quiet thoughts at the close of our sabbath...

NOTE:  We spent the better part of today resting - walking the the snowy scrub with Lucie - and bringing some more order to our cluttered little house. As I was cleaning out CDs I no longer want - and papers stacked high yet again on my desk - I can across this homily from last year's All Saints Day. I was pleased to see that it still rings true for me. What's more, I can see how this whole year after our sabbatical has been built upon small acts of tenderness, small steps into contemplation, and small invitations of solidarity with God and our neighbors. I'm going to make some pizza and salad for dinner tonight to bring our Sabbath to a close.
When I walk in the almost winter woods of this season – with the low, rich sunlight of late October and early November pouring through the almost naked trees - I often hear the voices of the saints in my life. They are the ones who shared love with me in my family, my circle of friends and the different churches I have served. They are Michael and Don - Dolores and Roger - Rick, Vicky and Grace - Jim, Betty, Beth and Linda - and let's not forget St. Lou Reed.

In some ways these saints are very different; they are black and white, rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight. They are well educated and street wise. Very, very different – on the surface – but in one way they are all the same:  they were vulnerable and open to God’s love. They let me share some of their wounds and I felt safe enough to be fully human with them, too. You see, all we really have to share with another is ourselves:  our time, our love, our broken humanity. And when we take the risk to do this – and it is received in trust – then something beautiful and even sacred happens:  God’s love becomes flesh within us right here and now. This love – peace – serenity is not JUST for life after death – it is for right now. Our hungers can be filled at the Messianic banquet table and our wounds can be soothed in a deep way right now.

I know that modern people don’t believe this – most people throughout history haven’t believed it – that’s why we have ministry. The late Henri Nouwen put it best:

Ministry is how we make the world more transparent to the other so that the world speaks of God and people are enlightened by the love of God... Ministry is to help others open their eyes and ears, so to speak - to make what is cloudy and opaque clear and beautiful - to proclaim to to others what we have experienced in prayer: God's beauty, truth and wisdom is here for you, too... Life becomes an unbearable burden whenever we lose touch with the presence of a loving Savior and see only the hunger to be alleviated, thin injustice to be addressed, the violence to be overcome, the wars to be stopped and the loneliness to be removed. All these are, of course, critical issues and Christians must try to solve them; however, when our concern no longer flows from our personal encounter with the living Christ, we feel only the oppressive weight.

In other words, the whole point of ministry – and church – is to help one another move deeper into God’s love RIGHT NOW.  It is all about helping one another transform and convert our loneliness into solitude with the Lord. That’s what I hear promised in the reading from Revelations:  God will wipe away every tear from our eyes – in the great beyond, of course – but also right here and right now.

There are three road blocks, however, that we have to reckon with – three challenges that always distract and dismay us – and they have been in existence since the beginning of time:  our culture, our religious traditions and our inner emptiness. Our challenge – and it is only work that WE can do – is to trust Jesus when he tells us:

You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s kingdom is there for the finding. You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning.

Every person I’ve ever met – myself and my spiritual guides included – wrestle with this truth. We don’t want to believe we have to quit our allegiance to our culture, our religious traditions and our inner neediness to move into God’s peace – so we fight it most of our lives. We want to believe we can make it happen all by ourselves. It has NEVER worked that way and NEVER will, of course, but that doesn’t stop any of us. We are stubborn and cantankerous and strong willed… until we become sick and tired of being sick and tired… we will remain that way, suffering under the illusion that we can really work our way into deep and lasting peace.

Let’s start with our culture:  we’ve bought into the lie hook, line and sinker that if we work hard enough – and buy enough things – we will be at peace.

We put great effort into convincing ourselves and those around us that if we dress well, live in nice homes and keep work hard to be upwardly mobile we’re on the right track. But here’s the deal: no matter how hard we try, we are still racked by insecurities, we still find it hard to love ourselves or others and we are still destined at the end of all of our striving for a hole in the ground.

Now don’t be too hard on yourself because that’s the message that inundates our culture.  Get
all the nice things and keep up with the latest trends and all will be well.

The caustic and endlessly charming commentator and writer Rex Murphy of Canada observed in 2005 that '"a culture that offers intellectual hospitality to the chatterings of Dr. Phil and the romps of Desperate Housewives doesn't have the stamina to pursue the idea of faith and its agency. 

Ours is a viciously consumerist culture that is saturated with shallowness.  What’s more, the effort required to keep up with the latest junk is killing us and polluting Mother Earth. Another Canadian religious scholar, Charles Davis, speaks of our addiction to busyness as self-inflicted violence.  Think of the way Jesus operated: he was always going off to a lonely place to think and pray to the Lord. He learned how to step away from his culture and convert his loneliness into true solitude with God because without this effort, God’s peace doesn’t come.

People hate to hear this – in Christ’s time and today – but it is an essential truth: until we disengage and unplug ourselves from the demands of our culture, there isn’t room inside for God to grow and mature and heal us from the inside out. That’s why when we talk seriously about nourishing a life of prayer – taking time to convert our loneliness into solitude – some people get snarky and angry.  It happened in Christ’s time – and not much has changed. That’s why he taught us:

Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.

The first road block to nourishing God’s deep peace that passes understanding is culture. The second is our allegiance to outdated religious traditions. Israel’s prophets were ALWAYS saying that following the rules isn’t at the heart of God’s way – FREEDOM is – so if the rules get in the way of freedom, then the rules have to change.  That’s what Pope Francis is trying to communicate to the world – and to his own bishops and priests – we are to be a church of mercy he said – the embodiment of tenderness.  He’s got a tough job convincing those under 35 because they’ve seen just the opposite.  Lawrence Freeman puts it like this:

It is puzzling and frustrating to try and understand how the mainline Churches, despite all their determination and resources, still seem unable to connect with the profound spiritual needs of our time. Most young people are ready for idealistic and sacrificial commitment and hungry for inspiration. And yet, instead of discovering in the Church an inclusive vision and a comprehensive philosophy of life and spirituality, they dismiss what they find as narrowness of mind, intolerant dogmatism, internal feuding, inter-denominational sectarian, medieval sexism and their most damning criticism: the lack of spiritual depth.

Did you hear that? What most people in Western Europe and increasingly the USA say is missing from the institution is spiritual depth.  We don’t teach the ways of contemplation – we don’t urge people to make some hard choices – we sometimes don’t even believe it ourselves. Because choosing to become hungry for the spirit is scary; it means we aren’t in control. Yes, Jesus promises a Messianic feast – yes the promise of the Lord is that God will wipe every tear away from our eyes – yes the prophets cry out for the way of freedom… but we like to do things on our terms not God’s.  We want a consumer religion where we come to church, someone entertains us and gives us a product and provides education for our children so that we can go back and keep on doing what we’ve always done.

To which Jesus says: it doesn’t work that way. If you keep doing what you’ve always done – even in your churches, synagogues and mosques – you’ll always get what you’ve always got. And for the last 50 years what we’ve always got has been more and more people fleeing our institutions because they don’t take us deeper.  They don’t help us find peace and healing in our real lives. They are often superficial and empty.

The second stumbling block or challenge is often our religious institutions that are more interested in their history than God’s liberating freedom. And the third truth that keeps us from living into God’s grace, faith, hope and love is… our own insecurities – or fears – or shames – or addictions – or emptiness. Most people spend their whole lives trying to fill the God-shaped hole in their lives with junk: things – sexy – work – booze – drugs – distractions – anger – shame… the list is endless.

When we run out of excuses, options and distractions, then God steps into the hole and fills us from the inside out. What WE must do after this blessed gift, is nourish time and space for the Lord to KEEP filling us.

A life without a lonely place, that is, a life without a quiet center, easily becomes destructive. When we cling to the results of our actions as our only way of self-identification, then we become possessive and defensive and tend to look at our fellow human beings more as enemies to be kept at a distance than friends with whom we share the gifts of life. In solitude we can slowly unmask the illusions... and discover in the center of our self that we are not what we can conquer, but what is given to us. In solitude we can listen to the voice of the One who spoke to us before we could speak a word, who healed us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could free others and who loved us long before we could give love to anyone. It is in solitude that we discover that being is more important than having and that we are worth more than the result of all our efforts... Our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared.

When we run out of gas, Christ steps in to fill us. For what is the promise of mercy to those who are not weak, forgiveness to those who have not sinned, grace to those who do not need it or life to those not dead? It is at best meaning-less and more likely downright offensive. That is why only, losers can appreciate the blessing Jesus offers and confers.

Only as we recognize our own existential and basic poverty of spirit can we grow less afraid of actual poverty and less attached to our own security. Only as we recognize ourselves as those losers for whom Christ died might we reach out to those the world declares losers and embrace them as brothers and sisters. Over time, this is what I have learned from the saints in my life. I give thanks to God for all of them and rejoice particularly in Dianne, Jesse, Michal, Michael, Louie and Winton.  Shabbat shalom.


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