Wholly Reconciled

Genesis 2: 18-24; Mark 10: 2-16

Here’s the secret.  It is about divorce and it isn’t, or at least not the way we’ve come to expect.  Regardless, though, it’s a tough message today, especially in a time where if statistics are true, nearly 50% of all marriages end in divorce.  It’s a sad reality that we live with and through.  But if you look closely, the Pharisees and Jesus seem to be talking past one another and speaking of different issues, at least on the surface.  Maybe Jesus is also aware that divorce, like some many other things are merely symptoms of deeper problems that we miss or fail to see.  Yet, Jesus gives clues by his very response to the Pharisees to their question that they pose in order to trip him up.  In the end, Jesus, yet again, exposes them for who they are and the part of themselves that they consistently fail to see.

You see, there are also hints in the readings themselves.  If it was about the Mosaic law in which they question Jesus, then we would have had that as our first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, but we don’t.  Mark takes us back to the Book of Genesis and so does the Church in the formation of the cycle of readings.  So it’s about divorce, and yet it’s not.  When Jesus responds he tells the Pharisees that the law is there because of the hardness of their hearts.  He doesn’t cast out the law or demonize it in anyway, but rather exposes it for what it lacks, a heart, just like the Pharisees.  He proceeds to then return us to the basics, to the Book of Genesis, male and female God created them, in God’s image and likeness.  A hardened heart and a creation account sets us up for totally missing the point on where the real divorce and separation lies.

You see, male and female God created me.  Male and female God created each of you.  We’ve already been created whole and yet over our lives become fragmented and separated.  There has certainly been enough done on human development that tells us that men have feminine souls and women have masculine souls.  Yet, no matter how much we are told that, our binary way of thinking and acting in this worlds moves us towards separation but it also moves us towards the lie that first leads man to fall in the creation accounts.  The lie is that someone or something out there is going to complete me, is going to make me whole, and so I go searching everywhere else but the interior journey.  It’s what continues to cause war, division, and certainly separation and divorce in all aspects of our lives.  We have certainly seen that play out in the political scene the past few weeks, that when we become separated and divorced from ourselves, it becomes solely about power and nothing else.  It’s why we continue to have immature leaders in the Church and immature leaders in civil government because we are terrible with dealing with how we ourselves have become separated.  It’s all indicative to just how separated and divorced we are, most typically between head and heart.

But that’s the issue with Jesus and the Pharisees and even the disciples in today’s gospel.  It’s why the second part of the gospel is so important when the disciples try to keep the children from coming to him.  It’s always the most vulnerable that are most impacted.  Again, we have seen that play out in our politics.  We try to destroy the most vulnerable in order to satisfy our own sense of power.  It has shown us just how little interior work is done by some of our leaders where they totally disregard the other.  Just like the Pharisees, it points to their own separateness and divorce.  From the very beginning, God made us whole.  The rest of our lives is spent trying to bring the pieces back together and it’s hard work.  Yet, if we don’t learn to reconcile our own masculine and feminine, male and female God created them, we will continue to fall prey to war, violence, division, and this sense of being separate.  When we fail to reconcile all of it within ourselves, we can never move to a place of equality, despite the way in which we were created wholly by God.  Jesus moves to level the playing field and the men that felt they dominated and held the power wanted nothing of it.  They couldn’t see, just as we can’t, our own blindness.

The more we separate from ourselves, from each other, from God’s creation, we can pretty much guarantee that we have separated ourselves from God.  When we do that, we don’t even open ourselves to experiencing God in a fuller way.  God becomes simply about power and justice yet missing mercy and forgiveness.  God becomes about anger and vengeance yet missing loving and compassion.  When we can’t bring them together within ourselves, that we can be both just and merciful and all the rest, then we fail to see that about God as well.  It’s because of the hardness of your hearts and when the heart is hardened, the vulnerable become the target.  Ironically, and paradoxically, that’s precisely where we will find God on our journey.  It’s about divorce and yet it’s not, but really about learning to reconcile our own complexity rather than blaming.

Divorce is a tough subject but it is not limited to those who have literally experienced divorce in their lives.  It’s a reality that plagues all of us from the first time we began separating and becoming fragmented in our lives.  The first time when we learned as children that we had no value for one reason or another, thinking that life was about power and strength but never coupled with mercy and love.  It’s the divorce that plagues all of our hearts and has spilled over on the world stage of politics and Church life.  We have seen it with our eyes.  Yet, people praise it and gather with their tribes.  All it does is show how bankrupt it all is and how little we do to teach people what really matters.  It’s easy to get hung up on divorce and all the rest, but when we’re honest with ourselves, it impacts all of our lives.  Like the gospel reminds us, it is only Christ that pulls it back together, the complexity of our lives.  We’ve seen enough divorce in so many different capacities.  It’s time to reconcile beginning first with myself and yourself.  It’s because of the hardness of our hearts.  It’s time to create the space in our own hearts and lives to begin to reconcile these realities of our lives that have become so splintered and so much about power, leading to deeper divorce and separation.  It’s time for reconciliation.

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A Royal Love

Acts 2: 1-11; I Cor 12: 3b-7, 12-13; John 20: 19-23

I’m guessing by now everyone has had their fill of the Royal Family after the wedding yesterday.  It would have been interesting to hear what the Brits had to say about the American take-over yesterday, not only with the bride, but also the choice of music at times, and of course, the one who stole the show was the preacher.  I’m guessing they’re not all to used to having such a preacher in their midst.  I’m not sure what was more enjoyable, listening to him or watching the reaction of some of the guests who were squirming in their seats a bit.  It wasn’t your typical royal wedding.  It wasn’t that he even said anything that was so extreme, but it was certainly delivered with great passion and from the fire within him.  It was a message that has been delivered now for 50 days, the redemptive love of Easter.  It was an interesting approach at a wedding but a message definitely needed.

The reaction of some of the folks that had gathered at Windsor was not much different than what the disciples received at this gathering that we hear of from Acts today, when the time of Pentecost had been fulfilled.  If you keep reading a bit the reaction of onlookers was a question of whether they were drunk and drinking too much.  But that wasn’t the case at all.  Like that message at the Royal Wedding, they had experienced that redemptive love of Easter and it, they could no longer be contained.  We’ve overused the word in our own language and so the redemptive quality of love gets lost in translation, but in many ways it reveals their smallness as a people and all that holds them back from having this love set free.  It reveals the smallness of their judgment.  It reveals the smallness of thinking they’re somehow above others, which was probably some of the squirming yesterday at the wedding.  He knew the audience that he was speaking to, the royals, celebrities, and very few common folk like ourselves, which hammers the message home all the more.  It reveals the smallness, more than anything, of their fear.

That’s where we return now in today’s gospel.  This is the same gospel we heard back on the second Sunday of Easter and now we return with greater vigor after marching through these fifty days.  The disciples, as any sense of daylight begins to fade and darkness returns, are found in one of their smallest places, trapped and locked inside the upper room.  They’ve already heard the message of Mary Magdala as well as Peter and the Beloved Disciple, but the message has yet to resonate in their hearts.  Fear continued to plague their hearts and harden them from confronting their own smallness.  The Church doesn’t just take us back to the beginning of Easter, but John in turn takes us back to the beginning of salvation history when God breathes life into man prior to the fall.  This redemptive love that Jesus now breathes into the disciples redeems all of humanity.  The disciples will be moved from within to go forth.  Like the early community of Acts, this redemptive love and forgiveness will no longer be contained.  It’s not going to take away the hostility that awaits them beyond the locked, upper room.  Rather, it is only the gift of the redemptive love by that Spirit being breathed into them that can now renew the face of the Earth, as we sang in the psalm.

We gather like that early community asking for the gift of the Spirit and the redemptive love in our own hearts that still, at times, stand hardened by our own smallness.  We create our own gods that stand in the way.  We move from the self-sacrificial love that we first heard on Holy Thursday and Good Friday to the redemptive love of Easter, Jesus breathing new life into a community that had lost its way, had been contained by fear, and living in its own smallness.  Now, though, they will be pushed forth to share what can no longer be contained.  Where there is poverty, love redeems.  Where there is hatred and violence as we’ve seen here in the States and in the Middle East this week, love redeems.  Where there continues to be refugees and people fleeing tyrants, love redeems.  If there is no love there is no God.  That was the message of the preacher today and it’s the message that gathers us here today.  The love of God through the sending of the Spirit cannot be contained within this building otherwise it’s not of God.  It’s our own doing.  It’s us telling God who God is rather than allowing that redemptive love to define us as Paul tells us today.  It’s what binds us together as a community, despite fear, judgment, sin, hurt, grudges, resentments, and all the rest that we often prefer and make us comfortable.  They also are our smallest selves.  We settle for so much less by trying to domesticate this God that tries to liberate and set us free.

As this season of Easter draws to a close now, we pray for that same Spirit to once again descend upon us and to move through us, breathing new life into where we have clung to death.  This redemptive love that liberates expands our hearts to have greater space for others who think different, live different, act different, pray different, and all the rest.  If it doesn’t, we are still trapped in that upper room, in fear, awaiting our own god rather than allowing ourselves to experience the wildness of a God who shatters our smallness in order to renew not only our own lives but the face of the earth.  Now more than ever redemptive love is needed in this world.  False versions of love seem to far outnumber in our world but it is only the liberating act of redemptive love, Christ breathing new life into our hardened hearts, where we are renewed and given the vigor to live with such passion as the first disciples.  They are us and we are them.  We pray for that Spirit now so we may be pushed through our own limits to the openness and vastness of God’s redeeming love!

Love’s Friends

Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48; I John 4: 7-10; John 15: 9-17

You don’t need to be a biblical scholar to understand that the message of love stands at the very heart of John’s writing.  Between the second reading and the gospel today, a total of eleven verses, the word love appears eighteen times.  It stands as the core of his ethic and what it means to be a community that has Christ at its center.  The past few weeks it’s all we have heard from him is this message of love.

Today, though, he tells it in the context of friendship.  He calls his disciples friends.  Of course, friendship is near and dear to all of us.  More than anything it is our friends that accept us for who we are, warts and all.  There’s no need to hide or mask ourselves in anyway.  There’s no sense of superiority or feeling less than. If there is it really would not be friendship anyway.  Over the course of our lives they tend to be some of the most important people in our lives, accepting us, the first people we call, the ones who walk with us through struggles, the ones who love us in a very unique way, often willing to put our own needs ahead of their own.

It’s a rather unique description that would be used by Jesus in describing his own followers as they prepare to be sent forth into a hostile world.  It’s a radical message for them as a crew who would be familiar with their own tradition knowing that the only one named friend of God in Scripture is Abraham, the father of their faith, and now Jesus using the same language.  He comes down on their level and meets them there while raising them up in line with someone like Abraham.  They are friends.  Of course, it won’t take very long before they find out what this friendship is going to ask of them.  They’re not the best of friends at first, abandoning him in the darkest of times out of fear for their own lives.  Yet, he meets them where they are, in all their imperfections and nonsense, love comes down to them and calls them forth.

We have seen how that plays itself out in the earliest community of Acts of the Apostles these six weeks of Easter now and once again today Peter is confronted with this reality in relation to others.  Peter has just had a miracle done through him so Cornelius believes that he is at an elevated position.  Now, of course, we have put Peter in that position ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with being a leader, but what Peter doesn’t forget is that it’s not about him.  As a matter of fact, when he gets out of the way, as he did today, his ministry is even more fruitful because he knows it’s not about him and it is only this love and this friendship with Jesus that continues to work in and through Peter to do what he does.  Now it’s not that they always get it right either and we’ve heard that these weeks as well.  They are constantly discerning and figuring it as they go and learning where it is that God’s leading them, but they can only do this by doing what was commanded to them in this farewell discourse of John, by remaining and abiding in their friendship with Jesus and to keep returning to that source of love.

The community at times still falls back to its old ways and old way of thinking.  The other followers of the way can’t seem to understand how the Spirit has come upon the Gentiles in the first reading today.  Israel, like Peter, has had its own struggle with having a somewhat superior status of being the chosen ones of God.  The master/slave relationship that Jesus speaks of was most familiar to them and has influenced them greatly.  It all takes time and returning to that source of love that begins to expand their hearts to understand that it doesn’t matter whether your Jewish, or followers of the Way, the early Christians, Samaritans, or Gentiles, this love far exceeds a particular group of people because the chosen-ness has nothing to do with that and everything to do with who this God is and the expansiveness of that love.  As they grow and deepen in that love it begins to make sense and the normal boundaries and judgments that have separated them begin to dissipate.  The love that transforms their hearts now transforms the world around them.  It only happens, though, when the return, abide, remain, the message that we have heard consistently from Jesus the past few weeks.  You only become love when you return to that source of love and that friendship with Jesus.

As we come ever nearer to the end of the Easter Season we return back to the beginning when we were asked as to what kind of community we’re called to be.  John has reinforced that message of love over and over for us these weeks and calls us to remain and abide in that love.  It’s the only thing that changes and transforms us.  Today, though, he calls it forth through friendship, one of the most valued of all relationships we cherish because we choose this friendship with Jesus.  We come like the disciples, messed up at times, afraid, far from perfect, masks and all at times, but he comes down to us and raises us up to that place of love to transform our hearts where we no longer need to hide from this God but rather enter into friendship in order to abide in love and become that love.

It is only love that will see the disciples through as they are sent forth into the hostile world, a world that remains hostile towards love.  Hostility, fear, war, violence know full well the power of love and will do anything to have us succumb to something less than love.  We go forth to bring that love to a world that doesn’t need more violence, separation, war, and division, but needs to be loved.  It’s the only thing that will transform it.  The more we enter more deeply into friendship with Jesus the more that love transforms our hearts and we become the hands and feet of Christ to those most in need and who are hurting.  We don’t go forth in order to be more of the same.  Rather, we go forth in order to love in a very different way as we are called to be a community of love, of friends, who don’t see ourselves as better than or even inferior towards others, rather as the most humble of ways, as friends.  Friends who share in love and are called to become love.  We pray for the grace to abide and remain in that love so that despite whatever it is we face, the world will be, as it was with Peter, transformed in and through us because we have allowed, over and over again, love to transform us.

“Urgency of the Moment”

It seems as if I have written on this subject more than anything since beginning this blog several years ago.  One because of my own affinity with working with young people and when their lives are cut short senselessly, my heart bleeds for them.  It’s not just a life that ends, but hope, creativity, future, imagination, and so much more that they hadn’t had the chance to share with the world in the fullest.  Secondly, though, is our obsession with violence in our society and culture that we never quite come to grips with, showing our own immaturity on the world stage with the thinking that violence and acts of violence can somehow declare us victor or solve problems, never quite seeing beyond the immediate choice that is made to pull a trigger.

I happened to catch an interview with a Congressman this morning.  His name and location I can’t remember, but his comment has stuck with me throughout the day in reflecting on the events in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  He had commented that we are an exceptional country.  We have the strongest military.  We have the best people.  He seemed to go on and on about our exceptionalism and yet, it all stands in the face of yet another tragedy.  If we can do ourselves any favors, as a country, we can stop using such language to describe ourselves.

If there is anything I’ve learned, in spending so much time working with people, it’s that if you have to spend time trying to convince others how exceptional you are you probably are not.  When we live with such a mantra, where even our greatest strength is military, over time we convince ourselves of the illusion that somehow we can’t learn from others, that somehow we know better than every other kid on the block and they should look to me to see how to do things.  It casts a glaze over our eyes in the way we see things and prevents us from the possibility and potential of finally looking at ourselves so that we can go more deeply into the real problems we face as a country and society.  When you convince yourself of your exceptionalism there’s no room for growth.  You’ve decided you’ve already reached the promised land and the promised land is right here.

I started looking at the names and faces of the next seventeen people to add to the list of this ongoing violence.  Their smiles.  Imagining their potential.  Their innocence in the face of tragedy, most likely not even knowing what had happened to them with others now trying to pick up pieces that can almost never be brought together again.  It’s the unfortunately reality of such events and honestly, there’s nothing exceptional about it.

I simply wrote yesterday upon hearing the news that I’m grateful that I grew up in a different time when such acts weren’t even imagined.  The tragic reality only fuels the reaction it brings, somehow thinking arming more people, threatening even more violence, is going to somehow resolve the issue.  I couldn’t even begin to fathom a day when I walked into school needing to go through security.  Yet, listening to students speak in interviews, they think nothing of it.  There in lies even more proof that we refuse to look at ourselves.  We’ll simply continue to arm ourselves with our defense, our fear, our lack of compassion and empathy, our ideology, and unfortunately our politics, which more often than not only fuels the problem and is fed through the problem.  The entire system currently feeds on division, which, in and of itself, invokes violence in various ways.

It is rare that empires fall at the hands of outsiders.  More often than not empires fall from within.  They divide themselves and fall.  Quite frankly because they lose their sense of humanity, a logical outcome of thinking your exceptional.  As heinous acts of violence continue to ensue our landscape, roads and bridges collapse, inequality grows more deeply,  schools often failing their students or unable to challenge them, and political divides deepen, debt climbs out of control, there will come a day of reckoning of just what it means to be exceptional or great.  In the end we simply lie to ourselves and over time believe the lie while the world watches.

It’s going to take the young minds and hearts to steer this ship in a new direction, but if we continue to insist on taking such lives, not only in schools but on our own street corners, there will be no future to envision.  The illusion of exceptionalism has been smashed for some time, but the more we cling to it and try to convince ourselves otherwise is yet another day lost to imagining what could be.  When Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 he said, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children.  It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”  Yet, despite the times of great injustice that continue, he still dreamed and so must we.  There is an urgency of this moment in which we are given, either to once again get swallowed up in needing to be exceptional and ignoring our deeper human problems or rising to the occasion as he demanded, to dream a better way of life, not only for ourselves but for the generations who will inherit what we have done. 

There is an urgency in the moment to seek a larger and yet common vision for who we are, that rises above guns, politics, and money.  There is an urgency in the moment because we owe it to the current 17 and the countless others that stand in the cross-hairs of violence each day in this country.  In spite of it all, we must, and must we must, dare to dream lest others die in vain.  We need the necessary freedom to break free from our way of thinking that we have become paralyzed by it all, powerless to change.  We have the gifts and not through the walls of Congress or the White House, but in our very hearts to imagine better days.  It doesn’t mean a naïve look, where all is perfect.  That’s how we got here in the first place.  Rather, a looking at what we have allowed and become through the eyes of humility that we’re not done yet and all we can do is keep our eye on the prize, the promised land.  “This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.  Land where my fathers died.  Land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountain side, let freedom ring.’ And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”

Foolish Wisdom

Wisdom 6: 12-16; I Thess 4: 13-18; Matthew 25: 1-13

I don’t need to convince anyone here that we live in rather hostile times. How else do you describe what we witnessed this past week in the church shooting in Texas when someone feels they can just walk in and obliterate people. Or even here in Baltimore. We’re not even at the end of the year and the death toll due to violence has exceeded 300. It’s hard to comprehend. There also seems to be an increase in stories of accusations of assault against people. That’s just the actions of people. It doesn’t take into account the hostility we experience with the vile that often comes out of mouths and plastered on social media and other outlets. How can any of us deny this surge in hostility. It seems and feels as if there is this great upheaval taking place in politics, Church, and other facets of our lives that it seems to feed into that hostility. As much as we want to seek this sense of permanence and cling to it, there just isn’t other than what we seem to fear the most, death.
Matthew’s community which we’ve heard from all year was not much different. The reasons for such hostility may or may not have been different but he consistently worried about the community and whether it would survive. There were strong divisions between Jews, the Messianic Jews, who would go on to become Christians, as well as pagan and more secular people, all of which felt that they held the mantle of truth and found ways to hold it over the others. Matthew consistently tries to move the community to this deeper reality of who they are and despite differences in beliefs, way of life, knowledge, or anything else, there is something that binds them all. But when they and we get caught up in our tribes, our way of thinking, thinking we hold this mantle of truth and complete knowledge, hostility arises and there is less and less space for others, and quite frankly, the Other.
In these final three weeks of the liturgical year Matthew will once again make this push to this deeper reality by the telling of parables. We hear the parable of the virgins this week, followed by the talents, and climaxing with the sheep and goats on the final Sunday. Today, though, is this parable that appears to be filled with contradictions. There are these so-called wise virgins who appear on the surface to be given some kind of reward for their presence. However, their actions don’t speak great volumes in terms of wisdom. No sooner it is announced that the bridegroom is arriving, the foolish virgins seek help from the wise virgins, and yet, they want nothing to do with them. They shut them off and only worry about themselves rather than help the one in need. Go buy your own stuff and worry about yourself they are told. They go about their business only to lock the door behind them as they enter the party only to shut themselves off as some form of protection from the outside elements. It doesn’t sound like great wisdom.
But remember, this is how they envisioned God and now Jesus plays on words and uses stories to point out what they miss. The only other image that sounds so stark in Scripture is the closing of the tomb, death, cutting off from everyone else. Yet, there they were. Like today, it’s about insiders outsiders, the better than and less than, who holds the mantle and who doesn’t, who’s wise and who’s a fool. Yet, in the process, the parable reveals something about them and their own understanding of God and themselves. In the seeking of wisdom, one must first learn to embrace death and a reality and a part of who we are. It is in letting go that we begin to realize that maybe the best any of us can do is accept the fact that I may have some wisdom but I could be a damn fool all at the same time, ready and yet not ready. Like the parable, we tend to be filled with such contradictions. But for the Pharisees and their understanding of God, it was all about how it appeared and if we don’t move to that deeper reality we never really see that I am both wise and foolish, living and dying with each passing breath.
We hear in that first reading today from Wisdom that our lives are about seeking that gift of wisdom and the eternal. As a matter of fact, seeking wisdom leads us to the eternal. When we feel we carry this mantle of truth and certainty, there’s not much room for wisdom and for that matter, the other. Wisdom, and our ability to let go, leads us from a life of hostility to a life of hospitality, where we have space for the other, and quite frankly, we’re free to be ourselves. There is great wisdom in accepting that I am not all-knowing and I don’t carry the mantle of truth because it frees me to be myself and unlike the Pharisees, don’t feel the need to try to be someone other than I really am, both wise and foolish all at the same time.
Quite frankly, there is some wisdom found even in the foolish virgins if we’re willing to look a little deeper. They come empty, with nothing holding them back. They ask for help when needed, even in despair. Yet, they find themselves rejected, but not rejected by God but by who they thought God was, the Pharisee who felt it was their duty to guard the door and judge who comes and who doesn’t. So they’re not rejected by God but rather by us. We will hear this now these next weeks in our own seeking of wisdom and learning to let go of these images of God that no longer work in our lives and hinder us from going deeper in our lives. The hostility that arises with Jesus isn’t because of lack of knowledge or wisdom. He certainly proves himself in that way. The hostility comes when he shows hospitality to the excluded, the outsiders, the foolish ones as they were known. Jesus shows us a God who has space for both the wise and the fool.
As we make this journey together, as Paul reminds us today, we seek that wisdom, the eternal, that frees us to be who we are, often contradictory in our own lives and yet still loved by God. When we can begin to accept that about ourselves we become less hostile towards others, learn to respond with love, and honestly, become even more dangerous in such a hostile world because we are set free to love as God loves, the wise and the fool. Quite frankly, it’s all we can really ask for in this life. We pray for the grace to accept and to be aware of this deeper reality in our own lives, that we are both wise and fool, ready and not ready, open and closed, all at the same time. And yet, infinitely still loved by God in our fullness.

 

Illusionary Violence

Shortly after the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I received an email asking if we, as a parish, are prepared if something like this were ever to happen.  Now first, I’m not sure anything can prepare you for something like this, other than possibly a sniper attack in a war zone or consistent trauma in your life; but secondly, I’m not convinced I want to be prepared for something like that.  I can certainly understand, from a logical and rational point of view, but it also feels, as someone who is supposed to trust deeply in this higher being we call God, that it’s giving into fear, which is antithetical to the consistent message of Jesus in the gospel proclaimed every Sunday not to fear.

Safety and Security may be the two greatest illusions we hold onto and quickly buy into when we react to horrific acts like this.  Our immediate response is more guns or at times, build walls, anything that’s going to give us the false sense of security that we desire to make us feel safe.  We pad ourselves in whatever way possible, building a fortress in order to appeal to what our eyes can see, “I’m safe now”, but deep down, in the unseen, the heart of the matter continues to exist.  It never quite strikes at the deepest fear we cling to, which is death, but in those moments our automatic response is to consume more of what we know rather than sit with the unknown reality that all who are hurting are left with in their lives.  The consistent underlying message when giving into fear is that I will do everything possible to avoid what really could have been me.  It very well could have been me or anyone else sitting in that church on Sunday or a movie theater or a classroom or at a concert or whatever the next setting will be, knowing full well that there, unfortunately, will be another, and each time it is me.

More often than I’d like, including less than a month ago, I have written on this blog the continuous struggle with violence that we witness and perpetrate in our lives.  Violence goes beyond the horrific acts of gun violence as well as other means that we have all too often witnessed in this country, a consistent reminder that there’s a problem.  More often than not, though, we’ve bought into the culture of violence, through our words and actions.  These men, and yes, it is consistently men as well, are a mere microcosm of the deeper issue that continues to spread throughout the country.  We consume it daily through news outlets and social media and many times spread it ourselves.  We consume it in our conversations, in our gossip, in our lack of respect for human life and all creation.  The simple reaction to our problems is to blame and invoke violence against the other, feeding into the death of the soul of a nation, bankrupted of any moral standing, putting guns, walls, drugs, things, before the very dignity of the very person that is most impacted.

Now I’m not one to necessarily always buy into the understanding that we are all divided.  Unfortunately, division sells and sells big.  Fear is such a deeply rooted reality in our hearts and souls that we appear attracted to it and drawn into it consistently, quickly buying into any fix as to take away the eternal pain of separation while building up a false narrative of the kingdom.  Our problem, as consumers, is that over time we’re lulled into believing it all, even if we know deep down that things aren’t right.  In our own infatuation of the illusion of safety and security we will find a way to cling to anything that is known and certain, often to avoid the fear that only continues to grow exponentially, leaving us in a frenzy.  It happens in us as individuals but collectively as a country as well, mindful that that illusion was shattered in this country after the events of 9/11.  Since then, violence has spiraled, divisions have been set in place, even if they are illusions, extremes have positioned themselves, all feeding into this fear while the rest of the world watches and waits, looking from a place a part from us, understanding our hurt and pain in a way we know not and seem to refuse to look at and consistently find ways to avoid.  We have grown a part from ourselves and each other, now leaving us with more violence than our hearts are often able to bear.

I honestly cannot imagine what it was like in that church on Sunday and maybe I don’t want to either.  My guess is it started like any other Sunday, people catching up with one another, asking about family and friends who may be sick, the small chit-chat that happens on a typical Sunday morning.  There were no thoughts of feeling unsafe, no thoughts of what separates and divides people.  They were a community that gathered under a common purpose and with God at the forefront.  In an instant, lives were changed forever and many eternally.  It wasn’t long after that the predicted responses would begin and hurting lives would once again be turned into politics and more violence, separating and dividing.  We hear about guns don’t kill people, good people need guns, if the government makes any changes they’ll take away all our guns, as we know best, it’s all or nothing, benefiting corporations, feeding a consumer culture rooted in fear, safety and security.  We react and lives are left shattered in the process.

I have no answer even though it seems like I write about this so regularly anymore.  I’m not sure there really are answers when we don’t even know the right questions to ask.  Conversations are directed from backstage, inciting fear, and without even thinking, we give into it so quickly, again, believing what we are told and so often afraid to go to the depths of our own being to evaluate what’s most important to us.  We will never have the safety and security that we think or believe we should have.  It’s a mere illusion and an illusion that is fed by a consumer culture.  More than anything, we need to learn to have a patient trust in the slow workings of God in our lives. 

There is so much healing that needs to happen in our lives, not just the hundreds whose lives have been shattered by traumatic violence that goes beyond the city, but each of us who find blaming the other individual or group for our problems, throwing tantrums in trying to get our way.  Not only do we need healing but we need to grow up and accept responsibility for ourselves and each other.  We do this not by continuously buying into these illusions that feed our own fears, but in learning to embrace the paradox and mystery of life and death.  Our lives are not comprised of only half the mystery, the half we like while living in fear of the other.  Rather, with each passing breath in every given moment a gift is being given to live, but at the same time to let go and trust in the unseen power of God.  For all who have faced such trauma and are reeling in the grief of loss while they still cling to life, it’s all they have, and quite frankly, it’s all any of us really have.

\ ˈem-pə-thē \

If you were to look up the word, empathy, in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, you’d find the following:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :the capacity for this”

From time to time I make the mistake of going to comment sections of articles and posts that I happen to be reading.  It doesn’t take long for me to realize that I’ve made a mistake by doing it and yet I do it anyway.  Maybe there’s a part of me that hopes it has changed, that somehow since the last time I made this mistake that the world got a little better and more understanding.  Needless to say it didn’t go so well and was reminiscent of times past.

The one thing I could never quite understand is how people can lash out at others that they don’t even know, complete strangers going after one another because of opposing viewpoints but never making any effort to get to the heart of their own anger and why this is all coming up inside themselves. When I can’t be sensitive to another’s feelings, thoughts, and experience, I simply then project it all onto them, making them the embodiment of the demon that lies within myself, becoming enemies rather than seeking understanding of a person’s view; and that’s all it is, a view.  I’ve been the victim of it myself and I’m sure the projector at times in my life.  It’s a sign of just how unaware we are as a culture and society when we don’t take responsibility for our own baggage and prefer to share the wealth with others.

When it comes to pain and suffering we are often the worst.  We have to look tough, stoic, to others and the world.  It can explain a great deal of the opioid epidemic that has arisen in this country and our constant need to be medicated and numbed.  That pain has been taken advantage of by advertisers, politicians, and drug manufacturers alike, all of whom have benefited from our inability to deal with pain.  Dealing with our own pain, rather than numbing it, is the only answer to the epidemic but also our inability to empathize with others and to understand another person’s experience which is often different from my own.  Pain has a way of sucking us in and yet projecting outward, seemingly that we stand at the center of the world and carry the measuring stick of judgment of all life’s challenges, experiences, and pains, even if I’ve never actually experienced it myself, all in the name of defense of some one or some thing.

As a culture and society we have distanced ourselves from pain and suffering (the cross) so much that we no longer know how to handle it, embrace it, enter into it, feel it.  It’s as if we walk into the ICU of a dying patient or into a funeral home to mourn with a family and we become so uncomfortable that all we know how to do is make trite statements, hollow at best, because of the fear of going to where we hurt and in those very moments, to realize that that person is also me.  The pain of sitting with the uncomfortableness is too overwhelming in those moments that we have to do something with it.  We just can’t bring ourselves to do it and so we project it all outward, onto each other, onto the country, other countries, and to the world.  Heck, for that matter, there are plenty of examples of it in Scripture that, more often than not, we do it to God as well.  It has given us distorted images of each other and the Creator and there are examples of it everywhere, often including our own lives.  Again, if we’re willing to take a step back, become self-aware, and see what I too am doing to the other and this world.  There’s no wiping our hands entirely clean if we’re willing to take responsibility for our own undealt with pain.

It’s probably the easiest way to understand the gospels and Jesus’ own encounter with the Pharisees and other leaders of that time.  They had such venom towards him, mainly because he challenged their way of thinking and understanding of the other.  All they could do is try to divide and conquer, and in the end, they believe they won. They believe, in the short term, they have won the battle with Jesus once he is crucified, a projection of their own disdain for God and human life and the suffering one endures.  It was and is inevitable in the case of Jesus that hatred would appear to be his demise.  Hate, anger, unfinished hurt, always thinks short term in order to protect itself from deeper pain but always fails to see the big picture, avoiding it at all cost.

We see it in war, violence, resentment, hatred, bigotry, racism, disdain, blame, all rooted in this deep fear of our own pain, separating us from the other in isolating fashion.  Little do we know that when we make decisions and choices from such destructive tension, life becomes much more about survival that living life fully.  It’s as if we’re drowning in our own pain and all we can do is cling rather than to take the hand of someone who may look different, live differently, have a different experience of my own, simply because I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I may have been wrong.  When life is about winning and losing we, without a doubt, always lose even if it feels like a short-term win, protecting myself once more while gasping for air until the next attack, the next exposure of my short-coming, my imperfection, my shadow, my own pain that has taken hold of my life.

We have a lot to do in our society, a lot of work in dealing with the deep-seated pain that we continue to hold onto, clouding all our decisions and choices for the future, while at the same time blaming the future for all our problems.  We’re leaving that very future one hell of a mess to clean up if we soon don’t learn to stop, quiet ourselves, and sit in that ICU, sitting with the dying patient, and learn to die with them.  Pain and suffering has so much to teach us and is often the key to living a fuller life when we no longer dance around it but rather jump in, head first, rather than sharing it with the world.  In times when we retreat, isolate, and believe it’s about us first, we can only begin to understand such action when we’ve been there ourselves, wallowing in our own pain and suffering, feeling it’s the only way for us to survive.  I can empathize with that because I’ve been there myself.  It feels like it’s the only answer to the loneliness experienced when we suffer.  The capacity to empathize with the other, the nation, all suffering everywhere, the world, can only come when we’ve done our own work and continue to do our work in life, creating the necessary space in our lives for someone and something more than ourselves.  It’s the task at hand if we are to move forward for the way forward is through.