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.

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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.