Terror of the Dark Night

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It comes in the form of feeling trapped. For anyone who knows my story, you know I nearly lost my life whitewater rafting more than fifteen years ago now. I will never forget the feeling, the feeling of being trapped. For me, it’s the experience of anxiety. Sure, there are many other manifestations of anxiety in people’s lives. I can simply speak of my own experience. It’s the feeling of drowning, for others, death, still others, trapped in a confined place, a closet, the sense of losing it all, things falling apart around me, the loss of control. The way it becomes embodied in our lives, because it does take shape in the body, are far too numerous to spell out here. Anyone who is at least somewhat self-aware knows and understands, to some degree, how it becomes manifest.

I still remember being called by a funeral director asking if I could come to a cemetery while a body is being transferred from underground into a mausoleum. As I began talking to the daughter of the one being exhumed, I began to understand its link to anxiety and an irrational fear. Here she was, making an expensive decision, based on her own fear. This was not the first, but now going to be the third burial place for her mother’s burial. To the rational mind we’d automatically deduce she’s crazy, and on some level, it is a madness or an insanity knowing we make decisions all the time out of irrational fears. She insisted to me her mother was claustrophobic and needed to be exhumed from the ground while never recognizing a mausoleum isn’t much different, going from one enclosed “resting” place to another. It was clear the daughter was not getting much rest herself.

It is a real problem for many, even on a societal level and begins to become all the more evident the further we embark on unchartered, or as we like to define everything, unprecedented, territory with the coronavirus pandemic. Very little is spoken of about mental health during this crisis but all seems to be surfacing the longer we find ourselves confined to a particular place. Again, there is the feeling of being trapped, cornered, confined, loss of control, aggressively moving itself to the surface. Unfortunately, we all find ways to keep it locked inside, but in some ways, now being confined to places, the external world has met up with the internal world we learned to avoid. We do it through overwork, eating, drinking, gluing ourselves to phones and pads, all to take “the edge” off in order to relax. It’s always been there but the pandemic is forcing us to slow ourselves and no longer run from our own pain and fear finding themselves bubbling to the surface.

Now I am not a mental health professional but I am a self-aware individual who’s done a lot of work on himself and understands the interior landscape. I, too, like many still run at times from my own pain. More often than not it’s because I’m just not ready to look at it but know it’s there. The easiest way we learn to deal with it is blame everyone else for our problems. It’s a good indicator of someone who has not done the hard, interior work. We even see this played out on a large scale when we blame, ridicule, put down, others because of our own inability to take responsibility for where are lives are at and an underlying resentment also feeding into our anxiousness. Most successful corporations are aware of the human condition and even hire psychologists to assist in their success. Steve Jobs never hid the fact of the inception of Apple coming from biblical reference and the unsettlement within human beings to want more.

Now we find ourselves at this crossroad, however, when we can begin to turn the system on its head because it has taken advantage of the weakness of our humanity. It’s one thing as an individual to tackle our own uneasiness, angst, or anxiety which remains the great “invisible enemy” in which we are at “war” with on a daily basis. It’s there and now is beginning to surface. We need to keep ourselves busy, it appears, get back to normal and work, so we can avoid the interior reality all the more. What we seem to fail to see is the energy required to blame, to remain victim, as if someone else is still responsible for our lives. Why on earth would we want to go to our grave miserable having never lived the life we wanted to live? There is a great freedom when we finally recognize the war we fight is against ourselves and no one else.

I think about all the energy I expended fighting everyone else. It’s not to say there aren’t times for it, but generally speaking the damage it does to my health and well-being, including my mental health, is a toll all too expensive. I understand it’s a painful process entering into your own anxiety and pain, but it is a necessary one as individuals and as a nation. If we don’t stop the blame game soon, the anxiety will only continue to deepen, the pain widens, and the feeling as if we are suffocating ourselves, as respiratory diseases do, will only begin to intensify. As a country we have shown our pride, but pride too has a dark side. It is the avoidance of our arrogance and ignorance as if we know better than the world and everyone else and our inability to say we need help. How many avoid the care of a mental health professional simply out of pride? The price, your own well-being. Is it worth it?  Ask for help.

Anxiety and pain are real and has an impact on our lives which goes unnoticed and unrecognized. If this time of quarantine and physical distancing should teach us anything, it’s the wake up call we should have anticipated for a long time. It’s not God smiting us for some bizarre reason, that too is blame. It’s not someone trying to do us in, that’s conspiracy. It’s not the world against me, that’s pride. It is, however, the world we have created and have bought into as being “The American Way”. If you still feel you’re not responsible, well, hopefully one day you’ll move beyond the stage of denial. It is after all a grieving process we find ourselves going through these days. Denial is everywhere around us and within us, avoiding the harsh reality that life isn’t always the way we dreamed or expected. It’s only when we move to the stage of acceptance where we can finally say, “you know what, that’s ok.” I no longer need to fight or blame but rather recognize and accept we are complicated people of both great joy and pain, victim and victor, winner and loser, and all the other paradoxes which make up the human condition.

Do yourself a favor. In this time of pandemic, look at it is opportunity, even our inability to gather as faith communities. We focus too much on the inconveniences of life. There are certainly economic and personal implications. We mustn’t deny it. However, there is also plenty of opportunity. We were designed for simplicity and not just from material things, but all we hold onto. Take the time to journal and write about your own pain, where life seemed to have treated you wrongly, the incessant uneasiness within yourself, the times you can’t breathe, all of it.  Go for a walk in nature and allow it to speak and allow yourself to listen. It’s the pain often making the decisions of holding you back from the life you had wanted and desired. In the end, we aren’t much different than the daughter unearthing her mother over and over again. We all just find different ways of doing it in order to avoid the most fragile part of what makes us human, our pain, hurt, and anxieties.

Use this time to go there and then you will find hope in the midst of pandemic and see just how much you’ve allowed yourself to be bamboozled by a ruthless world not because they’re out to get you and destroy you, but rather because it’s a world which hurts and acts out of the same place as your own pain, hurt, fears, and anxiety. There is already an anchor within you waiting to hold you down in the storm rather than being swept away in despair and depression. “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” It is, after all, a matter of the heart we need to learn to deal with for it is the heart which holds the pain and our head, our ego, trying at all cost to avoid, blame, and make us victim. No one can make the decision for you, not even me, all I can do is act as a guide on this journey to self-awareness. If anything, it will change the way you see the world and yourself. In the end, it’s all we can really ask for ourselves, for we need to fear the “terror of the night”.

Counterfeited Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Will It Slip Us By?

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At times, some of the greatest lessons we learn come from what at the time appeared to be an inconvenience. Now I’d be the first to admit the pandemic we now face as a human race ranks higher than an inconvenience, a blip on the screen. At least it certainly feels like more knowing how it’s changing our lives, and, quite frankly, not necessarily bringing the best out of us as if we face survival of the fittest. Hopefully in the end we’ll see how irrational the fear we operate out of can be and often inhibits our ability to handle chaotic situations. When we hear stories about hoarding toilet paper and Clorox products, as if we’ve never used the products before, it should simply make us cringe, showing the little concern we have of the other in our world!

For those of us who have to consciously work at not isolating ourselves, it can be really difficult. We’re told we need to distance ourselves from one another and hunker down for the worst, similar to when growing up preparing for an impending blizzard, knowing we’d be “stuck” for possibly days. As if technology hasn’t already done a number on interpersonal relationships, we’re now told that social distancing must be the norm. All of it being fine, but are we now willing to learn the lesson of what technology has done and is doing to us. Even more so, we’re going to find our faces glued to computer screens as we’re forced to work from home and remote locations. Will we find the time to unglue ourselves long enough to renew the aged tradition of simply being with one another? There are plenty of memes out there making us laugh about not knowing the people around us because of the busyness of our lives. We laugh at the partial truth being revealed to us right now and in these moments.

We are already a consumer-driven culture and society and without a doubt it’s what we hear of the most in these days. As I write, the stock market is once again down nearly 2000 points, as if it is becoming the norm these days, businesses are closing, even Wal Mart is shutting its doors early! What’s normal is a question for another time! However, our lives seem to be driven by numbers, and in particular, these numbers. Somehow the viability, health, and resiliency of, we the people, is driven by how well our retirement plans are doing in the stock market. Maybe I’m too far away from the 59 ½ age to claim anything in mine, but it’s a daily occurrence and apparent indicator to the health of our nation. Are we just too uncomfortable with the unknowns so we cling to the numbers? This is not to say we shouldn’t be prepared for retirement, especially considering the growing lifespan of men and women. However, the almighty $$ remains our most prominent god, ingrained in our very being. There is already talk about bailouts and saving industries, quite noble of us. However, it will be simply a band-aid on a growing pandemic of our obsession with money. It shouldn’t surprise anyone we’d be hoarding toilet paper and the such knowing we’d prefer to pad wallets rather than help others in need, each wo(man) for themselves. Will we allow our own selfishness to be addressed, changing to be more grateful? Will we become conscious of the deep truth, that, in the end, it means absolutely nothing?

None of it, of course, has slowed down the insanity of conspiracy theories, an avoidance of what is, and the revealing of a dysfunctional political system. It’s amazing to believe some kind of emergency declaration was even possible! Some would say we’re overreacting, as is our nature, but it also reveals how poorly we are at being proactive and seeing beyond a decision, unable to see long-term consequences of our actions. The political system is primarily a reactionary body and whoever gets the last word, wins. It’s about winning. However, when our morality and ethical code is driven by winning and money, too many lose in the process. As we see, it is the most vulnerable of populations who become victim of our inability to plan for a future. When decisions or lack-thereof, are driven by political gain we all lose because the poor, the vulnerable, and populations we’d rather write-off lose. Will we allow this time to open our eyes to the people around us, real people who have a story not unlike our own and need us now more than ever?

Will we allow this time to slip by, getting impatient wanting to return to a life we were comfortable with prior to a pandemic? Are we already getting tired of being around the people we’re now “forced” to spend more time with? It was hard to ignore the number of posts on social media this weekend about the cancellation of religious services. It left me wondering, what are we really missing? Are we missing eucharist, the obligation, the time, the routine? There is so much wrapped up in our Sunday rituals but maybe even this time allows us to evaluate what it is we’re missing in the absence of the moments. Did we think about the people we wouldn’t see? Better yet, do we know the people we see week in and week out on Sunday? I was always amazed at the number of people who remained anonymous each week. I wonder where they are and how they’re handling all of this. Does that sense of anonymity only deepen for people who have felt invisible? It’s easy to make “church” into a tunnel-vision when it’s meant to expand our vision, to the people, the hands and feet of the other, walking in our midst.

In the end, there’s a deeper truth being revealed about us as a human race, one of which we have moved so far from it’s become unrecognizable and one we fear. It’s the fact of we really need very little. It’s about simplicity. Take it from someone who’s life had been upturned the past year, still piecing it together for the future, you need very little. We’ve complicated our lives with stuff and a rapid accumulation of it. For over a year much of my belongings have been boxed up and inaccessible but also unnecessary. The more we have the more anxious we tend to be, thinking and convincing ourselves we need more. Again, just look at the insane stories of toilet paper. The more we accumulate the more we want. It’s our deepest truth, simplicity, and our deepest fear, not having enough, as if we somehow lack. It becomes about us, as if we as people are lacking in self-worth, belief, value, etc. Will we allow ourselves to embrace the deeper truth of ourselves in we are not defined by what we have or do but by who we are?

My fear is, like too many times before, we’ll allow this time to slip by and become inconvenienced because our lives have been disrupted. It’s unsettling for everyone. We’re in this together, despite social distancing and the feeling of being isolated in our little worlds. It is a time, though, to pause and reflect about our lives as the mortality of the human race is tested. Death has a way of doing it to us more than anything else. Don’t let the time slip away as another blip on the screen. Pause, stop, reflect. What really matters in your life? Who really matters in your life? Who are the people who have become invisible in the world around you? What’s their story? My guess is, not much different than your own. Turn off the television, the anxiety, the fear of it all and ask where it’s coming from. What are the deepest fears assisting in our allowing this to slip through our fingers?

Pause, stop, reflect. Don’t let the timeless slip away without teaching the value of the time we are given.

 

To Hell With Rodgers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Necessary Tears

“Jesus wept.”  John 11:35

Jesus wept.  It’s dubbed as the shortest verse in all of Scripture and despite its size has a way of packing a wallop to the crowds that are gathered at that moment.  It comes as the story builds around the death of Lazarus, his friend, and the questioning of the crowds as to whether Jesus is who he says he is now that he has finally met his match in death.  Sure he could heal the blind man but death has a hold that stands as much greater than blindness or so it would seem.  In that gatherings of jeers, anger, and spite, Jesus weeps.  He weeps.

Of course, though, that is what is seen with the eyes, tears falling down his face.  But tears are never just tears.  Frequently they come from a much deeper place within, a place of our own pain and loneliness.  Once again, he is misunderstood by the crowds and followers.  Once again, he is doubted.  Once again, he sees the lack of faith.  Once again, they can’t seem to get past their own judgment of what they have seen with their own eyes and move to greater depths within themselves.  When we do, we weep with Jesus for many of the same reasons.

More than once this past week I have been told to be angry.  At times, screamed at by people telling me to be outraged.  I’ve had it told to me on Facebook.  I’ve had it told to me through the news.  Heck, I’ve pretty much had it shown to me by the President and other political figures, be angry, and be angry for a reason.  After some time I began to think maybe I should be angry.  Maybe I should start screaming like so many on television are these days, at one another and with one another, with no path to understanding or even an inkling of listening to each other.  Yet, all I feel is sadness and tears, like weeping.  For everyone.

To this day I am most struck by the image of the young men in Charlottesville on Friday evening who had surrounded a gathering of ministers, practically holding them hostage, carrying flames with the looks of rage on their faces.  In symbolic fashion, holding hostage their own hearts from being moved and changed.  The last thing this situation needed was more anger, I thought.  I began to wonder how men of such a young age could be harboring such strong feelings of anger and fear in their lives, knowing full well that that is what I was witnessing with my eyes.  Deep down, though, anger and fear are merely masks, symptoms, of a much deeper hurt and wound that is often not visible with our eyes, including the hurt in my own life that I’m being invited into to seeking healing and reconciliation.  If I’m not careful and aware, it’s quite easy to react to it when it arises and lash out at the closest target, often the one who has embodied that deeper hurt of mine and where I continue to hold onto it in which I don’t want to look or see within myself.  It’s the human dilemma that we all need to face and confront at different points in our lives, individually and collectively.

As the week wore on, I listened to all the noise less and less and found myself wrestling with this reality in which we find ourselves.  It’s not that I don’t agree that the level of hate and the realities of racism continue to cast a shadow upon us because I do.  As long as there are humans we’ll face all of it.  Often people are simply looking for validation of their experience since so much of what we do and how we act happens on the subconscious level without us even thinking.  Raising awareness means the shifting to the conscious level, which is the only place we can deal with them, otherwise the wounds once again become buried within ourselves and the cycle of violence continues not only in the world but in our own lives, many times without us even being aware of it because it becomes are natural fallback, peeling back the scab over and over again.

If there is one thing I have learned through my own struggles and in facing my own violence toward others and myself is that there is no easy way around it.  My natural inclination is to shut down in the face of it until I can reckon with the reality, a reality which never disappears by not confronting it head on.  Dealing with our past is so often minimalized with, the past is already over, move on, as if I can just will my pain be gone.  I wish it were that easy.  However, the pain has a way of manifesting itself in the same ways, again and again, in our lives.  Rather than trying to tear it down and rid ourselves of it, we are often invited to understand it, allow it to surface, and reverence it with the healing it needs, almost always through tears, weeping for what it was and even for what it was not.

The great risk in life as a part of the human race is to become what it is we hate, when in reality, we often already are exactly that.  We live in this world filled with should have’s and could have’s, living with the disappointment that we’re not more than how we appear before others.  We live with the disappointments often because we deal with the same problems the same way and expect different results each time, casting amnesia upon us in the face of perpetual violence towards our brothers and sisters.  Through the use of our judgments, our own misunderstandings, our labels that denigrate fellow human beings to being monsters of sorts, in the end, gets us nowhere, often only validating the monster within ourselves that we haven’t learned to love.  In some ways, I’d rather live with the moments of loneliness that comes with being misunderstood, as it was for Jesus, rather than use him against another.  I’d rather live with the tears that come with not quickly reacting but first trying to understand the deeper hurt that is being aroused.  I’d much rather weep than fan the flames of anger knowing that there is a deeper pain in the others life than I may never understand.  I’d rather sit in silence and wrestle with it, knowing the expectations then placed upon me to react.  Jesus weeps, sure for the death of his friend Lazarus, as most do when they visit a grave.  But what we see never fully defines the depth of the pain and where it comes from within the other in those moments.  All we see is what we want to see most often despite it just being the tip of the iceberg of one’s life, including for the Christ as he weeps for and with humanity.

More often than not, the path to love and peace, a peace which is a marriage of justice and mercy, will never arrive in our own hearts until we learn to sit, quiet ourselves, doubt, question, and learn to accept even our own selves, short comings and all, which closes the gap between myself and the other.  The war that rages on beyond us as we see it is often the war within that we are invited to confront.  The more we separate, divide, demonize, seek winners and losers, the greater that gap becomes, creating the tribal mentality that Jesus himself often confronts.  I not only separate myself from others but I separate myself from myself.  It deepens the blinders we wear, invoking fear and insecurity in our lives, leaving us wandering through the desert, often unbeknownst to us.  In time, even for Israel, the tears began to arrive, not only for what had been done to them but what they had done to the other through their own pain.  In those moments, glimpses of that promised land that they desired became visible.

As a country, and I’ve written this many times before, we will need to learn to weep and weep bitterly.  Not select people, but each of us, individually and collectively.  America has never been what it was supposed to be and never will.  It’s not the chosen one.  It’s not the city on a hill.  It’s by no means perfect or somehow the greatest, all of which only feeds the illusion that we know better than the rest, avoiding the pain that lies within the heart of a nation.  We are country among 195 or so others.  We are 323 million of approximately 7 billion people on the planet.  And it’s all ok.  When we finally give up the illusions, the blinders, what it is we simply see with our eyes, we begin to see that there is something even greater about us that is not always visible to the naked eye.  As much as our heart continues to beat, it is by no means without pain and hurt.  That is very visible not only in Charlottesville but outside my own window, day in and day out.  There is a story that is dying to be told, from deep within, a story that desires to be free, and will continue to kill if it’s not told.  A human desires to be free.  Lashing out and violence will never lead to what it is we want and desire.  Rather, only through our own ability to weep, for what was and wasn’t, for what is and isn’t.  Yes, it is the shortest verse in the bible but in doing so packs quite the wallop of bringing healing and reconciliation that is desperately needed in my life, your life, this city, and well beyond.  Jesus wept.  For everyone.

Bursting Bubbles

I Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17; Matthew 4: 12-23

These are often some difficult times to preach. I said it back after the election and I’ll say it again today. There’s always so much uncertainty. We don’t know where we’re always going. There’s so much hurt and division that has taken hold of us, putting us into our camps. But I was thinking about some of the final words of now former President Obama at his farewell speech that transcends political affiliation. He mentioned that night about stepping outside our bubbles and actually speaking to one another. Now if you think you aren’t in a bubble, well, you’re probably lying to yourself and you may even be trapped in one. Maybe it’s good that Saint Paul gives us this reflection in the second reading today on the divisions that existed in the community of Corinth to help us take a look at our own bubbles.

No one can deny that there is a Republican bubble and a Democrat bubble. That one we can all agree on. But we also learned through this election that there’s an urban bubble, a suburban bubble, and a rural bubble that exist. Of course, there’s also a MSNBC bubble and a FoxNews bubble. The Church is not excluded. We can name many factions that even seeps in here. The problem with all of them is the walls of these bubbles become so think that we can no longer hear or listen to something else. If we can’t listen to each other, then there’s a pretty good chance that we also can’t listen to The Other. We become trapped. We start to only listen to people that agree with us. We start to think we know it all. We start to think that we’re always right and demonize the other. Of course, social media has only magnified the problem. Be mindful, also, that these bubbles are really just another word for our ego that takes hold of us, both individually and collectively in these groups we establish. When we know it all, are right all the time, certain without a doubt, there’s no space for God, and quite frankly, no need for God.

That’s the issue Paul also faces in the community of Corinth. In many ways Paul is simply teeing up the ball at the beginning of the letter to begin to reveal to them where they are excluding and beginning to live in their own bubbles. He points out today that some are showing allegiance to Cephas, others to Apollos, and even some to Paul. But throughout the letter Paul is trying to lead them to a deeper place, to a deeper identity that transcends these allegiances. He will go onto say that their great obstacle as a community, and quite frankly, for all of us, is going to be the breaking down of that bubble. It becomes what we know. It becomes where we are comfortable and certain about things. For Paul, and certainly for Jesus, that becomes the great stumbling stone as he calls it. He even speaks boldly about it as this part of the letter continues and the emptiness that can be associated with the cross, which becomes the great symbol of this paradox. If it’s simply something we wear around our necks, Paul would have choice words for us. For Paul, it was everything.

Of course, for Jesus as well. We hear in this gospel today how he departs Jerusalem and heads to Galilee and begins the call of the disciples. It hasn’t changed much even today in Jerusalem. That city, in and of itself, is a very dense bubble. It will be the place where he meets the intersection of life and death. He’ll challenge, more than anything, that bubble that they have placed themselves. Think about the scribes and Pharisees, as well as the political figures of that time. They thought they knew it all. They thought they were always right and certain about everything. It is the great resistance that he faces and the great resistance we often face in our own lives. It becomes the source of war and violence. If I feel that within myself as I struggle with my own ego, imagine what it’s like when it’s magnified on the world stage.

The early call of the disciples is no different. They had their own bubble, but Jesus uses it to lure them out of their comfort zone and promises a fishing of men. They were fishermen. They knew it like the back of their hand. They lived it. There was normalcy and certainty to it all. But today will begin the journey for them of breaking down that bubble and begin the search for soul. It’s what we all desire anyway and yet we fight it and cling to what we know, growing our pride and so often our arrogance. He calls them from their boats, he calls them from their fathers, he calls them from everything they know and leads them on this journey to the great stumbling stone in Jerusalem, the cross. It is the place where life and death come together, where what is known and yet unknown come together, it’s where certainty and uncertainty come together, logic and what seems illogical, and where we learn to doubt and question and realize we too are bigger than our allegiances and what we feel so certain about. Quite honestly, all our bubbles do is make us smaller.

We need to listen. We need to come to accept that we can also be part of the problem. If we don’t, we simply become what we hate. We become what it is we demonize. And why would we want that? We need to accept that we don’t know it all and we need to learn to listen to the other and The Other. If we simply continue to react to everything and everyone that we disagree with, the result is further war and violence. It is the search for the soul, my own, yours, the country, and the world. We pray that we may move to becoming of one mind and heart that Paul speaks of today. It doesn’t mean we always agree or do everything the same, but it does mean that we’ve penetrated the bubbles that we have created and can finally begin to listen, to quiet ourselves and listen. That prayer will grow the space necessary in our hearts and souls that is necessary to break down what divides and unite us as a people because I know longer need to see the other by what they think or their ideology, but rather for who they are and whose they are because we’re more than all of that and quite frankly, we deserve more than that because we’d want the same for ourselves. It is the great stumbling stone but has a great deal to teach, most especially, how to be a fuller human being to ourselves and one another.

Mending What Divides

Well, it’s over. It’s the day we have waited for, seemingly for years now. If there’s one thing we can agree on, the election cycle of 2016 was taxing emotionally and physically at times. There were days when I just couldn’t look at Facebook because I knew it would suck any life I had out of me. I’ve tried to stay out of the fray except with those I knew I could have meaningful conversations with about politics and this race between Trump and Clinton, or at times, just want to joke about it. What was once a nice forum to connect with friends became a living nightmare at times over the past months. Some of the struggle was I couldn’t quite understand how people could be so certain about so much that they would see and hear and then here I am struggling with who I would vote for, even up to the moment I picked up the pen in the polling place and felt the magnitude of it all. I used to be that person, certain about what to do. Maybe it’s my own lived experience, but things just seem more grey than black and white and I’ve been awakened to my own hypocrisy more often than I care to admit through the process.
Now here I sit reflecting on what I, since Brexit months ago, knew would always be possible, whether I liked it or not or whether anyone else did either. It’s a process that needed to unfold. There’s some reality in knowing that there’s going to be negativity in the days and months leading up to an election, just as their was in Britain, but what I have often found most disheartening is the amount of negativity that persists afterwards. Just look at it. Go to Facebook or Twitter and you won’t have to search far to find it. The irony, or the paradox in it all, is as much as Trump has been bashed for hurtful words, and don’t get me wrong, they are hurtful to many people and cannot be a part of such a position as President of the Free World, my negative reaction or your negative reaction, should only make you pause and say, you know what, I’m not much different than him. It might just weigh on my heart differently than his or others.
What we often fail to miss is that the more we move the charge towards inclusivity others can begin to feel excluded. The message of Trump was not simply about going after Clinton, as some may think, it was a resonation and capitalizing on a very human reality of feeling excluded, taken advantage of, lied to, and hurt by a system. She just happened to be the sacrificial, iconic figure of it all. Some may begin to feel as if thing are out of control and they no longer matter. At the same time, some will feel as if they know better and can make decisions for others, often failing to remember the forgotten and the outcast. Before you know it, suspicion begins to grow, uncertainty, and trust wanes like never before. I find a new way to judge and exclude.
I may not be a deplorable, as has been said, but there’s a chance I may be a part of the infamous 47% or I may have become part of the elite without even knowing it, while trying to include, through my judgment, ever so quietly often begin excluding others. It’s hard, in the midst of such intensity, to separate ourselves from our own ego that gets wrapped up in the need to win and to be right. But when only one wins others lose rather than recognizing that to truly win, we all most lose and give up something as we seek a common path together. More often than not, it is my need to win and be right. I know even for myself, the way I begin to separate is only listen to people that agree with me or say what I say, inflating an ego rather than expanding ones heart.
The only way we will find this path is to recognize and accept that the other is not much different than myself. They may have different struggles, think differently, act differently, vote differently, say things I might not, but really they could say the same thing about me. The more we separate ourselves from each other the more fear takes over and grows and the ego, both my own and the collective begins to take hold and I begin to think that somehow I am better than the other, above them. If you ask me, the two that lost last night were the political parties of this country, Republican and Democrat; and quite frankly, they needed to lose and they need to break down and once again connect with the common person. When a cry is ignored or written off, people will go to extreme to be heard. The Parties have become more about the salvation of the party than about the people that they have tried to sway into believing that they held the truth in its entirety, while at the same time demonizing the other and excluding them. That’s the craziness of it all because it happens on both sides, in their own unique ways. We just become blind to our own team’s weakness and shadow.
It’s hard to include everyone and remember everyone when we enter into these presidential elections these days. It’s easy to write-off all who were a part of the losing team. It’s easy to gloat when we win. It’s almost instinctual for us as human beings. But as a man who has really wrestled with this election, it’s time more for this, reflecting and delving a little deeper into my own self, and quite frankly, as a country, asking God to break through the ego at the moment and recognize our own hurt, just as we did in the days following 9/11. It’s the only way we move forward as a country and as humans. There is a deep hurt that runs through the blood of many at the moment, and if you don’t feel it now then you probably did just a few days ago. Redemption doesn’t come through winning. It comes through healing.
That is where we find common ground, in our own hurt and in our own need for healing and stop convincing ourselves that our truest power comes from winning and from beyond ourselves, but rather lies deep within. It’s the way we separate ourselves from the ego of these Institutions that have taken hold of our lives and convince us we are nothing without them. It’s a hard path and journey to manage because pain and suffering seems to stand in the way and we want to avoid it, when life calls us to go forth through it. When we give ourselves that space in our lives, to be as we are, we will also give it to the other and only then will the divide begin to decrease and a common path begin to show itself once again.

God, Country, and Football…and not necessarily in that order

I typically don’t hide the fact that I am a football fan. As a matter of fact, I have written about it on this blog before for a variety of reasons. I have written about how I watch it less and less, mainly because of the violence that it does to these men, who, for the short-term may have reasons such as money and fame to participate in it; but, long-term, the impact can be quite devastating. There’s also the impact it has on me and other viewers after watching hours and hours of it, week after week. Even more so, though, recently, I have tried to avoid the sport when I can, and professional sports in general, but particularly football, because of what it has become and the enmeshment of this sense of nationalism that is so often associated with it, as part of us, as the old song goes, apple pie.

This has only been fueled more by the story of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, followed by other athletes who have followed his lead these past weeks. I’m not here to say whether he’s right or wrong. Quite frankly, I don’t even think that’s the issue at hand nor do I really think Kaepernick cares about whether I think he’s right or wrong, as much as some think he does. What I do want to say and speak to, though, is the deep amount of empathy that I do have for him right now and an understanding of the need for dialogue within our culture and country. As much as I thought he was a pompous ass when he first began in the NFL, there’s a different look in his eyes now that wasn’t there before and so it makes it hard not to feel for him and others like him. All he has really asked for, more than anything, is dialogue. Is that really too much to ask?

I really believe that no one can get to that place in their life unless they have faced great suffering themselves. Maybe for him it even could have come in the fact that he is no longer a starting quarterback, but I don’t know because I’m not him. It would be hard to believe that that alone would not shatter someone’s ego like none other, bearing in mind that it was just a few years ago that he was playing in the pinnacle of the sport, the Super Bowl. Some want to quickly judge him in that way. The spotlight is no longer on him and so he has to do something to get himself back to the stage, the arena, into the sanctuary of the sport. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe now he realizes he has nothing to lose. He’s already lost it all and all he has left is a deeply-held belief that now drives him to kneel when others, at times, blindly stand and recite words that don’t mean much more than a creed recited in church, words and not much more. If I give even a perception as being against, I am seen as unpatriotic, bearing the cross of being un-American, whatever that means. We seem to accept freedoms only when they meet our own standard-bearing, failing to often see that others may have a different experience than my own and a wound that stands unique to them that has brought them to their knees and to this point in their lives.

It’s easy for us to say, “God and Country” and probably sports a close third. The problem is when they all begin to enmesh. Honestly, it becomes a real danger when they begin to overlap. It becomes a danger when it’s no longer “God and Country” but rather country as god or sport as god or any other god that we try to hold onto, especially when they seem to be passing through our fingers. We as fans gather daily and weekly in this nave, gathered with the thinking that somehow their lives depend on the outcome; sometimes more emotionally attached to a game than lives being lost by violence across the country and globe. All our hope seems to be intertwined with the winning of a team or being number one in the world. When we begin to make these symbols into gods, we begin to fall down the slippery slope, attaching ourselves to something, for all intensive purposes, that aren’t real in the first place, but supposed to be symbolic and point us to something deeper, which should make us pause and reflect when someone goes against the tide rather than quick to react. In turn, we often end up using people for our own political gain rather than seeking understanding and reconciliation, a dialogue with differing points of view.

Kaepernick himself has made the point that it’s bigger than football. It’s all bigger than football or religion but it’s also much deeper than them all as well. When people are taken out of the equation and symbols and words take precedence, we have distanced ourselves from the humanity, and senseless killing begins to feel normal, detached from my own humanity. When no one speaks up, kneels down, or pleads on behalf of the people, as Moses does for Israel, we find ourselves lost in a chaotic world with a flag, or words, or a sport being the only thing consistent in our lives, feeling secure and yet so enslaved by our inability to see the other as brother and sister and to understand that they too have a story unlike my own, filled with hopes, fears, disappointments, misunderstandings, and so much more. Instead, I judge them by an action without ever trying to understand the person and allowing myself to fall into the hands of a bigger God that can somehow hold it all, even people different from myself.
It really isn’t about right or wrong.  If it is it will continue to divide us.  It’s only divisive because we allow it to be and don’t allow ourselves the invitation to step back and see why it’s causing such a reaction in myself and dialoguing with it. It’s all he has asked and somehow managed to put a mirror up to the culture and began a conversation. It really has nothing to do with Kaepernick, just as much as our spiritual life has nothing to do with Trump or Clinton, even though some will continue to think that it does. If it does, it’s because we allow that as well and we continue to seek a god elsewhere rather than in the place of our own hurts, deep within our souls, including the soul of a nation. Our reactions to these events say more about us than it does any of them, whether individually or collectively. We have been given so many such invitations over these years, which has only led to war, division, hatred, bias, judgment, violence, fear, towards anyone that is somehow different than myself. Maybe even worse than making country or sport into god, is allowing myself to be god. If there’s a starting point for any of us in these lived realities to begin to ask questions, it’s with myself and my own reactions. Until then, I will continue to empathize and silently stand with Kaepernick and others because I know it’s bigger than him and is inviting me to go deeper into my own understanding, and for that matter, my many misunderstandings that I hold onto about others.

Illumined Darkness

Luke 3: 10-18

In all the talk this week about Muslims, banning people and the such, I was thinking about the mission trips I had taken out to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. We had spent time with a Native and he spoke about the experience of living on the Reservation and the amount of poverty and addictions that exist. He followed up by mentioning that this model became the model for concentration camps, in some ways it continues with the Palestinians, and have even heard the city described that way, in trying to concentrate in one area the perceived threat and somehow over time it will go away. Of course, when you box people in, strip them of their dignity, it will always lead to problems and greater violence. Those of us on the outside don’t understand and question why they just don’t change, but is it us that need to change? Before we quickly write off the people like Trump, I think it’s important to remember that it’s revealing something about us as people, our blind side, shadow side, which we too try to cut off and pretend isn’t there with the hopes that it will go away. It, to some, will appear as the light, but is a deception. We, now, will be pointed to the true light in Christ. Without us even knowing, darkness has a way of concealing itself as light. We seek the true light.

Here, once again, is John the Baptist. “What should we do?” the people ask him today. Of course, these are not the powers-that-be coming to him today. He’s speaking to the people on the bottom rung of the ladder, who too are being used by the people in power and they’re starting to feel the pressure of it, sacrificing their own dignity. But John’s about to give it right back to them. Each time the question is asked by the tax collector, the crowd, and the solider, another part of that shadow is revealed about the powers-that-be and their abuse by those on the perceived bottom, a shadow that they have come to believe to be their identity, confirmed by the oppressor. Of course, this isn’t going to settle well with Herod who in the very next passage is going to send the Baptist off to prison. He’s aware that his power, albeit an illusion, is being threatened and the illusion is beginning to break. The last think Herod needs or any insecure leader, is a rising up from those on the bottom.

But that’s where John meets these folks today. He meets the vulnerable ones that are impacted by the system. Ironically, when we see things being done to groups of people or even these mass shootings that have become too regular, it’s always against the vulnerable. It’s so often the vulnerable place within us that we want to avoid, where we hurt the most, that we want to isolate and avoid. All of this reminds us of just how much hurt is there. It’s safe to say we have a God problem more than anything! John isn’t confronting the system, though, or even condemning them, although comes close at times. No. Rather, he is leading those on the bottom, the vulnerable ones, to a new place. First he challenges practical changes in what they do, but even those are going to impact the people in power. He begins to reveal the shadow by shedding light on and into it. It’s no wonder that they question whether he is the Christ. Before Jesus even enters the scene, John points the way to a Christ already present within and among the people. Life will not get any easier for anyone in change like this. A system that has benefited from taking advantage of will begin to shake and question what all of this means, doubling down on what was.

Our natural inclination and reaction is to try to separate what we don’t like and what feels vulnerable to us from our lives. It seems as if it’s easier when we don’t have to do it, but just as we have witnessed around the globe, when a voice is trying to cry out, it sometimes goes to dramatic means to be heard. John becomes the voice for so many that had no voice and felt betrayed and taken advantage of. He tries to lead them to a place of freedom that they will find in Christ. In many ways, there no avoiding all of this; it’s so ingrained into who we are. Yet, we don’t have to be controlled by it. We become independent rather than co-dependent, which is how it wants us to feel, as if we need it and somehow it is benefiting us. Yet, all it does is hold us back from living life freely.

As we enter these last days of the Advent season, John points us to the vulnerable place in our lives. Where do we find ourselves hurting and trying to block it out, section it off, separate it from ourselves. The irony is, our greatest gift is often found in our greatest hurt. If we allow ourselves to go there as John points the way, we may find what it is we have always been looking for. We seek a life of freedom and with God’s mercy and forgiveness, it will be revealed to us. It’s no wonder God had to come in the most vulnerable of ways, as a baby, completely dependent on others, born in a manger. Soon after his own birth even he will be seen as a threat. John points the way and reveals that light to us, in our most vulnerable place, hidden in the manger of our hearts, waiting to give back our greatest gift.