More Than Imitation

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; I Cor 7: 29-31; Mark 1: 14-20

They make it sound so easy, don’t they?  The disciples that is.  They simply drop everything, the nets, fishing, their father, other others and go on their way.  We can only imagine what the hired workers and the father thought in this moment.  There had to be some anger and a bit of resentment.  Yet, what the disciples don’t know, and often what we don’t know, is that as much as they can come out of the boat and follow Jesus, you can’t take the boat out of them.  That sense of duty, responsibility, guilt, obligation, expectation, or whatever you may call it goes with them.  They simply go from imitating one person, in their father, to trying to imitate Jesus.  That’s why it’s simply the first call of the disciples.  They were primed for it.  There’s a sense of adventure, something new, facing the unknown, and probably thinking, it’s got to be better than fishing.

And so their journey begins.  And sadly, for many, that’s where it ends.  This call of discipleship, as it was for the first disciples, is just the beginning.  Quite frankly, we all grow up imitating adults around us, for good or for ill.  Imitating Jesus shouldn’t be all that hard.  Although, we have trouble even getting that part of the journey down well.  But they’re not Jesus and nor am I or any of you.  I’ve mentioned this the past few weeks now, beginning with the Magi, it’s simply the first call for a reason.  The real call comes later in the story when the rubber hits the road and they are finally left with a choice.  For the Magi, it happens in Jerusalem.  For Jonah, it comes in Ninevah.  For the disciples, like the Magi, it happens in Jerusalem.  Those places become the apex of their first call.  You can’t go much further than death, despair, fear, anxiety, and that’s everything those cities become to each of them and where do they go from there.  That’s the real call and the choice for each of us.

For Jonah, he’s appears a little further along the journey than the disciples.  He’s already been called and in this tiff with God, which, as we all know, leads him to the belly of the whale all because he resists the call to go to Ninevah. You see, that place was everything that was wrong in the eyes of Jonah and others.  They were the enemy.  They were the oppressors.  To him, there was nothing good about the place and low and behold, back to where he started, he ends up on the shore of Ninevah.  He could resist all he wants but God’s going to keep pushing him there until he responds to the second call, which is to pass through the enormously large city, three day journey, through Ninevah.  Now if you read it, it appears that all lived happily ever after.  They repent of their ways.  They actually listen to him.  But, he still resists and becomes angry.  It wasn’t them that needed the message as much as it was him.  He too had a choice.  Was he going to continue to hold onto his own judgments of them and himself and of God and what it meant to be a prophet or was he finally going to surrender to where it was that God was leading him and become the prophetic voice that he was.  Not in comparison to everyone else but he had to become his own person.  In that image of the disciples, he finally had to surrender the boat because it no longer gave life.  That way of thinking and living only led to a resistance to the deeper call, the second call of Jonah, and for that matter, the disciples.

They will have their day.  The next weeks they’ll be living on a high.  They see all the good that Jesus is doing and they want a piece of that action.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something new and exciting.  But the sense of urgency and immediacy that Mark adds to the story, and which we’ll hear these weeks, is simply to get them to the real showdown and the real call that is being given to them.  As I said, imitating is easy but can they imitate all the way and surrender it all.  That’s where it becomes a rub for the disciples.  We know it takes them awhile as well, just as it does for us.  They’re immediate response is to go back to Galilee.  And eventually they will have to go back to Galilee but begin to see it in a different light.  They’ll go back to what they know, even if it hasn’t given them life.  They’ll go back to the boat because they think that’s good enough.  They’ll go back to being indentured to their father and the family business all because it got to hard.  Of course, they’ll eventually pass through the second call as the Magi did.  The Magi had to go through Jerusalem before they can reach the Christ in Bethlehem.  It’s one of the most humbling experiences because they learn it’s not about them but about this God who has called them forth not simply to imitate but to become and to be the fullness of who they were created to be.  It’s their greatest gift and it’s why they and Jesus were such a threat to the systems of their day.

Paul may sum it up best though when he speaks about all of this passing by.  We tend to worry about all the wrong things and get caught up the darkness of our day.  As much as this passing through is about us, it’s also about this city, this nation, and this world.  But like the cast of characters, we have to pass through dark times.  We have to pass through fear and anxiety.  We have to pass through our perceived enemies, as it was for Jonah, in order to experience the real call, the second call of discipleship, the choice of what we do in and with those times of our lives.  It’s crucial and life-altering but it’s the demand of the gospel and the fullness of the call of the disciples.

As we continue this journey through the weeks of ordinary time, we may find ourselves in very different places.  Some still trying to imitate, others in the thick of Jerusalem, discerning that call, and yet others on the edge trying to figure things out.  Wherever it may be, the call remains because the call is the eternal.  It will stay and will continue to see us through even the darkest times of our lives and the deepest of troubles all pushing to awaken us to the deeper call within, not just to imitate but rather to be our best selves, our fullest selves.  I know quite well that the boat is a comfortable place.  We all know that.  But it’s not where we’re meant to stay.  At this very moment God looks at us and with the gentlest of voices calls us forth to be the more we were created to be in this world.

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A Stable Force

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Isaiah 9: 1-6; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14

There’s some irony in hearing this familiar gospel from Luke today of Mary and Joseph heading back to the place of origin for the census. The story we heard more than anything this week was about taxes.  Congress passed a bill and it was signed into law.  There’s debate, depending on who you listen to, as to who it benefits.  I don’t know.  But some 2000 years ago Mary and Joseph found themselves in this same familiar place.  The calling of the census by Caesar Augustus was primarily about taxes.  Like always it seems as if money drives everything no matter the point in history.

We do know one thing, though, that Mary and Joseph would not benefit from this taxation and nor would any other poor person of the day. It was to benefit the expansion of the kingdom that Caesar was creating in his own image.  It was a time of peace that was rooted in oppression, fear, and constant instability for the community in which Luke writes this passage. Yet, despite all of it this couple were faithful to this earthly power just as Jesus would go onto say, give to Caesar what is Caesar.  But they were faithful until they no longer could.  They were faithful until it stood in the way of this newfound life in Christ that seemed harmless and yet a threat to powers of the day, when people, as history is turned on its head, no longer have to be defined by the political or even religious authorities of their day.  In the midst of all the instability, Mary and Joseph return to the place of origin, as we all do to seek what they sought, to the stable, the manger, the garden, to once again find that union with the divine.  In the midst of the instability of the day a Stable arises in their midst to bring lasting peace and freedom that can no longer be contained by the earthly powers.

This passage we hear this evening that stands so familiar to us of the birth of the Christ has great spiritual implications more than any other.  As much as we have softened over time, it was a story of hope for Luke’s community that found themselves displaced and in constant turmoil from within and from the political and religious authorities.  There was no space, no room, for another voice beyond Caesar and anyone that tried faced consequences.  There was, as Luke tells us, no room in the Inn.  The external pressures to conform and that contained them would no longer suffice for a God who was to take on flesh.  Rather, Mary and Joseph leave the confines of the Inn and wander into the darkened night, where the community so often found itself, giving birth in a stable.  This is the defining moment for Mary and Joseph as well who realize there’s no turning back at this point.  They have been given a gift and this gift is going to guide them through some of the darkest moments of their lives.  They will not be defined by Caesar and his cronies.  They will no longer be contained by the political and religious authorities of their day.  They, instead, will be led as refugees to unfamiliar land and space only to turn to the Christ as their guide.  They return to the place of their own origin and give birth to a new way of life, wrapped not in the confines of the worldly desires but rather in mystery and the unknown, learning to trust and navigate the given gift.

But long before there was Israel who too found itself in similar situations.  As much as things change over time they also remain the same.  They find themselves again on the cusp of something new.  They were a people that walked in darkness but now illumined by this light.  Israel will learn in its own history, as in ours, that darkness becomes their greatest teacher.  It’s often when they find themselves wandering, fleeing oppressors, facing the unknown and utter darkness, that grace begins to grow.  They too will return to their own place of origin, to the heart of who they are, only to once again become attached and led to the darkness once more, to grown more deeply in faith and trust of this mystery that continues to call them forth.  Like them, we don’t like to be “in the dark” on things.  We want to know.  We want that certainty in our lives.  Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the Magi will encounter in the weeks ahead, learn to be sent forth to those very places in their own lives.  As I said, great spiritual implications as to how they and we live our lives.  Our we going to be defined by the confined Inn, cluttered lives we often lead.  Will we simply be identified with our politics and even our religious beliefs.  The radical simplicity of Christmas in a very complex world reminds us that in all our instability, war, poverty, unrest, and all the rest, we’re called to leave it behind, the “worldly desires” and allow the Stable to arise in our own hearts and souls to now be led not from on high and not from these external authorities but rather from within our very hearts and souls where the Christ, from the beginning and always, is being born.

This is what Christmas is about.  Luke turns the story on its head.  Salvation history will not be defined through the eyes of Caesar Augustus, Herod, or any other tyrant of their day, oppressing the people for their own political gain.  Luke reminds us that we live from the inside out and from the bottom up.  The journey now into the great darkness that has seen the great light is a painful one at that, but Mary and Joseph stand as witnesses to the power of the Stable in the midst of the instability of their own lives and ours as well.  Deep within us we know something that goes beyond anything this world offers, all the clutter and noise that distracts us, creating anxiety and instability, turmoil in our lives.  In that very place we’re called to leave it behind on this Christmas, leave the staleness and artificialness of the Inn that has defined to something real, wandering in the darkness of night, to a Stable that holds the eternal and the one who navigates Luke’s community to a new way of life and one for ourselves as well.  We can be defined by the tyrants of our day, the corruption of money, political and religious leaders telling us who we are and what to do but Christmas demands more of us.  Christmas demands us to learn to grown and trust the voice deep within, from a place of mystery and the great unknown, calling us to live our lives identified by the eternal place of origin, a Stable, in the midst of a often unstable world.

A Millennial Exodus for Meaning

The following are my remarks made at the opening of our pastorate meeting…

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the chance to dialogue with some Millennials who I have met along the way and was telling them about the changes that are taking place in the Church.  Some faithfully practice and others come and go when they can.  At the same time, I’ve learned through them, that they are often the most misunderstood generation that exists and they get blamed for much of what we, older generations, fail to take responsibility for.  Their way of thinking and way of life can be foreign to so many of us, and yet, in many ways, I relate to them in a very different way.  If I had to sum up my experience not only of those who are friends but also whom I have worked with is that more than any other group they seek meaning and purpose in their lives.  They aren’t going to stay at a job or a church forever if it isn’t feeding the deeper hunger of their lives.  Honestly, we’re better at serving stones than bread.  It’s part of the mass exodus that has taken place over the years.  That’s not just the main Institution but the parishes that have been institutionalized as well.

Quite frankly, it’s probably a miracle or at least the grace of God that I have stayed in this institution over the years just knowing how much we haven’t met the younger generations in that way, often because we think it’s still about us.  Instead, we’ve blamed, resented, and projected our own stuff onto them while failing to see, become aware, and accept where we have gone wrong as Church, where we have failed at feeding the ultimate hunger of meaning in people’s lives.  And I include myself in this, we have fought over who can and can’t receive communion, we’ve fought over music and style of liturgy, we’ve fought over empty meetings that have been more about building ourselves up rather than the encounter with the other, and of course, even times and places for mass and other events.  All this while poverty continues to exist and grow, churches empty out because of our pettiness, attaching ourselves to superficiality while returning home empty, yes, even fighting over spaghetti sauce, war persists, hunger persists, murder within the pastorate rises, drugs run rampant up and down York Road, immigrants looking for direction, a school barely hanging on, people persecuted because of color and sexuality, among other things, and yet here we are, all of us, locked in the upper room out of fear, hiding in the comfort of our own space.  More often than not, clinging to what we have known rather than braving the great unknown.  If you want to know why Millennials often don’t show up, well, we typically don’t have to look too far.

If you haven’t realized, and I know many don’t know me beyond the priest, there’s a lot of stuff I just don’t care about, but what I do care about I care very deeply.  I care about people much more than institutions and parish agendas and identities.  I care about souls and the spiritual well-being of people because I know if we’re not healthy in a spiritual way we just won’t be healthy.  We’ll get hung up on the trivialities and have no perspective and larger picture.  I care about people and relationship and meeting people, having coffee with people, talking about faith and certainly preaching about it.  I’m well aware I have other responsibilities and other things happen in the life of a parish, but more than anything, I am about prayer, silence, and leading others to that same place, to find meaning and purpose in their lives.  It’s not that I don’t care about other things, because I do, but I can never quite stop myself from looking for deeper meaning and trying to lead people to the great unknown now so it won’t be as painful later, because it does always come.  I care about leading others to finding deeper meaning and purpose in their lives, through the muck of consumerism, capitalism, and politics which are often the gods we cling to in life.

When I teach, I always remind the students that, more than anything, we cling to what we know.  We like to be certain.  We like things to be black and white.  Yet, the more I have allowed myself to delve into mystery the less I see that as being real.  We, more often than not, find ourselves somewhere in between.  For me, one of the great stories that I use is that of the Exodus and people Israel.  They were miserable with what they were clinging to and yet, no sooner they are led to the unknown to encounter God in a very different way, being led to conversion, they immediately want to go back to what they know despite being miserable.  Heck, they get ticked off at Moses for leading them out of Egypt because they would have rather died to what they had known and clung to than to begin to experience life differently.  Aren’t we very much the same at times?

As we proceed, like Moses, we never quite know the twists and turns that we will encounter, and we have encountered them and will continue to do so, but our faith and trust must transcend what we know and what we cling to, which is often not real in the first place.  Don’t get me wrong.  We can continue doing what we’ve always done, business as usual, but know there are consequences to that as well.  Demographics continue to change, population is shrinking in most of this pastorate and appears to be in the near future.  In other words, we’ll die with it.  We’ll die with it.  As the poet, W.H. Auden, once wrote, “We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”  If I have learned anything this past year it’s that both locations have just that, illusions of one another, often deeply rooted in fear and the unknown which only entering into relationship can change.

So here we are, at the crossroads of change.  Like the disciples of Jesus in John’s Gospel, some may high tail it out because of change and what will be asked of them, because something is asked of all of us.  Some of this is personal.  I was close to just breaking down in exhaustion earlier this summer and I cannot continue to do that to myself.  If you read my blog you know that Notre Dame was like a “field hospital” for me and vacation more like respite care.  We currently have seven masses on the weekend and I’m seeking to move it to five.  In relation to the seven and nearly 30 in this vicinity, it’s not that much when we see ourselves as stewards of the liturgy rather than possessors.  I am a believer that less is often better because I can be better, and not allow the celebration that stands at our center to be entered into in drudgery and exhaustion. 

Change is hard and it’s messy.  There have been missteps and there will continue to be mistakes.  There always is when you wander through the desert.  Like the Israelites, our eyes have a way of deceiving us.  Change is also good and one of the few consistencies in our life.  As we enter into this discernment process and dialogue, we pray for the grace to move us to a place of encounter with and through one another.  We pray for the grace of the Spirit to come upon us and lead us to the place of poverty within our soul which often holds the key to so many of our struggles.  One of Pope Francis’ first quotes about the Church was that it is poor and for the poor.  It leads me to the image that we hold so dear, that first Christmas in Bethlehem when poverty took on flesh.  Here we are some 2000 years later, still asking for the grace so that we may be the same in the here and now, in this pastorate, as one people in and through Christ.  That, my friends, is what we’re all about and where we will find fulfillment of the deeper hunger for meaning and purpose in our lives.

 

A Soul’s Opening

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet                                                                                      confinement of your aloneness to learn

anything or anyone that does not bring you alive                                     

is too small for you.”                          David Whyte, “Sweet Darkness”

There’s no doubt that the Western Frontier has always been associated with exploration and even facing the great unknowns.  Many left what had been known because of an aching in their own soul, looking for something more in their lives and headed West.  It’s a part of our history as a country but it is also closely associated with a deeper reality of who we are in trying to find our soul in a world that often lacks depth and meaning.  For myself, there has always been a radical opening that takes place within myself when I go West, as if I encounter, for the first time again, the wide and vast area that has yet to be explored or taken over by human innovation, still holding onto the natural that has a way of speaking, or even screaming at times, to places deep within ourselves when we confront in the lived reality what’s really going on within ourselves.  As much as I think I know myself, or God for that matter, I am once again knocked down to a world yet explored, a world unto myself and yet far greater at the same time.

As humans, there is probably nothing that scares us more than confronting those places within ourselves.  At times it seems as if it’s easier to see such vastness and emptiness projected on the frontier to make the task less daunting.  What scares us more than anything is that we may just be proven to be a fraud in our own lives, not living up to the expectations we have placed upon ourselves or others have done for us over time.  Whether they come from the roles we play in our family or in our daily lives, the more we separate ourselves from the last frontier and all it has to offer in exploration, our soul and its vastness, the more daunting it begins to feel to any of us and quite frankly, the less satisfied we become with our lives and the lack of depth and meaning that often becomes associated with it.  It has a way of reminding us of our own shared creation, grounding us in something much deeper than what the world has to offer.

When I spent last week visiting the West, in Colorado, I knew that I couldn’t leave without some time exploring some of the most beautiful spots this country continues to offer, places like Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods, Seven Falls, and simply the experience of driving through the high desert area that never ceases to catch you off guard by its unpredictability.  It’s probably the least we can do for ourselves, in our lives, especially when we become so conditioned and domesticated in what we do and when the mundane seems to become the norm of our lives, the loss of mystery, adventure, and unknown, to go out and explore.

So there I was, wandering the Garden of the Gods, at times simply being overwhelmed by the vastness and the intricacies of it all, driving through narrow cutouts, feeling lightheaded by the altitude, a mouth parched from the aridness of the air around, the feeling of being vulnerable as I wander alone in places yet explored.  Will I find my way back to my car?  Do I have enough battery life in my cell phone?  Would someone be able to find me?  Of course, all fear and anxiety I was placing upon myself!  As crazy as it seems, though, the deeper I moved into the area the further I wanted to go, to see, to experience, to understand, as if something within me became enlivened in those moments, knowing that I am no longer bound by the routine and the known, but being invited into the last frontier, the wild west, one more time in my life, and for that matter, my own soul.  For a few moments it seemed to be inviting me to escape it all and reconnect with a deeper reality just now being revealed.  It’s as if, once again, for the first time, you begin to look at life through a different lens that begins to expand and yet mirror how small we sometimes become in our daily lives.

The whole experience was somewhat overwhelming to the point of tears, as if love was revealed again in a different way, a more profound way, and yet questioning whether I could ever accept such a gift that was being revealed in those moments.  In the distance, the snowcapped mountains gleaned, mounds of stone perched, empty vastness that seemed to go on for miles, and there I stood so small before it all and merely an instrument trying to put into words that which could not be described but only experienced, a moment that could never be captured by camera or phone, but one that only speaks soul to soul, that we are dust and unto dust we shall return.  There it was, in a single moment, where all seemed and felt to be one, not wanting to end, not wanting to separate, not wanting to leave but try to absorb a beauty unlike any other.  There I was, not only witnessing what was lying before me but also within me.  It’s times like that when my own fraudulency is revealed and an invitation to go deeper, further, opens up to something more, a deeper understanding of me, God, and love, when what I had become accustomed to no longer was enough but called out for more.

Like most experiences, I go thinking it’s for one reason, to celebrate and vacation a bit, spend time with friends, but a change of place, time, landscape, the normal, has a way of breaking down our own defenses, our own walls we build, to open us up to something new that we could never have expected or even know we desired.  Yet, when the soul becomes dissatisfied and desiring more, it will awaken us to our own complacency and once again invites us to go West, to the great unknown, to open us again to life.  We can all become beat down by life and the challenges that we encounter, relationships that can deflate our souls, but we’ll never be satisfied with anything less than what it desires of and for us.  In those moments of exploration and the loud silence that ensues, we make that promise that we’ll never settle and never be satisfied with anything less for our lives as co-creators with Mystery, with God, with the great unknown that the West has to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Come and See

Ezekiel 37: 12-14; Romans 8: 8-11; John 11: 1-45

‘Come and see’. It seems like a rather odd response from the people when Jesus questions where Lazarus has been laid to rest, entombed, in his final resting place. Maybe even more peculiar is his response to their response. It’s the one time we hear in Scripture that Jesus wept. He cried at what was going on and as the scene moves towards the burial cave of Lazarus.

We must keep in mind who this Jesus is in John’s Gospel. He’s a very different Jesus than we’ll hear in Matthew’s Gospel next week as well as in Mark and Luke. We’re mindful that John’s Gospel is written some seventy years after Jesus had been crucified. We hear in the other gospels about the agony and such leading up to the passion, the suffering servant, but not here in John. If anything, John is more in line with St. Paul and what he has to say in today’s second reading. For John, it’s about the eternal Christ who transcends time and space, the one who was, is, and always will be who happens to take on flesh in Jesus.

So when they respond ‘come and see’ and Jesus weeps, it carries something else with it and as usual, as we heard the past few weeks from John, is not what you expect. See, the invitation that they give is the same invitation that Jesus gives to the disciples in chapter one of John. It is the call of the disciples, unlike the call from fishing in the other gospels. They know there’s something different about him, he peeks their curiosity, and he begins to lead them to this unknown, to this deeper mystery of who he is and who they are for that matter. But today, the people use those words in another way.

Now it’s not even that they didn’t believe in the resurrection. For the most part, many did believe in that reality. It becomes a tenet of faith. It’s not even that Jesus is weeping for Lazarus at this moment in the scene. What’s really going on and why he weeps is because they don’t believe him and they don’t believe in who he says he is. They just don’t. Sure, there may be a resurrection down the road but not in the here and now, a resurrection that happens in this time and space. For the first time, in all of these seeming controversies of the Samaritan Woman, the Man Born Blind, they feel like they finally have him where they want him and they, in their own way, lure him to the place of death, the tomb. Finally, there’s something that can defeat Jesus, in their mind, and that’s death. It’s death. Lazarus is gone. He’s as dead as you can get, done. Four days, stench, all of it, and the people finally smell victory in their fight against Jesus. And Jesus wept.

And it is the eternal Christ and their are certainly glimpses of that even in the prophets, such as Ezekiel whom we hear from in today’s first reading. For him, it’s not just about the death of one person like it is in the gospel. Rather, it’s the death of a people, the nation of Israel. It’s gone and once again obliterated in war and destruction and today Ezekiel stands before it and the field of dry bones. He questions whether there is hope in the midst of such death and enters into this encounter with God who assures him that life will be breathed into the bones once again and a new Israel will grow. It’s not about going back to who they used to be. Like Lazarus, it’s dead, no more. Rather, it’s about God breathing new life into the people and recreating them into something new. In some ways, God invites Ezekiel to come and see in that same way Jesus does at the beginning of John, to a place of curiosity, unknown, and deeper mystery of who they are as a people.

John’s Gospel has presented us with some great images to enter into as well as challenges to our own faith and what it is we believe. He weeps, even for us, that somehow we can continue to recite such words in the resurrection as we do in the creed each week and still not believe that it can happen in our lives at this very moment. We, like in so many of these controversies these weeks, become preoccupied with death and with being right over being led to this place of encounter with the Living Lord who is the resurrection, that we miss the point and become blinded by the tomb and the comfortableness of our lives. More often than not, we’d rather live in that tomb were it’s comfortable, and yet we know it and there is some consistency to it all. The call today, to come and see, is not to prove how Jesus is wrong and how death has won victory. Rather, it’s about being called forth from what has bound us and come and see what God has in store for us individually and collectively. It’s one thing to believe it as a tenet of faith. It’s another to feel it in, what Ezekiel calls, even the dry bones that have become a part of us as well.

Before we head into Holy Week, John once again invites us to use our imaginations and find ourselves in the story of Lazarus. Actually, it’s not about Lazarus at all! Where are we on our won journey of faith and understanding. Are we feeling like we’re being called to come and see how death has had victory, how Jesus loses, as to laugh in his face or is the come and see of Jesus, calling us forth from the tomb we have often created for ourselves, and for that matter, allowed ourselves to be bound by, calling us by name as he does Lazarus. In the end, Lazarus is the one set free as the rest watch idly by ready to cast judgement when the gift is right there before their very eyes. It is the last straw for the people and the gospel begins its downward spiral after this. This preoccupation with death will cast upon Jesus to prove once and for all he’s not who he says and they still won’t come to believe. He weeps for them. We desire the fullness of life, a life of resurrection. That, my friends, though, can only come from an encounter with the Lord of life who today calls us forth to come and see the victory he has prepared for us.

Road Less Traveled

Genesis 12: 1-4a; II Tim 1: 8b-10; Matthew 17: 1-9

Life is difficult. It’s the first line in the book, The Road Less Traveled. The author, Dr. Peck goes onto say just after that sentence that it takes a great deal of acceptance of that statement to finally let it go and move on, accepting reality for what it is and now what we think it should be. It’s why so many choose not to take the road less traveled because it means change and letting go and remaining open to something new in our lives. We’d often rather just wallow in our challenges and difficulties, somehow victims of a God that doesn’t seem to give me what I want when I ask.

The spiritual journey is no different. It’s difficult and like life, probably why so many choose not to take the road less traveled. It’s much easier to make my relationship with God about what I do on Sunday rather than a daily affair of prayer and silence. The problem, though, is it starts to close us off from even needing God. We begin to settle for something less than we really are and plant our stakes deep in the ground, often even cutting us off from God. As much as we sell ourselves short in life, we can do the same in our spiritual lives, knowing they are so intertwined, often settling for death over life.

I think it’s why the story of Abraham and Sarah is such a model for us in our lives because they did often choose the road less traveled. Listen, pretty much everything up to this point in the bible ends in disaster. It ends with war and violence. It ends in destruction. But when Abraham and Sarah enter the story, there seems to be the dawn of a new day in salvation history. You know, the two of them have every reason to be like so many that had come before them and there lives just ending poorly. They’re 75 years old and it seems as if God never gives them what they want. They could live their lives as victims of circumstances and give up. They can just dig the stakes of their tent in deeply and settle for less. However, that’s not what they do. Here they are, well into their lives, and now being called to embark on yet another journey from a God that hasn’t come through for them the way they wanted. They don’t him and haw about it but rather set out for an unknown land. Despite their age, there’s still a sense of adventure and there’s still something that calls them forth in their lives.
Here’s the thing, unlike for most of us, there’s no going back. If we leave home we can often return to that location. For Abraham and Sarah, it was giving everything up. They were being called to pull of the stakes and take, once again, the road less traveled. They once again will head out into the unknown simply because of a message from the Lord to Abraham. It’s as if they recognize that it’s not about this world and see themselves as passing through. There’s no reason to dig in to deeply because when the Lord calls them to do what would seem impossible and even crazy to us, they go forward. They don’t allow the pain of the past or failed expectations to stop them from heading out to the unknown and once again living with this sense of adventure and child-like trust in God.

Now we couple that with today’s gospel and the disciples who witness the transfiguration. As quickly as Abraham and Sarah are willing to pull up the stakes and head out on the road less traveled, accepting the difficulties of life and yet trusting God and the unknown, Peter quickly wants to settle down. He quickly wants to build and altar, drive in the stakes of the tent, and call it quits. It’s not that they didn’t know life was difficult. They were fishermen which was not and is not an easy life. They understood that. But with Jesus, maybe they thought differently and react to what they see and decide to end the journey there.

Jesus, like Abraham and Sarah, though, still knows that the road will become much more narrow and very much less traveled as they make their way towards Jerusalem. The ultimate test will be the cross and whether they have what it takes to push through and be pushed through such pain and agony. It’s the moment when the spiritual and life intersect and we’re left with the decision whether we want to settle down, drive in the stakes, and erect the picket fence, or allow ourselves to experience yet another adventure by God calling us forth. It really is the reality of our lives anyway, always in transition, always being called forth, always being led to the great unknown, deeper mystery, that leads to the fulfillment of life that we truly desire. It’s easy to not change. But it also makes me miserable, fearful, and well, quite honestly, so self-consumed that I can’t see anything beyond my hurt and pain. We’d rather hunker down in Good Friday than experience the newness of Easter.

As we continue this journey through Lent, our prayer is that we have the perseverance that Abraham and Sarah exhibited in their lives and their own acceptance of the difficulties of life and yet not allowing themselves to become attached to it all. They remained open to change and to whatever it was that God was calling forth in that very moment. When we don’t limit ourselves to experiencing God simply on Sunday, but rather as a way of life, making the time for prayer and silence, we become more attuned to the voice of God as they did. Maybe that’s what scares us the most. When we do hear that voice, it may ask us to do something crazy or impossible, thwarting our own plans for life. But like them, when we choose the road less traveled and persevere, the promise of Easter remains a promise. It doesn’t mean it won’t be difficult. That’s a reality. But it will be an adventure, a change, free of burying our own stakes in the ground, and an openness to wherever God may lead.

Navigating Darkness

Matthew 2: 1-12

One of the movies I caught over the holidays was A Monster Calls. The story is about a young boy, Conor, who finds himself just overwhelmed by life and not able to take much more of it. His parents are divorced, he’s bullied at school because he’s become so isolated, and now the one consistency in his life, his mother, is dying of cancer. He has this ongoing nightmare where he feels as if life is slipping through his hands. There’s so much uncertainly that he lives in this constant state of fear, let along the anxiety and anger he’s experiencing because of this deep grief.

But he encounters this “monster” which is the tree outside in the cemetery that comes to life. Even that distracts him from the nightmare he’s used to. He begins to call upon it. He begins to realize that the “monster” isn’t out there in the cemetery, it’s deep within him. The monster keeps assuring him that he’s leading him to healing, to this deeper truth that gets lost in the darkness of despair and this ongoing lie that he’s holding onto that everything will be alright and his mother will somehow survive. He begins to learn how to navigate through the darkness that has so often consumed his life and learns to let go. It’s not easy for us adults let along a young boy trying to navigate.

This whole season has been allowing ourselves to wander and navigate that same darkness in our lives. Christmas does not expel the darkness nor does it somehow destroy it. We seem to operate in the world that we can get rid of it which only leads to greater darkness. These Magi we encounter today are learning to do the same in their lives. Even their navigation is a bit off, leaning on their own expectations of a king being born. They find themselves a few miles outside Bethlehem in Jerusalem, in what seems to be their final challenge in learning how to navigate this great darkness, the Herod that lies within.

Fear rules Herod and the land and it’s what the Magi now must face within themselves. He was a tyrant and often believed to have been paranoid in the end of his days. He too finds himself in a position where life seems to be slipping through his fingers and losing control. However, he doesn’t let it go. Rather, he takes it out on the most vulnerable, on the children and has them killed. It’s fear, darkness, and despair when it comes to Herod but a valuable lesson for the Magi seeking life, the newborn King. it’s a struggle for many of us, the darkness within ourselves that is so often easier to cast upon the other rather than learning how to navigate it all. Jerusalem will become that same place for the disciples as the story goes on. They too won’t understand the Christ until they first encounter that same darkness. It won’t come in the form of Herod but in the form of a crucifixion by others who are plagued by darkness. Jerusalem becomes the doorway to Bethlehem.

And so they find their way to the Christ. They offer their own gifts, in someways symbolic of their own journey and the darkness that they too had to confront. The journey to the Christ took them where they’d rather not go, where we would rather not go, but like God, we are often led without even knowing, into the great unknown, into this deeper reality of mystery. For young Conor and for the disciples, it was about seeking truth and truth leads to darkness and to life. He had to let go of what he knew. It was no longer about the head knowledge that we want to cling to and how it’s supposed to be or how we want it to be, but rather a deeper knowledge. It’s deeper knowing and truth that so often is beyond words but lies deep within, ever so gently navigating us through that very darkness that we have feared.

As this season of Christmas draws to a close, the journey really just begins. We’ll hear the call of the disciples to go deeper. We’ll hear the call to enter into this journey and to begin to learn to trust something deeper within themselves as they too are led to uncharted territory, where all that they have known begins to slip through their fingers. They will be left with the same choice as the Magi as the encounter the Christ. Do they leave it all at that crib, with great humility, life and death, or do they cling to what they can see, what they know, what they are comfortable with in life? It is what is asked of us as well. With God’s grace, we can learn to navigate the darkest of times, but we can’t deal with the darkness of the country or the world until we first begin to master it within ourselves. When we do, like the Magi, we can no longer go home the same way. The seeking of and finding of the Christ changes the course of our lives where we too go home by another way. It’s no longer about going home to what we know but into the unknown, into this deeper mystery. No, and not that physical place we call home, but deep in the recesses of our hearts and souls, ever so gently teaching and guiding us, while casting light, to navigate the darkness of our lives.