This Is the Wilderness

Christians are a people used to waiting. The two pivotal seasons for us each year, Easter and Christmas, are each preceded by a period of waiting and journeying. In both Lent and Advent we change our behavior, our worship, our focus. We reflect and prepare for the breaking-in of God into our space and time– the incarnation of the Divine. These annual pilgrimages have become familiar to many of us, comfortable even, but why? I myself am a rather impatient person by nature, but even I find that I relish and enjoy these seasons of waiting and wanting. I think we can manage the waiting because we still believe we are in control. We know what’s coming. We’ve walked this road before. We get to decide how we spend our time– what we’re going to “give up”. We can tell you the outcome before it even happens. It seems… known. But really… it only seems that way.

The reality is that we can never ‘know’ what will come on the journey to incarnation. Every moment that God breaks into our lives is a unique and new experience. Understandably, there can be a sense of fear around that ‘unknowing’– which I think is why the first thing we often hear accompanying those moments in scripture is, “Do not be afraid.” But incarnation always comes… and it always comes with great love. Our opportunity to ‘let go and let God’, as it were, becomes a journey of hope and freedom.

In these uncertain times of social distance, shelter-in-place, no contact– when businesses are closed, many people find themselves on the verge of unemployment or are already there, news of disease and death, social upheaval and financial distress dominate the airwaves, and we are told we must wait before life can ‘return to normal’, I can’t help but think about Lent and Advent. I am reminded of just how often we are asked to wait for the unknown.

These last few weeks have been a great test for me. I am normally a very social person and to find myself suddenly told to avoid others, was like running into a brick wall. I have struggled with anxiety, loneliness, and a deep sense of isolation. I share this not for your pity or sympathy but because I know many of you have also been struggling. Lent calls us into the wilderness– into that deep place, alone with ourselves, and for most that is a hard place to be. Well– here we are my friends. In this wilderness I have confronted demons and temptations. I have prayed and I have fought. I have reflected and I know I have grown.

We’re not out of the desert yet, and right now the end is unknown. But we are a people of waiting, and what we do know is that God is walking right beside each and every one of us, in this place and everywhere. We are not alone. We are never left in the wilderness. As sure as we are taken to this place of isolation and introspection, we are called out again and back into the loving arms of community and joy and that cycle continues over and over again. So… we can rest in this space for a time. We can struggle in this space for a time, but we will be transformed and resurrected again and again, and each time find ourselves closer and closer to the authentic and life-giving love of God.

Be kind with yourselves right now. Be safe. Be healthy. Be not afraid.

Dust

“The seeker of truth should be humbler than the dust.” – Gandhi

There is a common dynamic in most world religions, that one must go “down” before one can go “up.” It’s counter-intuitive and certainly counter-cultural, but many wisdom teachers including Jesus pointed to this pattern. Sadly, much of the world views this approach of humility as weak, fragile, or feeble. In a society that puts power before thought, it’s no wonder this path would seem less desirable. GOOD NEWS!! There is nothing to fear about spiritual humility! In fact, when we train ourselves to enter into a space of humility we find we can more easily access the fruits of the spirit-such as love, JOY, peace, patience kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When we go inward (or down) and find our truest self we can rise into a new consciousness.

Lent provides the perfect space to slow down, look inward, and then move outward into the world again-hopefully a little changed. Humility is not about shame or guilt. Humility is about “grounding” oneself in the truth of things. The Latin humus, literally means ground or dirt! When we root ourselves in the truth we can move more freely and love more deeply. Humility is one of the four vows of my own religious community, The Community of the Mother of Jesus, and I practice a number of different exercises around humility. The best place to start is to listen more than you speak. I find that I am able to perceive wisdom much faster when I am simply listening to what is going on around me. Truth revealed through humility is rooted in the present moment, the way things really are at that space in time. Only then can we move into another great exercise in humility: seeking and expressing gratitude (this is where the joy comes in). Each time we can orient our minds and souls to the many ways we are grateful we bring ourselves more and more inline with the very nature of God. To operate from sincere gratitude is to operate from divine love.

Think about the dust that Gandhi mentioned in the quote above. It exists exactly as it is, and even when it is blown about by the wind it is unchangeable-its identity is secure. So when you hear the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return” on Ash Wednesday, how will you reflect on that truth? I hope you will allow yourself to be grounded in the wonderful reality of God, that all things come from and return to the Creator. And remember, dust is eternal, and so are you.

Mixed Blessings

This Christmas season was unusually difficult for me. I typically become so busy with work and preparations that it can feel as though Christmas and New Years is gone within a ‘blink’! But, this year I found my heart was heavy and my mind distracted. I was still busy, but there was this constant hum in the background which pulled me into moments of sadness and anxiety, and I couldn’t seem to pinpoint an exact cause. Most likely it was a lot of different concerns and fears that somehow became all entwined together and kept weighing me down like pulling an anchor along behind me. Some days I merely found it exhausting while other days I had to simply find a space to cry. It’s not as though I were completely miserable this season. There moments of laughter and fun with friends, but I just couldn’t seem to shake this anxious sadness.

I tried my usual techniques for managing stress and anxiety with meditation and exercise, and of course I already pray– a lot, so bringing my concerns to God was front and center. But that was just it, even though I asked God for help I kept feeling that sadness creep back in. Was I not letting go? Was God not paying attention? Was there some higher purpose for my suffering? When you’re feeling crummy it really doesn’t matter, you just don’t want to feel crummy anymore. I just had to keep telling myself to ‘just keep swimming’. After all, I had a lot of responsibilities over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

The services at my church were magnificent, as always, with soaring music and beautiful rituals. I continued to struggle with some difficult emotional moments, but what was interesting was the homily on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. At that same moment in each service it was as if the preacher were speaking directly to me. I know some of you have had those experiences, when the message just strikes a chord in your heart. It was strong enough that I sat up and took notice. It was as if God, as if a friend, were tugging on my sleeve and saying, “I know you’re hurting, but I’m right here… I’m right with you.” My heaviness seemed a little lighter in that moment. I didn’t feel alone in my pain.

Isn’t that what what the entire biblical narrative is really all about? No matter what is happening, no matter how people are hurting inside or causing each other pain– isn’t God constantly saying and showing us, “Hey! I’m right here… I’m with you. I never leave you.”

I held my sorrow a little differently from that point on. I realized that I could at once feel my pain and believe that God’s love was enfolding me, protecting me, and guiding me onward. My suffering did not exist in the absence of God, nor was it possible because I was not faithful enough. Sometimes we just hurt. It’s real, it matters, and it deserves attention, but it need not overshadow our capacity to walk with God and each other each. That gift was offered to creation from the very beginning.

Divine Love didn’t begin at Christmas. That sweet manger scene in Bethlehem was another ‘beginning’ to a ongoing, unending, display of God’s miraculous mercy and love. There were countless people hurting, one way or another, on the night in which Jesus was born. There were countless people suffering on that bright Easter morning when an empty tomb heralded Christ’s resurrection once more. I believe God’s persistent Emmanuel reminder is not an end to human suffering, but to show us that no matter what we are experiencing we can know that we are not alone– That God is in us, experiencing our sorrow, and working through us in every moment.

The end-of-the-year holidays can be a challenging time for many people and sometimes in the hustle and bustle of carols and cookies, shopping and church, we can become blind to our fellow brothers and sisters who are hurting right in our midst. So keep your eyes open to those around you who are vulnerable this season. Offer them kindness and prayers of peace, and if you are hurting this Christmastide, know that God is with you now and always. That is the true peace that passes all understanding.

Pregnant Pause

Advent has begun and the journey from darkness to light, Nazareth to Bethlehem, empty manger to the birth of Jesus is upon us. These familiar patterns are always full of possibility and challenge, and I have to say I’ve grown quite fond of Advent for that very reason. However, I always have to resist the urge to jump past the journey directly to Christmas! I mean… come on… ‘Christmas’ is all around us even from before Thanksgiving; many churches have even begun singing Christmas carols! But our Church tradition provides a very important period of reflection and preparation before we even reach the manger and the Christ-child. I only wish more of our culture embraced this season of waiting and wanting, and it’s opportunities to slow down, not speed up.

Full disclosure: I always struggle with patience myself, and find it much easier to reflect upon than to actually put it into practice. But for some reason in my prayer life recently, I keep coming back to the imagery of pregnancy. I have never been pregnant, nor am I a woman, but we’re all fairly familiar with the process. (If you haven’t watched the BBC series, “Call the Midwife” – you must!)

There are many, many passages in scripture which reference birth, from the literal act to the metaphorical such as being ‘born again’ in spirit and so on, and I am reminded that an important part of pregnancy is that it shouldn’t be rushed. In its healthiest capacity, it has to unfold naturally allowing time for the mother and the child to prepare for the violent and often dangerous act of the birth itself. Mothers I have spoken to mention all of the changes for which they had to adapt, leading up to birth and the expectation, excitement, and fear as the day drew ever closer. For many, labor is painful and even terrifying, but as John 16 reminds us, “when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world.”

So, if you’re able, enjoy this ‘pregnant pause’ before the birth of Jesus. This necessary, hopeful, waiting which allows our hearts and minds to prepare for the wonderful and tremendous intrusion of God into our very midst. Open the hymnal and relish over the beautiful Advent hymns that come before the well-beloved Christmas favorites. Let the light of the Advent wreath dance in your heart as the darkness is peeled back layer by layer each week. And, finally, rejoice in the birth of new hope and unending possibility that comes with Emmanuel, God with us!

‘F’ Words

As the leaves fall and I find myself spinning from pumpkins, to turkeys, to Christmas trees, I feel a heightened sense of that other holiday staple, the ‘f’ word … family. Let me state from the start that I love my family very much and I have grown into a more mature appreciation for all of our quirks and craziness. However, all of that learning and loving still comes with certain stresses and strains. Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher, once said: “If you think you are enlightened, go and spend a week with your family.”

This past weekend I visited my family in New England and found myself easily triggered by all kinds of behavioral minefields that I thought I had long left behind. This is a common enough situation… many people share similar challenges when visiting relatives, but this visit really left me shaken at times. What had changed? I had.

As I have continued to grow and mature in my capabilities and spirit I have also dragged along a nagging sense of perfectionism. I convinced myself that not only did I need to change and grow, but I needed my family to see that I had changed and grown. This sub-conscience need for approval was as prevalent now as it was when I was young. With my ego taking the steering wheel I couldn’t even see that I was stuck in old patterns and unproductive communication habits. My mother, whom I adore, and I even found ourselves in a wicked shouting match. I realized later that my escalating reactions had less to do with what she was saying and more to do with how she said it. In turn, she became defensive and irritated– and so on and so on until I actually said “I just won’t talk then until I leave.” When we finally retreated to different spaces I felt ashamed that I had let myself get so out of control. I felt defeated and even like another ‘f’ word … a failure. Perfectionism strikes again.

I went to my room and decided to pray, even though I was not in a calm head-space. Crying and cursing seemed to work for the Psalmist, so why not me? I reached for my community’s prayer book and remembered I had brought it on the trip to pray with my mother. I sheepishly walked to her bedroom doorway to find her reading in a big arm chair. As she looked up I said, “Will you pray with me?” She said yes, and we worked our way through the prayers and scripture readings. When it was over it felt as though there was a great weight lifted off our shoulders. We didn’t have to say I’m sorry because the prayers had done that for us.

I know that God was sitting with us as we prayed. God was no doubt with us as we fought as well and was most definitely with us as we enjoyed the rest of our time together on my visit. That’s the funny thing about some families, even when we fight and trigger one another, we can still find a space for grace and the most important ‘f’ word … forgiveness.

No Agenda

I recently visited St Gregory’s Abbey near Three Rivers, Michigan for the first time, on a personal retreat. The weather was perfect and the drive was pleasant enough, but I found myself growing more and more anxious as I realized I had not “prepared” anything for the retreat—no agenda, no spiritual exercises, no questions to investigate in my solitude. I have visited several monasteries and convents, but only for convention-style group retreats which included meetings, seminars, and group prayer, along with socializing in the evenings … this time it was just me. While I had come with a purpose I feared that without a plan of action my time would be wasted there.

The brothers own about a square mile of land situated between rural woods and farmland. I pulled into the Abbey entrance and stepped out of my car. Just as the scenery was beginning to calm my nerves, I noticed my phone had no signal. I located the main building and guest master and once pleasantries and a brief orientation had concluded, I asked about the cell signal and how I could log onto the WiFi network. “Oh no,” said Brother William, “there is no WiFi on the property and no one has built a cell tower close enough yet to provide a signal.” My panic returned. I thanked him for his time and headed back to my car to get my bags and go to my room. With each step my anxiety grew as I realized I couldn’t let anyone know I had arrived safely, I couldn’t work on my sermon as panned without WiFi, I couldn’t watch Netflix before bed!

Forgetting all about my bags and my room, I jumped back in the car and drove off in search of a signal. I knew full well how ridiculous I was being. I mean, it’s not like my world would end without technology for 4 days, but I couldn’t shake this panic! I drove for what seemed like miles before I was connected again and as I pulled over to the side of the road to inform my loved ones I was safe and sound I felt embarrassed by my reaction. Between the anxiety over not having planned enough for this retreat and the anxiety over not having a connection to the outside world while on the monastery property, I was off to a GREAT start.

Needless to say I didn’t relax into the rest of my time there well. I drove into town each day and “connected” to check texts and download a video…. I admit it. But the anxiety over my lack of any “agenda” turned to shame. I joined the monks at prayer throughout the day and at meals and spent lots of time in silence… but each silent spell I struggled over what I should or could be “doing” with my time. I even asked the brothers if I could help with any work or dishes. They politely declined the offer and I was back to sitting by myself and starring off into the cornfields.

I ended up reaching out to another guest on the second day who had come to the Abbey with a spiritual dilemma following the tragic death of her son a year ago. I talked with her about scripture and life– nothing terribly earth-shattering but a comfortable conversation about God and love. She seemed challenged by my words, but in a positive way. She noted that she had never had a conversation about spirituality like this before and I told her how rich her spirituality seemed to me. During my time with her I realized all my fear and shame had vanished. She had a warmth about her and I was moved that in her grief she came to a holy place with a question for God. By the end of my visit, I sought her out to say goodbye and thank her for spending some time with me. She hugged me and told me that she was in a better place emotionally than before we began talking a few days prior and that she believed God had brought her there to meet me. I knew in that moment God had also brought me to meet her. The experience was an affirmation for me and my journey. It also became clear that even when we come with no agenda, God will offer us opportunities to minister and walk with someone. And each time we accept that gift, we walk with God.

Slivers of Light

I live on the 11th floor and with large windows along the entire exterior wall, my apartment has an abundance of light. A small hallway which leads to the bathroom has become a sort of meditative space for me. The walls are covered in icons and crosses, and at the end there are Sanctus statues of Mary, Joseph, and a corpus of Jesus. My apartment is not huge, but this smaller, out-of-the-way space feels a little quieter, a little more intentional. Beyond the hall is the bathroom which, when the door is closed and the light is left off, is pitch black. I was thinking the other day whether or not it would be strange to sit in the bathroom with the light off, to meditate? I mean, it’s so hard sometimes to find a totally secluded space in our frenetic lives so I thought I would try it.

I went into the bathroom and closed the door, without turning on the light. I ran my hand along the cold tile wall as I sank to the floor and tried to get comfortable. It was certainly silent and dark … very dark. I imagined it was like sitting in one of those isolation tanks as my eyes had nothing to focus on and my equilibrium became a bit off center. But then, after a few minutes, my eyes began to adjust and a very faint line of light appeared from under the door. From out of total darkness, my eyes began to make out the slightest sense of the sink, the tub, the toilet … and for a moment, I was disappointed by this unexpected intrusion. But I decided not to move and just sit quietly a bit longer as my mind released my hurts, my anxieties, and my frustrations– not bad for just sitting on the bathroom floor.

I was intentionally seeking the darkness in my little exercise, but how often do we find ourselves clinging to the light? Every one of us has felt the darkness close in around us at one time or another and it can feel so isolating, so disorienting. But I was reminded that we are never totally in darkness. Never.

“Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one.” (Psalm 139:12)

It’s interesting to me that in the beginning God divided the light from the darkness but he did not call it “good” (Genesis 1:3). The whole of creation exists within a ongoing cycle: “Evening came and morning came and it was the first day” (Genesis 1:5). We cannot ever fully separate light from dark. There are always slivers of light-even on a subatomic level. There is no need to insert dualistic thinking here! All things on earth are a mixture of darkness and light. When we idolize things as totally good or condemn the other as totally bad, we get ourselves into trouble. Even the “good things” of this world are subject to imperfection, wounding, and decay. Some of life’s greatest tragedies can produce good fruit and good people.

Jesus was always able to hold opposites together, as is the nature of God: scarcity and abundance, a tiny mustard seed and a mighty tree, death and life. So the next time you begin to worry about the fading of the light, wait patiently for your eyes to adjust and look for the slivers of light all around you.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Why do so many Christians celebrate and venerate Mary, the mother of Jesus? The scriptures speak very little of her and yet this first-century mother became a revered and even controversial figure. With so many Marian feast days celebrated throughout the Christian traditions, literally thousands of churches names in her honor, and hundreds recorded appearances of her in cities around the world, devotion to her should not be dismissed too quickly. I can only tell you what drew me to a deeper appreciation of the Theotokos (the God-bearer).

First of all, she was there— present with Jesus from his first human breath to his last. She had a front row seat to witness so much of the Jesus narrative. She said yes to God, providing the spiritual consent that would lead to a radical display of Divine solidarity with creation. She brought the needs of others to Jesus, like at the wedding feast in Cana, believing that he had the power to intervene. “Do whatever he tells you…” she said to the servants. She stood at the foot of the cross and visited the empty tomb. She witnessed Jesus’ appearance after the resurrection and was the only woman named in the upper room when the Spirit of God descended at the Pentecost.

Mary of Nazareth is not God, but she becomes the archetypal symbol of the first incarnation, where spirit and matter meet, creation— which gave birth to the second incarnation, Jesus. Mary has been one of the most prolific subjects in western art and with good reason. In almost all of the depictions of the Madonna and child, she is dressed in splendor and holding, offering Jesus naked and vulnerable, to the world. And note where her hands and eyes are usually directed… to Jesus, who is the focus. Richard Rohr shares that, “Mary is all of us both receiving and handing on the gift.” In Mary, we “see our own feminine soul … and say with her ‘God has looked upon me in my lowliness. From now on, all generations will call me blessed.’ (Luke 1:48)” (Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ)

Every branch of Christianity holds a unique space for Mary. Even Islam offers her a singularly exalted place. But, putting aside all of the dogma and legend, Mary became the churches symbol of how to receive God and then share God with the world. My former priest used to say to me, “the closer you come to Mary, the closer you come to Jesus” because she forever points the way to Christ, humbly and faithfully. When you reflect on Mary the mother of Jesus, remember her song of praise, My soul magnifies the Lord. And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! And, may we draw the same strength and faith to say yes to God and yes to our own incarnation.

Cosmic Relation

Any object that calls forth respect or reverence is the “Christ” or the anointed one for us at that moment.

I have been facilitating a spiritual book club at my church this year and each book we have chosen to read together has been aimed at helping us understand the Cosmic Christ. The section of the book (Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ) we read most recently included the above passage. Rohr uses a technique in this book where he invites the reader to stop whenever they come to a passage in italics and truly ponder-perhaps read it again, and again, and again. So, when I encountered this particular italicized passage I stopped and sat with it for a while.

We’re used to hearing that Christ is in all people, seeking him out in the layers of humanity and human relationship, but meditating on a Universal Christ requires us to go far beyond mere human interactions. This is indeed rooted in scripture, as the opening prologue to John’s Gospel is all about a God who, through the Christ, is made manifest and present in every single part of the material universe. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3)

Note that Rohr’s passage above mentions respect and reverence. Re-spect, or “to see again” implies that we are to look back at something and think about it, to regard it. I think of the many things I come upon in a given day which I barely glance at a first time let alone give a second look. But this idea of pausing to really look at something is what leads to the second word, reverence. Revereri (Latin) is to stand in awe of something. How can we hope to stand in awe if we haven’t truly looked at something in the first place?

When we talk of “seeking God” in all things, what we are really talking about is connecting to the cosmic and interdependent relationship of all creation. It’s never really limited to a single exchange. At a sub-atomic level everything is touching and pushing on something else – everything is literally connected. A God who is relationship itself pulls us into God’s-self at every turn. St Bonaventure taught that, “Christ has something in common with all creatures. With the stones he shares existence, with plants he shares life, with animals he shares sensation, and with the angels he shares intelligence.” We too share something in common with all of creation.

What objects call forth respect and reverence for you? Is it a child, a garden, a stained-glass window, a beloved pet? There is the Christ… beckoning you into relationship and awe with everything that God has made. How will you respond?

Why March?

I decided to march in this year’s Chicago Pride Parade with some members of my religious community and the Episcopal Diocese, along with other Christian churches and the Coalition of Welcoming Churches. I have marched in several past pride parades when I was a member of the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus, but never with churches. I must admit I was hesitant to march, not because it was with churches but because I discovered I was angry with the LGBTQ community at large. Being a gay man myself, it may seem odd that I should say that, but I as I continue to become more aware of the extent of racism, sexism, classism and gender bias surrounding us today I realize that the LGBTQ community is not excused from generating this kind of exclusion. We have fought for dignity and respect and yet we often are quick to judge, divide, and ostracize others, especially within the community itself. It hurt me to think that my own people, who purport to radiate inclusion, ignore their own culpability in furthering brokenness and division. Then it struck me that this is precisely a reason to march.

It’s easy to become cynical about pride parades, saying “they’re too commercial” or “most of the people watching don’t even care, they just come to get drunk” or “the business’, politicians, and churches are just pandering,” but none of that really matters.

We march because inequality still exists. We march because LGBTQ people in this country are still being marginalized and abused even 50 years after the Stonewall Uprising. We march because in the midst of pain and suffering we can still celebrate our individuality and our collective interdependence. We march because pride parades still give hope and joy to those seeking family and community. We march to remind anyone feeling alone that they are NOT alone. We march because pride parades are not just for LGBTQ people any more than salvation is just for Christians.

Pride parades are one facet of a call to stand up for justice and inclusion, for equality and dignity. The Me Too movement, the continuing feminist movement, the Black Lives Matter movement and so on, also fight for inclusion, dignity, equality and respect… not because they are rights, but because unity, dignity, and love are at the core of all creation, all physical matter. “All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3 NRSV) So, if the Christ is to be found in all things then we must seek the Christ in all things, working towards compassionate inclusion and care for all peoples and the very world we live on.

Every great revolution must be able to turn its lens inward and examine its own reactions and in-actions if it has any chance of truly transforming others. I am not exempt from causing pain in this world, but I pray that as I grow and learn to see where I am contributing to exclusion and suffering, “with God’s help” I will sow seeds of healing and transformation, even within myself. THIS is why I am marching.

I pray we may all move closer towards greater unity and love, within ourselves and with one another, and that you have a happy and safe pride weekend.