Monday, August 31, 2020

whispers


This has been a fantastic year for silence, if you can bear it. A great year for being alone with your thoughts, if you can handle them. An incredible year for refocusing and maybe discovering that the frenetic pace you once kept was not only unwanted, but maybe even unnecessary, and perhaps, unsustainable... you just never had the chance to find out until a pandemic forced. you. to. stay. home.

A few weeks ago, the first reading at Sunday Mass was the story of Elijah, in the cave, waiting for the Lord to pass by... perhaps you're familiar with it... the Lord is not in the wind, the earthquake, the fire... but is in the "tiny whispering sound" after all of that - and approaching the mouth of the cave, Elijah buries his face in his cloak, and steps forward to encounter the Divine. 

This story showed up in a few "random" places for me in the days following, and came to resonate within my soul in a new and deeper way. After all the storms of this year, God remains in that tiny whispering sound... and the tiny-ness does not obscure the profundity, or the persistence, of the whisper.

Where is that tiny whispering sound... in all this chaos?
In listening, in stepping aside to allow other voices to be heard. 
In the quiet early morning runs.
In lunchtime breaks with my dog.
In the handful of people with whom I am able to spend even a little time; in such a time of isolation, this means more than it ever did before.
In sudden monsoon storms, carrying the scent of sage across the high desert in late afternoon.
In walks at sunset, when I am caught off-guard by a brilliant moonrise and stop to stare at the sky. 
In that tug towards silence at the end of the day.

It reminds me that if the Divine One wants you to know something, you can bet you'll be shown.

It reminds me that the whisper is present in even the simplest of things, those things which are easiest to miss in the noise, in the storm, in the chaos.

It also reminds me that these simple things are profoundly holy, worth the figurative burying of my face in my own cloak, because they carry the very voice of God.  


  
 




Wednesday, April 15, 2020

in the night


In the night... or in the desert... however you perceive it. These are places where we are made to walk by faith, not sight; times when we feel the dehydrating heat of the desert encroaching on our souls, or the blinding darkness of night enveloping us: either a seeming threat to our being.

Perhaps you feel this is one of those times.

I wrote what follows months ago, intending to share it whenever the time felt right. Never would I ever have thought it would be in a time such as this... but I know many people now feel the darkness of night, or the dryness of the desert, creeping in.

Life, it seems, goes in phases... of living in the desert, perhaps overcome by thirst, unsure if you'll survive, and finding a path out of the desert to some kind of oasis, 
however temporary - or finding your way out of night into the soft light of morning before being absorbed into the harsh light of midday. We all experience it differently. Mother Teresa spent decades deprived of the sense of God's presence... walking by faith and not sight, indeed. 


Four years ago, I was plunged into darkness, aided by the betrayal of a friend whose actions shredded my soul. I can’t say I handled it particularly well - it was an incredible fight, of which I frequently wanted no part. I was not at my best. Given the circumstances, perhaps any other expectation was unreasonable.

It’s like having your ship wrecked on a rocky coastline and in trying to pick your way over the field of jagged rocks to the sand, sometimes you just want to give up... because dammit, it’s midnight under a new moon. You can’t see a thing and you think you might actually die out here, in some awful way. Midnight seems to last forever.

You try to appreciate the stars, but you’re so busy trying to survive, to not fall on a rock, split your head open, and perish, and you're overwhelmed by how hard this is... 

Somewhere in the struggle, you realize that you’re already bruised and bleeding. If you make it to the sandy shore, and if you survive until daybreak, you’ll never be the same. Oh, you had wounds before, but you never anticipated how that collection would grow. 


Meanwhile, there are those who tell you, “just offer it up!”

And there are those who try to tell you it’s your fault.

And there are those who tell you that you just have to "let it go" - and obviously you're not doing a good enough job of that, because you've barely made it over one of those rocks, let alone all those ahead.

Meanwhile, your legs are cut and your hands are scraped... all their talking makes that soul-crushing, breath-taking pain worse, and you feel even more alone, because no one lends their hand. No one reaches down into your pain to crawl over those rocks alongside you.

Perhaps finally, someone appears to speak a word of hope or relief, to bind up your wounds, to speak a word of calm, place a hand on your back and encourage you to breathe, just for a minute, before struggling on - as they now accompany you, because even though the fight is not explicitly their own, they stay with you, in the solidarity that is love. 

If you are not struggling right now, be there for someone who is. Be that word of hope, relief, calm. Help someone breathe. 

If you are struggling right now, I am here for you; please reach out. Let's talk.

We are in this together.

We will get through this together.



Friday, April 10, 2020

the one who cannot be thought


God is the ultimate force of life and love in the universe. 

God does not cause death.

We do that.

Nature does that.

We don't understand it, and we want to know why... so we project our own explanations onto the Divine mind.

Yet we do not know why. Nor do we need to.

Can you live and love in the knowledge of not needing to know?

"We cannot think our way to God. He can be loved but not thought."

How do we love a God we cannot understand?

Maybe today, this day, Good Friday, holds that answer... that God became man and subjected himself to our own evil. If this is true, as we hold it to be, it could only be motivated by love.

Nothing else makes sense.

These weeks have gifted us an opportunity to grasp Christ's sacrifice of love in a new way, as we are presented with new ways to care for one another, in physical absence, with spiritual closeness.

Today, perhaps you will sit in silence with a new, different knowledge of what this love means, loving more deeply the God who cannot be thought. 




Sunday, March 29, 2020

untie him and let him go



"I am the resurrection and the life."


Today's Gospel at Mass relates the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and it's full of meaning for us today.  

Quick recap for anyone who needs it (John 11:1-45 if you'd like to read in its entirety): 


When Lazarus took ill, his sisters - Martha and Mary - sent word to Jesus of their brother's grave condition. Clearly, he was a close friend of the three siblings, as the message they send is: "Master, the one you love is ill."

Yet Jesus delays his return to Judea by two days, knowing Lazarus will be dead by the time he arrives. 

When he does return, Martha goes out to meet him: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." "I am the resurrection and the life," he tells her.
Mary has stayed at home - perhaps utterly overtaken by grief, perhaps even a little angry (or maybe even a lot angry) with Jesus for not returning sooner. When Martha returns to the house and then takes her to Jesus, she also says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." 

If you prayed with this Gospel as one might in the practice of 
lectio divina, you might imagine the scene at Lazarus' tomb - all the people weeping, even Jesus himself. I imagine that Jesus weeps not only because he loves Lazarus and his sisters, but also because he is saddened by everyone else's grief. I even let myself wonder a little, if in his humanity, Jesus perhaps briefly wondered at his decision to delay his return to Bethany. Even knowing he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, if he wondered, in his great compassion, if he should have returned to heal Lazarus on his sickbed, and spared his friends and their community this grief. 

The stone is rolled away, and Jesus speaks those powerful words: "Lazarus, come out!"
Lazarus emerges from the tomb, bound in burial cloths, and Jesus tells those gathered, "Untie him, and let him go."

One of the questions that naturally flows from this reading today, is, where is God in a pandemic?

Over the last few weeks, I'm sure we've all heard various takes on why this is happening, and various answers to questions about where God is right now and exactly what he is doing. 

I do not claim to know the mind of God, but I believe God is with us right now... In every single person. The people you're at home with; the person you wave to from across the street on your evening walk; the medical professionals risking their lives; the grocery store workers trying desperately to keep shelves stocked; God is even with us in the toilet paper hoarders and panic buyers. And yes, God is even in you.

The presence, the spark, of the Divine, is difficult to recognize sometimes, but that does not make it any less real; it only means that we do not perceive it perfectly.

Some might say that God is, as Jesus was at the beginning of today's Gospel, remaining "in the place where he was" - distant - perhaps choosing to remain distant in order to teach us some kind of lesson. Clearly, there is plenty all of us can learn from these times. However, I have a hard time with the suggestion that sometimes follows, that God is inflicting this scourge upon the human race with intent. That seems hollow to me, particularly when people are losing loved ones to a terrible disease. I certainly wouldn't want to tell someone who lost a beloved friend or relative to COVID-19, "Well, God is purifying us through this pandemic, so don't worry, they didn't die in vain. The world will be better for this."

Ouch. To me, that makes God sound like a cosmic jerk. 

Could it be that God is willingly inflicting this pandemic upon humanity? Well, sure. We could also ask, is God capable of suspending the laws of science to miraculously end this pandemic? Yes, certainly. But I don't think that's the point, in either case.  

I think the more important point is that none of us know the mind of God - that's something, particularly in times like these, I wish some of us would be perhaps a bit more thoughtful and honest about. We don't know the mind of God. We can't. That's for God alone. Not us. We can, and do, project what we think God is thinking or meaning in all of this - and we really do like to! - I think because it allows us the illusion of some measure of control.

It can be difficult to sit before God in silence and admit that we do not understand, and ultimately that we do not need to understand - to admit, to embrace the inherent mystery. Again, just as we cannot perfectly perceive the Divine presence, so also we cannot claim to know God's thoughts. 

It is true that times like these present us with opportunities - opportunities to consider our lives and loves more deeply, to appreciate things we once took for granted, to consider our relationships with one another and our relationship with God, through a new lens, and to grow in those relationships in new ways. For those who believe, even for those whose faith-lives are shaky, times like these are certainly an opportunity for us to lean on God - even when we're also confronted with a barrage of different emotions, as perhaps Mary was angry with Jesus, but still believed in him. 

And I do think that, just as he wept with Mary and Martha and their community before raising Lazarus, Jesus weeps with us now:
As we mourn the dead. 
As we mourn the loss of our normal lives (because even "normal" on the other side of this will not be the normal we knew three months ago). As we mourn an extended pause of things we hold dear, and even simple things we just liked to enjoy at leisure.

And I believe he will raise us, just as he raised Lazarus - as I discussed last time, resurrection always follows death of any kind. With resurrection comes new freedom - "untie him, and let him go". In this sense, we see resurrection as a kind of release from captivity... making this time of hardship an opportunity for us to come to terms with the things that are binding us, the things that are holding us back from living in greater service to one another and to God. Maybe that's something worth considering more deeply.

After this time of "captivity" is ended, what might your resurrection look like? For what will you be untied? What will you be freed to do?



Sunday, March 22, 2020

holding each other up without holding hands


Sometimes, it's hard to find our own words - written or spoken - to talk about terrible things when we're going through them. 

So, if this pandemic leaves you speechless, because it is painful, because it is scary - for so many reasons:
- being physically apart from those we love, 
- being worried and scared for those we love who might fare poorly if infected, or for yourself, if you are at risk
- being worried and scared for those we love who are on the front lines of the fight, or for yourself, if you're one of those on the front lines
- seeing others suffer in illness or through loss of employment, or to suffer them ourselves, 
- being unable to physically do anything about this pandemic, 
- having to think twice about something so simple and routine as going to the grocery store  

... know that you are not alone.
This is a painful, frightening, difficult time, for so many reasons that touch us in physical, emotional, and spiritual ways. 

I don't know how things look from your side of the screen, but from this Catholic-scientist's perspective, a few things are clear:

This will get worse before it gets better. Today, just like yesterday, the only way out is through. 

But, that does not mean we are devoid of HOPE.
Things will get better!
And can you imagine how incredible it will be when we are all finally able to be together again? 

In the context of so much physical death, disease, and suffering, some might think it trite, to consider the things we can't do as a community, as church, right now, as a kind of death. In no way do I intend to trivialize the physical suffering and death caused by this pandemic - but it is also true that suffering and death have many forms, including the psychological and spiritual. Even those who manage to avoid COVID-19 infection will not escape this time completely unscathed. (Those of you who have been newly homeschooling for a week now already know that!) 

And for that reason, I think it's important for those of us who believe in God, to remember what comes next at this time of year - fast-forward a little bit to Good Friday.
What follows Good Friday? Easter.
Resurrection always follows death - and it doesn't matter if that death is physical, emotional, or spiritual. Think about today's Gospel - the story of the man born blind - the healing of his blindness was a certain kind of resurrection, was it not? 

Resurrection. Always. Follows. Death. 

As we move into this second week of social distancing, homeschooling, working from home, or not having the option to work from home, and perhaps struggling to find childcare - whatever this situation looks like for you - let's hold one another in our hearts - hold each other up during this time when we cannot hold each other's hands! Let us all do whatever we can to help, even in the smallest of ways.

I wrote a prayer a few nights ago that I shared with my women's group via videoconference yesterday morning, and I'd like to share it with all of you here: 

Lord, on Ash Wednesday, you asked us to rend our hearts, not our garments, and return to you. 
Now, you are hidden from us; your Eucharistic presence is out of our reach.
We are starving for you, and we are starving to be with our family and friends again, in safety and health.
Help us, Lord, to help one another in this time, with the compassion you showed the man born blind and the many others you healed during your public ministry - help us to understand more deeply that when we help our sisters and brothers, we are helping you.
In our longing for the community and communion of the Mass, teach us to never again take for granted our communities of faith, or the gift of the Holy Eucharist.
Keep our hearts burning with love of you and one another.
Our hearts are rent - for those who suffer with this illness, for all caregivers, for one another. Please end this pandemic, and heal all sickness.  
Help us to trust in your mercy, and to walk in hope through this darkness, knowing that we will come through this better, and not alone, but together. 
Bless us with the grace we need now to hold each other up, when we cannot hold each other's hands.
We entrust ourselves to your mercy - and trust that, in your abiding love for all creation, all shall be well.
Amen.





Saturday, March 21, 2020

there is a light


"There is a light
We can't always see
And there is a world
We can't always be
If there is a dark
That we shouldn't doubt
And there is a light
Don't let it go out..." 
-U2, 13 (There Is A Light)



To bother with saying the world has changed seems silly at this point. We all know.

The world is standing on its head, because of something we can't even see with the naked eye. Something effectively invisible, unless the tools of science are employed.

In many ways, that is the height of terror, isn't it?

And so here we are, waking in the morning and hoping maybe this was all a bad dream, and things are still normal, and we'll go to work, or the kids will go to school, and we'll go to happy hour on Friday night, like usual.
But things aren't normal, and we won't do any of these things in any normal way, probably for quite awhile.

And you know what?
It sucks.
It really does.
It sucks.

But simply, the only way out, is through.

Over the past few weeks, and particularly this week, I'm sure we've all learned a lot, and received some important reminders. I don't know what it's been like for you, but here are a few things I've learned / reminders I've received in these days.

I've learned that it's worth turning mute "off" every so often during teleconferences so that we can hear each other laugh.

I'm reminded that many people genuinely do care and want to help one another, even when there are some among us hoarding toilet paper and basic supplies. My coworkers and I are a fairly tight group, but this week was full of unexpected emails and text messages to each other, saying things like, "If you need anything, remember I'm just a couple streets away", "I want you to know, I really appreciate working with you on this project and I'm glad we're in this together"; calling into a telecon and being greeted with, "Hey stranger! It's good to hear your voice...".

Yes, seemingly invisible things are amazing. They have very visible effects! They can terrify us, they can upend our lives, they can cause hysterical and irrational behavior, but they can also remind us that the most important things in life, of course, are not things, but each other.

I'm not going to lie, this work week was stressful. I don't mind mixing things up now and then, but it's truly difficult when your routine is *completely disrupted*. It's hard to go from meetings and project work with your coworkers in the same room to telecons and emails and working from your living room with your dogs (and no, I'm not complaining about the dog part!).

Right now, I don't know if there's enough wine in the world, or enough long afternoon runs, to get through this. I do know there are plenty of tears, and yes, some of them are my own.

But the only way out, is through.
And the only way to get through this, is to keep hope alive.

So whatever it is that buoys you, that keeps your spirits up, that keeps your hope fueled, do that. Pray. Meditate. Exercise (obviously, in an appropriately socially-distanced manner). Have a glass of wine over a video chat with friends. Watch a movie. Play a game with your kids. Bake. Dance. Sit in a candlelit room at night.

And check in with the people in your life, particularly those who might be scared (and yes, it's okay if you're scared, too), or who are especially vulnerable.


Please, friends, keep each other safe, stay home unless you absolutely cannot, and stay healthy.  

There is a light. Don't let it go out. 





Saturday, February 29, 2020

tempted in the desert



"At that time, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert
to be tempted by the devil..."
(Mt. 4:1; complete text for Mass Mt. 4:1-11)



This Gospel is frequently spoken of in the context of the temptations offered to Christ - in the form of wealth, power, and pleasure - and that is, of course, quite valid, but I think there’s more to consider here.

This Gospel is also ultimately a reminder that evil is present in our desert... in our own world. 


I don’t mean evil in the form of horned devils, running around with pitchforks looking to possess the next wayward soul. Evil is far more insidious than that - because it is much more obvious, yes much less recognized. 

Evil is there, in wars, in discrimination, in the injustices done to the vulnerable and needy, it is there when we lack love for one another. It is there in the everyday evils we tend to ignore when they do not directly impact us, but which are no less grave. 

Evil is present in both our malice, and our indifference… it is, in that sense, both hot and cold. Perhaps, the counterbalance of evil is not simply “good”, as it is the highest form of good: love. Love is the only thing that can overcome both our malice and our indifference. We have seen the enemy, and it is all of us, ourselves included. 

How do we impact our world, then? By meeting every form of evil with every form of love, everywhere we go. 

Indeed, isn’t it possible that the hunger Christ experienced after his forty day fast was not only hunger for food, but for love - specifically the love found in human companionship, following forty days’ isolation?

How relevant this should be to us, living in a world that, despite our technological connectedness, is increasingly isolated at personal levels.

Don’t we all observe this hunger for companionship, for community, for relationship, everyday?

Doesn’t this hunger reside in our own hearts?

How often do we recognize it in the hearts of those around us?



Friday, February 28, 2020

releasing the captives




"This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke,
setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke..." (Is. 58:6)


Isn't it great how, on this Friday immediately following Ash Wednesday, the readings of the day call us back to Ash Wednesday, and "rend your hearts, not your garments"? 


It's almost the equivalent of asking, "You're three days into this now - how's it going?"

This is a good chance to evaluate our start, and, just as this reading calls out Isaiah's audience for their fickleness and weakness - it's a good opportunity for us to acknowledge the difficulties inherent in our Lenten observances:


"Lo, on your fast day you carry our your own pursuits, 
and drive all your laborers.
Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,
striking with wicked claw..."


This isn't just about how grumpy we may be after fasting on Ash Wednesday ;-) (because let's be honest, the hangry is real)... It's about evaluating whether the disciplines we observe during Lent will ultimately lead us to become more other-centered, instead of self-centered:


"This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly...
setting free the oppressed...
sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
clothing the naked when you see them, 
and not turning your back on your own..."


And, just as the text makes clear that fasting from material goods without a simultaneous change of heart is not what the Divine asks, so God also reveals that "fasting" by caring for the needs of others (which can include setting aside our own pride and desire to be first or most important), contributes to the healing of our own infirmities:


"Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, 
and your wound shall quickly be healed..." 


So, how *is* Lent going so far? Easier or harder than you expected? What's more challenging - acts of physical self-denial, or using the self-discipline you gain from those acts to fuel kinder treatment and deeper care of others? 


And to a different point, how are you one of those captives, bound unjustly, who also needs to be set free? We don't often focus on the seeking healing during Lent, and I think we should - because our own healing can only help us to do more good for others.

Where do you need healing in your life: where are your wounds? And how can your healing, your freeing, be fueled by "setting free the oppressed" or "sharing your bread with the hungry" in your daily life?  



Thursday, February 27, 2020

life and death, blessing and curse


"I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse." - Deut. 30:19

"Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it." - Luke 9:24



Do you plant a garden in the spring?

Prepping those planting beds, making little rows, then filling them with seeds, and covering them up?

Isn't it interesting that we cover the seeds up... we put them in darkness, in the ground - the bearer-instruments of new life - before they begin to grow? And in a very real sense, being buried in the ground is a kind of death, isn't it? We certainly associate being buried with death... and so with seeds, after they are buried, they absorb nutrients from the soil, take in water, and cease to be a seed as they grow into a plant... a kind of death, perhaps, and followed by a resurrection, by new life.

And of course, like plants, in our spiritual existence, we grow and bloom and (hopefully) produce some kind of seed, and experience many different kinds of spiritual and emotional trial and death, over and over and over again.

Life brings us many wounds. All of them bring about some kind of death in our lives, some more severely than others. These emotional and spiritual wounds have real and serious consequences - they can bring tremendous darkness into our lives, and disrupt our relationships with God and one another.

They are a very real form of non-physical death, and returning from the most serious - resurrecting, as it were - is hard work, but at some point, that healing becomes a difficult and conscious choice we make. Though I believe it is true that we are all inclined to seek health (spiritual/emotional/physical), that does not lessen the difficulty of the work we do along the path of that seeking.

We suffer these deaths, but each time we seek healing - we seek life - we experience resurrection. Holding on to our woundedness is akin to choosing death - like those who wish to save their lives, but lose them. In our willingness to engage in the difficult work of vulnerability and healing, we find our lives again.

Let us not choose death in our pain. 


Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Ash Wednesday: God wants your heart, not your chocolate



"Rend your hearts, not your garments, 
and return to the Lord, your God." - Joel 2:13 




Guys, God wants your heart. Not your chocolate.


Happy Ash Wednesday. (Yes, if you're looking at timestamps, I'm posting this on Tuesday evening... taking the opportunity to post this while I can!)

I'm not suggesting that giving up chocolate, or other material pleasures, for the duration of Lent is in any way a bad thing... using such exercises in an effort to learn greater self-control is definitely a good. But, I do think we should be careful to focus our Lenten efforts on more than the physical - let's be cognizant of what these things are meant to help us accomplish, spiritually.

Ultimately, "giving something up" for Lent is about removing obstacles from our lives in order to clear our path to God. Exercises in self-control can certainly form an aspect of this, and again, I'm not suggesting such things are bad. Maybe, though, it's good to consider this in other terms, too.

If you go to Mass today, you'll hear in the first reading, "Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God." ... pretty powerful words, right? Well, yeah.

Read them again. "Rend your hearts, not your garments." 

Put in words we're a little more familiar with: "Tear apart your hearts, not your garments."


The Lord wants your heart, and he wants it torn open. He doesn't want, or need, your material goods.

Rend your hearts.

Why? Because God wants to put your heart back together - to heal it of all its ills and pains.

And ultimately, God wants your heart to look like His... so it can love like His.

So for Lent, and for life, can we give up our... 


- Rush to judgment?
- Inclination to assume the worst of each other?
- Knee-jerk reaction to label someone, or their opinions, as "wrong" and dismiss them as such?

Instead of all these things, can we exercise compassion and empathy, realizing we don't know what it takes for others to even get out of bed in the morning, much less interact with the world in any functional way, and we don't know what experiences have formed their hearts?

Yes.
I know.
Tall order.
And don't worry, we're all going to fail, but unless we choose to begin, we can't even say we've tried. 


Rend your hearts.

And can we engage honestly with our own pain and fear, and seek healing - clear out those obstacles, too, opening the way for the loving touch of God's mercy? This kind of honest engagement can be downright penitential, let's be real. It can mean swallowing our pride and ceding our need to be in control - can call us to deep vulnerability - and can call us not only into greater communion with God, but with one another.

Rend your hearts.

There are as many ways to observe Lent as there are people, but the ultimate goal - drawing closer to the Divine - is universal.

Look inside your heart. Seek out as many moments of silence as you're able today, and inquire of yourself and the Lord: what is yours to do in this holy season?