self he means our deepest identity in Christ or as some have put it, the largest conversation our soul can have with the world. Now it’s not that the false self is bad or anything like that; it just is and isn’t all at the same time. He goes onto say that it creates a tension within ourselves that we wrestle with our entire lives and the more we become aware of it, the more we can let it go and recognize our greatest self, our true self, and live from that place. But it’s not just individuals. The community wrestles with this tension. I believe the country continues to wrestle with this reality. And for that matter, if you’ve followed any of the Synod of Bishops in Rome these weeks, it also happens in the Church, asking who we really are about, our truest and deepest self.

I thought of that when I reflected upon this gospel of James and John seeking something that they really aren’t versed in. Really, if they had found that place within, they wouldn’t even ask the question about places of honor because they would know it’s a moot question. But they do, and of course, Jesus doesn’t condemn or belittle them, but like the rich young man last week, continues to love them and lead them to that deeper place, to their true selves. When they stand in opposition to Jesus, it in many ways represents that interior struggle that we encounter in our lives. They too are living with this illusion and it stands face to face with Christ. They have an illusion of who they are in relation to him. They have an illusion about who they think Jesus is. You know, they have all the right answers as the gospels go on in naming his identity. He is the Christ; he is the Savior; he is the Son of God. They got it all right, but they look at it through this illusion of false power that they have created. They think he’s some leader to overthrow the Roman rulers or something of the sorts and they want a piece of that! Of course, it’s not just James and John. Mark reminds us that the other ten become indignant at the two of them for asking, probably because they too had thought about it, mindful that it was just a few weeks ago that they were arguing about who was the greatest! They spend their time fighting an illusion rather than seeking Jesus for who he really is and who they really are.

Merton would say that it is one of the greatest struggles that we must face as adults, letting go of these illusions. It will be an experience of the Cross like no other. It won’t be just what they see as they watch their friend Jesus die up there, nailed to a tree, but rather than interior crisis that they will face through that event that shakes them at their very core. Their eyes will be opened to the true identity of Jesus and for that matter, their truest self and essence as well. Their lives will be changed forever because they then know that not even the suffering of death can defeat life; they will have found what it was they had always looked for and yet always had, all at the same time.

We have a tendency to lump all suffering together and at times, even equate it all with sin. If we stay in that small self, that’s what usually happens because sin then becomes all about morality. Yet, Merton and others would stress that it has more to do with living in that false self and succumbing to someone less than we really are. We hear of the Suffering Servant in the first reading and a God who sympathizes with our weaknesses in the Letter to the Hebrews today. And yes, this God does stand with us in our physical pain and great suffering in that way, but this God also shows us the way to the fullness of life that we desire as individuals and as community. It’s not in seeking that power as James and John do in today’s Gospel. Jesus reminds them and us that when we seek it beyond ourselves, we end up abusing it and lording it over others. That’s not true power. He leads them and us into the recesses of our being. Through the suffering of the Cross, the illusions that we create for ourselves and others are broken open and our true self is revealed. We no longer have to hold onto something that isn’t real in the first place, although it sure does feel like it. We no longer have to live in such a small space but rather recognize the tension within ourselves, let it go, and live freely the life we have been given. We all know we have one chance at this and although this path and way that is taught to us can be very painful, smashing through our illusions, it’s the way to the eternal and the breaking in of the Kingdom in our own lives. Who of us wouldn’t wan that? We pray that the illusions of our own lives are broken open, we stop fighting and holding onto it, and allow ourselves the opportunity to live from a different place of power, our truest self in the depths of our hearts and souls.

Restless For Our True Identity

Isaiah 50: 5-9a; Mark 8: 27-35

Each year around the anniversary of 9/11 I try to reflect a little on where we’ve come from and where we still need to go into the future. I decided a couple years ago to stay away from news and media that day because it tends to be a rehashing of all that took place that day, which I don’t know really how healthy that is for any of us. None of us around at that time will ever get those images out of our minds. However, we live with this sense that we mustn’t forget; not really sure just how possible that is anyway. Maybe, on our part, it’s a little bit of survivors guilt. We always speak of how united we were after that and then followed by great division. Now I’m not sure how much of that is true or how much is imposed upon us, but a reality nonetheless.

I think that division is somewhat related to the question posed by Jesus today, asking who people say he is, a question of identity. As much as we don’t want to forget, it, at times, also holds us back from moving forward. That happens as a country, as a city, as individuals, and as a community. With dwindling numbers and aging parishes, there is always a question of who are we, not wanting to let go and yet know we must go deeper into the mystery of the identity that we are. So much of our identities are through the relationships we have and are a part of. Others tell us who we are or should be. We identify by the groups we are a part of and so on. Yet, at some point, we begin to question whether there is something more to us, as individuals and as community. What has been imposed on us and what we’ve taken on no longer suffices.

The same is true in this gospel when Jesus asks the question of the disciples. They start by saying what everyone else is saying about him not who he really is. Some say Elijah, others John the Baptist, and the list goes on. Even Peter answers with the correct answer and yet still gets it wrong. He knows what Jesus wants to hear, you are the Christ, and yet, Peter doesn’t know what any of that means. Jesus tries to tell and Peter immediately rebukes any sense of suffering that accompanies. Yet, in Mark’s gospel, today marks a pivot on the plot. The shift now becomes Jerusalem and the prediction of the passion that will ensue, and the story takes a dramatic turn. The true identity of Jesus, and for that matter, us, will be revealed in the mystery of life and death that we call the Cross; not something out there somewhere, but right here in our very hearts. The disciples still don’t know their own identity, other than in relation to Jesus and as fishermen. They haven’t found the gift nor paid the price to get to the point where they too can, as Jesus says, “deny himself, take up his cross, and then follow me.” They don’t even know what that means yet or what it is that they are being asked to give up; but they will soon enough.

Long before there was ever such an image of the Cross there was Isaiah, who we hear from in today’s first reading. Isaiah never gives up on the divine identity within. No matter how much is suffered, the rejection as a prophetic voice, the shame, no matter what, Isaiah recognizes that there is something more that drives him forward and he doesn’t give up on it. He remains true to the restlessness within himself, even in the face of such adversity, knowing that there’s got to be something more for him. He continues to seek out that divine identity within; even for him, the mystery of life and death that makes him who he is, his true identity in the great Christ. When it seems that God is asking the impossible of him or of the disciples, they recognize, even if they don’t know it at the time, that this restlessness and this tension within them keeps them moving forward in pursuit of the divine and their true identity.

It’s hard work, which is why we probably avoid it at all costs. It’s easier to accept how others identify us, reference us, tell us who were supposed to be, but we also will never be satisfied with that. There will always be that nagging, the restlessness, and that tension, trying to pull us deeper into this mystery we call faith and the mystery we call us, our community, our city, and our nation. We must accept both halves of the mystery, life and death, but it is the fullness of our identity in Christ and people of faith. We will never be satisfied with anything other than who we really are, but we must be patient with the tension and not be quick to fix or go back to what was, to throw everything out, before we know what it is that we are being asked to deny and give up. We pray that we have the patience to sit with the tension and the question of our own identity, and to know when the Cross calls us to surrender into the great mystery and become the fullness of who we truly are in Christ.

Breaking Through

Job 7:1-4,6-7; Mark 1:29-39

No one has more right to live a “woe is me” life than that of Job. The story we hear in the first reading today sounds dismal, dark, lost, whatever you want to call it. He says life is a drudgery. He says he shall never see happiness again. How hopeless to us Sunday listeners of the word! Yet, it’s where Job was at, where we are often at in our own lives, living outside this place of hurt, suffering, and our own lostness in life, pleading with God and for God’s grace to break through into our world and lives.

Yet, we are all too familiar with Job’s story. We know suffering in many different ways, but maybe he provides us today a chance to look at it differently and what’s going on interiorly with Job. It’s safe to say, over the course of this archetype’s life that the God that Job thought he believed in was not the God that he encountered. Such suffering comes when this begins to break down in his life and in ours as well. From the time we are kids, we hold onto what we think God is about and for some, they never move beyond that. We live in this constant fear, that like Job, somehow God is going to strike us down, continue to test us, push us down until we break. And maybe all along that’s exactly what God is trying to do by breaking us down. Not in the sense of being beaten up and pushed into the ground, but to begin to allow the grace of God to break through into our lives and through us into the world to let go of a god that no longer is. It’s painful and hard stuff for all of us because the story of Job is my story and it is your story because the God we grew up with, and for that matter, created for ourselves over the course of our lives, isn’t the God that is going to transform us and free us from the pain and suffering of the moment. Quite honestly, that god only leaves us trapped in our suffering so that it begins to feel like Job, where life is a drudgery and we start to think that we will never see happiness again because we aren’t living out of the place of grace and freedom, precisely where the true God, who heals the brokenhearted, is trying to lead Job and each of us.

Jesus once again this week goes to that sacred space as he did last week with the disciples. He once again is going to model to the disciples the life they are to lead. He goes on to heal Simon’s mother-in-law and many others who are afflicted with suffering, illness, and once again, demons. He again tries to lead them to that interior place within their souls, but not before the journey of the cross in breaking down their own ideas and images of God, like with Job, because for the disciples as well, the god they thought they knew won’t be the God of their experience and the God that is going to call them to the deep waters of their own souls and to begin to live life from this true place, the place within, where the grace of God flows and heals our own brokenness and those who come seeking healing in their own lives. Jesus then goes on to model for them the necessity of prayer on this journey to the true God. He goes off to find solitude and silence, despite the searching of all, as the gospel tell us. He knows that already and continues on, leading us forward to that place we desire.

My experience, personally and also as a priest, is one that a great deal of the suffering that we experience daily is brought on by ourselves. We hold so tightly, as Job does, to things that aren’t real or may not exist or certainly don’t bring fulfillment into our lives because it’s all we know. Like the cast of characters we meet today, we too are called to live the journey to the true God because we too hold onto images of god that we have created for ourselves, our survival god, if you wish, who isn’t the true God to begin with. The journey to and of the cross is an experience of letting go of these gods and finding the love of the true God, the God that calls us to live our lives from a different place, a place within that leads to fulfillment. Until then, we will remain restless and desiring and wanting something more out of our lives, often feeling like Job because we aren’t living out the call God has placed within. God calls us to live out of our own sacred space and calls us to let go of the life of drudgery and unhappiness, not a life God has given us, but a life we so often have created for ourselves but now is being broken down so we may live fully in God’s grace and love. God is breaking in at this very moment of our lives, desiring for us to accept it and ultimately, to live it faithfully and with great hope to the world.