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.

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Mediating Love

Ezekiel 33: 7-9; Romans 13: 8-10; Matthew 18: 15-20

During the 2008 campaign we often heard from Sarah Palin about the “bridge to nowhere”.  It was part of her shtick to prove the point of the ineffectiveness of the federal government, building a bridge that went nowhere just to benefit a few.  There are others like it where you can be driving along and all of a sudden if you try to continue you’d end up hitting a wall.  I tried to think of an example closer to home and all I could come up with is, that if you’re a regular driving around here you know that most of the roads from Homeland are One Way out.  All of it begins to send a message over time as the bridge to nowhere does.  Bridges to nowhere, one way out, walls, it’s what we tend to be good at in our lives.  It should be no surprise that we’d want to build walls rather than deal with the burning issues of our day.  It’s much easier than reconciling our differences and finding common ground.

Building community is no easy task.  Matthew is quite aware of that with all his community faces, including their own divisions, but we also know it from our families and any relationships we have been in and have experienced in their breaking apart.  So often we have to have mediators come in to work with people because we become so attached to being right, to knowing it all, to our certainty, to the other being absolutely wrong, when we know that there is often truth on both sides.  Mediators can often help sort out the truth and sift through the conflicts to find that reconciliation.  It doesn’t mean we always get what we want.  As a matter of fact, there often has to be a willingness to give up and surrender things for the good of the community in order to get to the other side and build bridges that go both ways.  We too often become comfortable building bridges only to those we feel we can tolerate, leading to the bridge to nowhere, to only people we can somewhat agree on, tribal thinking as we often see in our own society and certainly our politics..

Ezekiel was one such mediator.  He saw his role as the watchman of his community.  He had to be the one that stands in the middle, seeking the truth when conflict would arise, when people were abusing power or excluding others.  God reminds him of the immense responsibility that comes with such a task and the consequences when there’s not a willingness to be truthful about what he sees and experiences.  He becomes the one who has a keen sense of awareness in the life of the community to see where bridges between the oppositions can be made and what needs to be let go of in the process.  He’s the one that stands above, watching from the watchtower, to not lead them into the traps of bridges to nowhere, one ways, or walls, but rather to a richer sense of community.

It’s no easy task as we’ve heard from Matthew the past few weeks.  It’s quite the challenge when there is conflict and one can’t see the others perspective and not even willing to understand.  Matthew lays out a plan for dealing with such conflicts to hopefully lead to reconciliation but even he knows that that’s not always possible.  He realizes some will choose to not be a part of the community, such as tax collectors and Gentiles.  Of course, they have their own reasons to separate themselves from the life of the community and quite frankly, many had reasons why they didn’t want them to be a part of the community.  There were plenty that would be considered intolerant of them.  At times it seemed insurmountable to think that a bridge that goes between could ever be built.  However, Matthew, time and again, will remind them that it is no longer the prophet who stands as mediator but Christ who stands as love.  The gap could only be closed when love stands as mediator and we could see the other as brother and sister, as neighbor, no matter color, economic status, place of origin, or whatever other means that we used to build our bridges to nowhere and erect walls.

The heart of the readings is Paul’s letter to the Romans.  He puts it so plainly that we must love our neighbor as ourselves.  Love does no evil, he goes onto say.  When we live our lives and grow community around love, around Christ, it finds ways to move from what is often superficial ways of separating ourselves to uniting us around a single purpose, around a single person in Christ.  Reconciling our differences and conflicts is hard work.  It’s the reason why we live in a world where war is never-ending and a constant state of chaos and conflict.  We get so hung up on our own way of things and thinking we’re right, prideful, that there’s no room for love to break us down and see ourselves as brother and sister, as one with our neighbor.  We don’t choose who gets to be our neighbor, mindful that I am a neighbor just as you are and we’d want to be treated with love and respect as the next one.

Yes, it is all easier said than done.  We do prefer walls and bridges to nowhere, and even one ways out so we determine it all and we use ourselves as the center of our lives, avoiding conflict and settling for less in life.  However, to be community and to call ourselves community, we often have to go where we have conflict and where we have made judgments and misunderstandings of each other to learn to bridge those gaps, just as we have to do in our own lives.  It’s so often what separates and it’s so often the easy way out but it never leads to growing deeper in love and in accepting that love.  We pray today for the grace to be aware of it in our own lives, where we may be avoiding what it is that we struggle with and ask love to build a bridge there as well.  In the end, what we can most offer the community is to not only open ourselves to that love in our own lives but ultimately to become that love to one another, to our brothers and sisters, to our neighbor as ourselves.

A Worthy Influence

2 Kings 4: 8-11, 14-16; Romans 6: 3-4, 8-11; Matt 10: 37-42

The connection the Church tries to make with our readings today, particularly the first and gospel, is that of hospitality.  The woman in the first reading is hospitable to Elisha as he passes to and from their town and then link it with the same message in today’s gospel from Jesus. And certainly hospitality is important and learning to be hospitable to one another could do great wonders for all of us.

However, I think we miss the point of the story if we stick to simply what we see and the obvious in these readings.  I don’t need to tell anyone here that in most of these stories the role of being hospitable was that of the woman of the home.  If we stick to that theme all we really do is enforce what is expected of her and in many ways make her small, confining her to a role and some social construct that she is a part of.

Notice in the story that she’s is not referred by any name but is called a woman of influence.  Of course when we hear that word certain things come to mind with people of influence, wealth, power, some kind of authority or whatever the case may be.  But that’s not true in this case.  That would be her husband in that time.  Her influence is something different, a worthy or holy influence.  There’s something different about her connection with Elisha that goes beyond simply being hospitable. 

Elisha has struggled with his own call of being a prophet even though she keeps referring to him as a holy person.  As the story continues, she will receive what Elisha promises, a son.  However, the son dies rather quickly, leaving her as it would any mother, simply beside herself trying to make sense out of all of it.  She will then proceed, with her holy influence, to make her way to Elisha, breaking every social barrier and construct in the way because of this deeper connection.  As much as she affirms his own prophetic call, he in turn, on a deeper level, affirms her own prophetic call, as if the divine is speaking to the divine with the two.  It doesn’t stop her from being hospitable and living the role that is expected of her, but it also doesn’t get in the way of being something more, something bigger.

That’s also the message that Jesus conveys to the apostles today as Matthew continues this understanding of the conditions of discipleship.  Please understand, Jesus is not telling them to somehow hate or not love their parents, their siblings, or anyone for that matter.  This message is about roles, identities, and expectations that they, and us for that matter, grow up with, that often stand in conflict of us going to that deeper place within ourselves.  We all grow up in some type of familial structure and social structure that has helped to define us and our place, just as it was for the disciples, maybe even more so at that time.  The message of Jesus is always about trust and letting go and to begin to identify ourselves through a different lens, through that of the Christ.  That is where we will find our truest identity and where the other relationships them flow.  As the learn to trust this deeper reality and calling, they will do as the woman does in today’s first reading in finding a worthy influence on the world.

That is the message of Paul as well today in the second reading to the Romans.  He reminds them that the Christ dies no more, the eternal, which Paul himself had to seek and find in his own life.  It is no longer about living for his own purpose and what the world calls him to be, in a defined role of sorts, but he now lives for God.  That’s what makes all these characters different and iconic figures for us in our own spiritual lives.  Sure she was hospitable and that alone is a good thing, but she is much more than that as well, just like myself and each of you.

None of it is easy and it is a lifelong process for each of us as we grow into this deeper identity where we learn to speak the divine to the divine.  It’s how we begin to see each other as equal because we are no longer limited by what we see with our eyes, what’s expected of society, or even what we have grown up with in our lives.  At some point all of it makes not only us small but everyone else we limit in the same way.  She was hospitable not because it was her role, but because she did everything in and through the divine, in and through the Christ.  We all have roles but the roles don’t define us as people, as much as we sometimes think they do and make us feel worthy or of influence.  In a worldly way, possibly, but not a worthy or holy influence as exhibited in the readings today.  Our greatest influence we can have on the world will never come with power and money and certainly not our pride.  Rather, it comes when we find that divine within and proceed to live our lives in the same we.  It’s how we find that equality and it’s how we see each other as brother and sister, no longer bound by our eyes and no longer bound by the world but rather a life lived in and through the Christ.  That’s the worthy influence we can and are called to in this world.

Hoping for a Little More Purple

Well thank God that election cycle is over! For whatever reason, it seems that it gets uglier and uglier as time goes on in my life, leaving more disillusioned and disinterested in the whole process, wondering if change can ever come about. I wholeheartedly believe, again, for whatever reason, when it comes to politics and religion, so many tend to try to push us towards the extremes in both. All too often the two, religion and politics, have even become more and more intertwined, so often feeding on our weakness rather than finding ways to build the Kingdom and seek conversion as we are commanded to do as Christians. Politics, if we are honest with ourselves, tends to dictate our morality much more than religion, again, so often feeding off of one another, leaving us bitter, resentful, and quite frankly, judgmental of the other.

I am convinced, though, in light of my own insanity that I call life, that I really am more purple than I am red or blue, and I thank God everyday for that. All too often we have allowed the extremes within ourselves to react to one another and against one another, demonizing the other and having total disregard for what seems and I perceive as the complete opposite of what I believe. Let’s be honest, it’s easy for all of us to get caught up the craziness of it all. We want our candidates to win, deep down, because that’s the party we associate with, at times, even when they’re not the best candidate. We even believe some of the negative ads that are presented to us about the other candidate; unfortunately, allowing that to linger beyond election night, blinding us to the possibility that maybe this woman or man are the more qualified and have good intentions, at least at the moment of entry into office.

But when all is said and done, who wins, wins and that’s the way it is, whether we like it or not. I do believe, for all intensive purposes, my life won’t change a great deal by who wins or loses. I don’t like gridlock, incompetence, and being easily bought by lobbyists and money. There are real problems within the system, both politics and religion. All I hope for, now that it’s over, for at least a few days, is that we can move somewhere to the middle and learn to build bridges rather than walls. Yeah, I know it’s a bit cliche, but it has become the truth and the lived reality of these larger than life systems that we are a part of and yet distance ourselves from because we don’t want to admit that it’s me and you. We like to win and we are quite content watching the other lose.

But at this moment, the day after and the dust begins to settle, people begin to lick their wounds, strategy begins to talked about, how will all this work with new people, and all the rest that the pundits want to tell us about, I’m just hoping for one thing, and that’s for a little more purple in our lives. No, not the Baltimore Ravens purple, but the purple that comes from reconciliation. The purple that comes from building bridges between blues and reds. The purple that comes from communication and putting aside egos. The purple that comes from standing up and being honest with ourselves and people, even if it doesn’t sell papers. The purple that comes from not selling out for money and selfish interests but rather seeking the common good. The purple that comes from respecting the dignity of all people, even those that think differently or wear the opposing color and not be quick to judge and demonize. The purple that comes with accepting that at times others and myself will tell you what we think you want to hear to get what we want; seeing myself in the other.

If we can all agree on anything, and where that bridge can begin to be built, is that we’re tired of what we have seen and must begin to learn to trust the unseen and what lies beyond red and blue and see that I’m just as purple as the next and somehow are challenged each day to reconcile the extreme conservative and liberal within myself, making me whole and a much better change getter because it’s not about walls but rather bridges between what we hold onto so tightly, that red and blue within each of us. Somewhere in the middle of me and you, purple is waiting to break free, both in politics and religion.