The Liberation of Knowing

At the start of Lent, we heard that very familiar story from Genesis where the serpent temps Eve to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and paradise seems lost. It’s a striking allegory that I have heard many times, yet I love that I am still finding new things to ponder folded into the story. As a child, this story (often told in Sunday school using those ubiquitous felt board bible figures) was full dread. The beauty of the garden seemed to crack with the bite of an “apple” which was followed by the expulsion of Adam and Eve by an angry God. I was always left with a feeling that things were hopeless for humans after that exchange, as their lives now included suffering and death on account of their disobedience. This seemed like a perfect place to begin Lent, if you felt Lent was only about penitence and atonement. But I no longer see Lent as only about penitence and atonement. I now see an invitation to explore and grow in my faith, by examining the very challenges which seem to hinder my spiritual evolution.

Yes, Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and yes, there were real consequences. But this story if far from simply being a parental scolding. I believe this story helps us understand that every new piece of knowledge, and I mean every new piece, is both a blessing and a burden. The tree was not called ‘The Tree of Good and Evil’ but, “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Before Adam and Eve ate of that tree, they existed in total mindfulness with creation. They had no understanding of mortality (though I believe it still actually existed) and they had no understanding of how to compare themselves as individuals to each other and the world around them; no self-awareness. They simply existed; much the way animals do. By consuming the fruit of the tree, they became self-aware. You might say, the ego was born, and they found themselves struggling to reconcile this new knowledge into the world view they previously held. In the text, we see that the new awareness being thrust to the forefront of their minds was fear and shame. They hid from God and were ashamed of their nakedness. What had changed? Ethical awareness and the awareness of mortality is a pretty huge thing to process if it’s entirely new to you. Their world view had forever changed as they felt, for the first time, burdened by this new information. They could no longer exist in the garden– not as “punishment” but because they now had to do the work of learning how to reconcile that knowledge into their way of living and being.  

The rest of the biblical narrative exhibits an arching message of how, in fact, we can learn to live with that knowledge without it being a burden. The journey God shares with humans in the Hebrew bible, shows us that we can bear the reality of death (physical and egoic) without losing ourselves and our relationship with God in the process. Jesus’ entire reason for coming is to better illustrate that same road to salvation and spiritual awareness by showing the us the “way” we can die, yet live. 

Ultimately, that Genesis story sets us on a trajectory towards greater spiritual evolution. Some would argue that very evolution was designed to happen, no matter what, and Adam and Eve simply “jumped the gun.” We need not be left feeling hopeless by the story of the garden, or we have fallen into the same mind-made trap that Adam and Eve experienced. We can learn to see that each step in our spiritual journey, each challenge, brings us closer to the heart of God. Until we can eventually see that we never “left” God to begin with. The writer of the Book of Revelation gives us a final image of the city of God with a tree, not a temple, at the center, just as in Eden. Things seem to come full circle. 

What a perfect place to begin the season of Lent– setting us on a path where we can examine our struggles, knowing that we have a way through them in order to mature, to grow, to evolve, and to never forget that we can eventually let go of the burden of knowing our own failing and death, and see that it is just another step on our road to knowing and loving God more deeply. In the end, each time we wake up more fully, we are being liberated into the Truth of God and that it something worth knowing.

Prepare the Way of the Lord

While preparing to lead an Advent reflection, I was searching for a poem or quotation on ‘preparing the way’ to reflect on as a group, but I just couldn’t find the right thing.

It dawned on me that part of what makes this initial Advent directive – “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his pathways” feel a little odd for me is that we’ve just heard from Jesus the Sunday before Advent began, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We always look ahead at this time of year to Christmas and the infant narrative of that manager scene, but let’s not forget that Mary and Joseph had no idea what was going to happen. Those shepherds were just out with their flocks like any other night when the messenger came to them and the Magi, with all their wisdom, weren’t entirely sure who or what they were searching for.

How can you prepare for something if you have no idea when or where it’s coming? Most of the usual activities which require us to ‘prepare’ come with an understanding of when we will need to be ready, yet scripture seems quite clear that we cannot know when the coming will be. It would seem counterintuitive, until we begin to see that God—the Christ, is continuously breaking into our time and space. Not a single moment in time but infinite moments of incarnation.

So how then can we prepare and make God’s way more direct? Moment’s just like this are good examples. Creating spaces when we can contemplatively examine ourselves, our actions, our intentions, and our hopes become part of the way in which we make it just a little easier to connect with God and for God to connect with us. Listening for God in the silence, allowing ourselves to develop a satisfaction for the silence; a harmony with that hope.

While so much has been written about waiting for God, I like to think that much of the time God is actually waiting for us. Waiting for us to learn how to see and think and feel and… love. Waiting for us to articulate our joys and our struggles. Waiting for us to remember who we are. And all along the way, God pushes through, like slivers of light in a darkened room, just enough, to say yes—right there—I’m right there with you and I love you. I’m holding you so you don’t have to hold yourself.

In our busy lives, the greatest gift is time. God knows this. Can you find a little time to examine where you are, how you have cared for yourself and those around you? Can you teach yourself, little by little, to look for God in the still small moments—to see Jesus in those around you?  Advent then, becomes so much more about preparing ourselves to be the way for the Lord, practicing what it means to love ourselves and one another so we can receive the coming of Christ, over and over again, so that we can catch up to God who is already waiting for us with open arms.

Radical Truth

This Sunday we hear Jesus reveal some radical truths. Desperate for salvation from the Roman occupation, the Jews who were gathering around him almost demand that he tell them whether or not he is the Messiah and Jesus says, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” Radical truth number one!

I can’t tell you how many times I have begged God to reveal something to me, and then find myself arguing with God about the nature of the revelation; as if God can’t possibly be right– not on this issue! It’s so easy to deny that which we do not wish to see, especially if it involves a greater truth about something in ourselves.

Then Jesus opens one truth from the next, from the next, like those beautiful Russian nesting dolls. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” and finally the greatest truth in this exchange, “The Father and I are one.”

It’s a spectacular discourse full of profound spirituality. All things flow from God through the Christ and to all of creation, but do we hear his voice? Do we believe in this divine flow? How easy it is to ignore this invitation because it doesn’t satisfy our thirst for duality– our need to be right and others wrong. Or, perhaps we struggle with it because we haven’t yet allowed ourselves to experience the reality of an unconditional love.

All of us are invited– ALL of us. Once we step into the great stream of love flowing from God through Christ and the Holy Spirit to everything that was, and is, and is to come, we will have accepted a truth so powerful that nothing can snatch it away. We will know what eternal life is really about for we will have bound ourselves, through Jesus, to the Creator of everything. For the Creator and the Christ are one!

Conversion and Resurrection

While out walking this past weekend, I couldn’t help but notice many sweet and lovely signs of spring; magnolia buds on the trees, daffodils and crocuses pushing up through flowerbeds and robins darting about. But there is another ubiquitous sign of spring where I live– lawns covered with small pockmarks. Entire areas of turf that have been rolled over by a tool called a drum-spike aerator. Just as the name suggests, it’s a large, heavy drum with spikes on it that is rolled across the soil at early spring to loosen soil which has become compacted over the winter with the weight of snow and rain. Without this process, the turf struggles to create new growth and, in some areas the grass will actually wither and die. Gardening involves so many actions which at first glance may seem destructive or harmful but, are the best thing for vibrancy and development. No wonder the Bible uses images from gardening so many times to reveal the spiritual reality of God’s tender love and care. 

This Sunday we read about the conversion of Saul, also known as Paul, on the road to Damascus. It’s a dramatic, even violent, story but God knows precisely what is needed to bring about the greatest growth and development, not only for Paul but for the early church. Saul is blinded by light from heaven and falls from his horse and, after hearing a voice, encounters the risen Jesus. His traveling companions also hear a voice in the commotion, but they see no one. This was a message meant for Saul. Three days he sat without sight (a beautiful parallel to the three days Jesus lay in the tomb) and then when Ananias comes to him, after being instructed in a vision by the Lord, he prays over Saul and his sight is restored. Not only was his sight restored, but he was filled with the Holy Spirit and began proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God in the synagogues. What an amazing turnaround! God knew exactly what was needed to bring about not only a profound personal conversion of an individual soul, but God knew exactly what was needed to widen the early churches lens to bring the reality of Jesus to the whole world, not merely the Jewish people. 

There is such tremendous hope in spring as elements of rebirth and renewal begin to surround us. There is such tremendous hope in resurrection as we always move– always move from the shrouds of death and entombment into the new reality of a fully converted spirit. God uses everything and excludes nothing in this forever unfolding plan of resurrection and you too, my siblings, are called, as Saul was, into hope, conversion and resurrection. May we always remain open to the movement of the Spirit in our lives and find hope in the countless ways that God tends to our souls, bringing about vibrancy and new life. 

Holy Innocents

December 28th marked the feast of the Holy Innocents. It’s a feast day that sometimes gets a little lost in the aftermath of Christmas and the preparations for New Years. It remembers the massacre of infants in Bethlehem by King Herod the Great in his attempt to kill Jesus. (Matthew 2:16–18)It’s jarring to move from the joyful and expectant celebration of Christmas almost immediately into the slaughter of innocent children but wrapped in this paradox is an opportunity to see the nature of God.

The violence in Jesus’ day was nothing new. Remember when Moses was born over a thousand years before Jesus? Pharaoh had the male children of all the Hebrews killed. Just like today, people in the first-century experienced hardship and fear, anxiety, and hunger. It was precisely into this brokenness, into this darkness, that the incarnation of God came.

There’s a part of us that struggles to reconcile a world in which God comes yet violence persists. We want to believe that God will solve the damage we cause. I think it’s important for us to remember that God is not a tool that “fixes” our problems. God creates. God creates space, time, possibility, hope, love… God creates pathways to wholeness. We are invited to walk those paths. We are invited to heal broken relationships and plant seeds of mercy and grace. Why? Because our own healing depends on it. We must participate in our own salvation, otherwise there is no true conversion.

Part of the healing power of the 12-step program is found by doing the work of your own healing– with God’s help. Healing from addiction is about healing the relationship between the addict and their addiction. It is not about making the addiction “go away”.

Jesus’s birth did not make suffering go away. As Mary and Joseph rejoiced, countless other families mourned the death of their children at Herod’s hand. But, despite Herod’s horrific act, God opened yet another path for all of us. As always, God uses everything and wastes nothing. God will take the very brokenness we create, the pain we sow, the sorrow we experience and show us pathways to new life. We needn’t wait until we think we are worthy. We can receive the love of God regardless of our own failings. God does not interrupt the human condition, God perfects it.

We still live in a violent and turbulent world. At any given moment, the miracle and joy of birth is countered by devastation and death– and yet, God still comes, beckoning us into wholeness and showing us how to heal.

Wheat and Chaff

In the Second Sunday in Advent, we hear John the Baptist proclaim, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17 NRSV) This is a message we hear each year during Advent, and it made me think of two things: one, that Advent is not about preparing for the coming of the infant Jesus (although that is sometimes the prevailing image) but the coming of the eternal Christ as foretold by many prophets before, and two, that John summons the image of wheat and chaff, perhaps an unexpected image for this time of year. 

There is a lot of imagery in the Bible around harvesting, pruning, and even refining metals like gold and silver. Our modern sensibilities may have lost some of the meaning of these manual tasks, but they have been very commonplace for much of human history, and it occurred to me that there is a type of violence in these acts. The harvester cuts down the harvest, ripping it away from the Earth. The pruner cuts away branches and fruit from the vine, and the refiner plunges fine metal into fire to melt away impurities. Even the simple act that John presents of removing chaff from wheat requires either hurling the wheat into the air or hitting it against a stone or the ground to knock the chaff away from the grain. In each of these metaphors these intense actions are necessary to bring the object to its most valuable and desirable purpose.

My own path towards healing and wholeness often comes with intense even sometimes traumatic moments or thoughts. Only something intentional and direct can knock that chaff from the wheat underneath. There is nothing inherently “wrong” with the chaff mind you, just as there is nothing inherently “wrong” with our shadow-selves. But unless we can move beyond the limiting measure of that shadow-self, allowing it to fall away like the chaff, we can never hope to become our fullest and truest selves– “the light of the world.”

And, just like the vine, or the precious metal, or the wheat, I cannot refine myself– by myself. I need God’s help. Please understand, I do not suggest that God wishes us to suffer or be hurt, but God waists nothing and includes everything in our journey to becoming whole and holy. What an important thing to remember as we prepare the way for Christ to enter into the world and into our hearts this season. God so loves you that God is always working to gather, refine, and perfect you into children of light. May you come to see your moments of challenge and struggle as an opportunity to be broken open, inviting God deeper. 

Embers and Equinox

Happy Fall! For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the autumnal equinox arrived on Wednesday at 2:21pm, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. The specificity of that time cracks me up! I love the signs of autumn and as if right on cue, the air began chilling this week and the leaves outside my home began changing and falling. The Church gives us signs of autumn as well. Fall Ember Days were this past week’s Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Ember Days, which are offered four times a year as the seasons change, are a traditional time of fasting, prayer, and reflection. These transitional spaces in the seasons are important and offer us concrete opportunities to look at what is going on around us with fresh eyes. 

Growing up in southwest Florida I saw very little change seasonally, but my mother’s family all live in New England and every time I had the chance to visit around fall and winter I couldn’t help but notice the ‘buzz’ in the air as every blade of grass seemed to change in some magical way. Learning to see things in a new way is very much a part of our shared spiritual journey. Jesus saw God in everything and everyone. This “nature mysticism” was also beautifully modeled by Sts. Francis and Clare. As Richard Rohr shares,

“[Francis’] love for creation drove him back into the needs of the city, a pattern very similar to Jesus’ own movement between desert solitude (contemplation) and small-town healing ministry (action). The Gospel transforms us by putting us in touch with that which is much more constant and satisfying, literally the “ground of our being,” which has much more “reality” to it, rather than theological concepts or ritualization of reality. Daily cosmic events in the sky and on the earth are the Reality above our heads and beneath our feet every minute of our lives: a continuous sacrament, signs of God’s universal presence in all things.”

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014)

I invite you to take a few moments each day to reflect on the “signs of God’s universal presence” around you. Do you feel connected to God through those signs? Do you feel a call to action somewhere in your life? 

O Great Love, thank you for living and loving in us and through us. May all that we do flow from our deep connection with you and all creation. Help us become a community that vulnerably shares each other’s burdens and the weight of glory. Listen to our hearts’ longings for the healing of our world. Knowing you are hearing us better than we are speaking, we offer thanks and praise in all the holy names of God, amen. 

Belonging Is Our Blessing

Dr. Saul Levine, Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego, writes that “belonging is our blessing, tribalism is our burden.” He notes that, “We humans are a social species, tribal by nature. We’re given to gathering and communing in familiar groups. “Belonging,” our capacity and need for empathy, compassion and communication, is in our DNA.” However, when this desire to belong is taken to an unbalanced or addictive level (the shadow-side), it can manifest in animosity towards the “other” along with all sorts of malevolent behaviors such as deep bias, exclusion, oppression, and even violence.

I believe that the “good” desire for belonging is a remnant of the Divine within each of us. It is a soulful invitation to connect with those around us, to commune with one another, and to seek out relationship– the very place that God often “hides” in plain sight. The egoic pull towards more tribal thinking, which brings along with it that host of ill behaviors, is yet another mind-made trap which springs from duality. The addictive need to separate ourselves from others, to judge those who do not conform to our world view, to distance ourselves from what we perceive to be wrong, unrighteous, unworthy, etc., only adds to a great ocean of suffering.

The radical gift that Jesus brought was a way out of that mind-made trap– freedom from the pain of duel thinking such as tribalism, but it is not easy. Even the disciples themselves often fell prey to the tribal lens that God was on their side (as the chosen people of Israel) and everyone else was “over there,” and that way of thinking continues to this very day with many of Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ teachings and actions sought to show that there is no division between God and humans, and therefore if all of us can be equally present with God we can all be equally present with one another. Several times in the Gospel does Jesus invite us to eat of his body and drink of his blood. This invitation pulls us into that radical unity where the very essence of the Christ becomes one with our own body in this world. If we can capture a shred of that reality, then we are one step closer to banishing the walls of tribalism forever. Our highest level of consciousness (salvation) is not when we simply can say I no longer “see” the other, but when we truly can no longer even conceive of an “other” of any kind. When we live into the true reality that God is fully present with creation just as creation is fully present with God, then we have finally shattered the illusion of duality and we are indeed living in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus knew that this was not an easy path. There is a reason he stated that he is the “bread of life” over and over again. He knew that we would need to gnaw on that reality for quite a while before we began to see the truth. But– invite us he does. Let us never forget that God’s unending grace and love is forever calling us into a wonderful freedom from the chains we have created, so that we can become the incarnation of Christ in this world and with one another, no matter who we are.

Symbolism isn’t enough

I have always been fascinated by symbols. These gestures, signs, objects, signals, and words, help people navigate and understand the world they live in. They provide clues to understanding experiences by conveying recognizable meanings that are shared by societies and groups of people. Symbols are everywhere and they can even articulate social priorities or the function or purpose or a place or thing. We’re all familiar with the ubiquitous street signs and their pictographic icons, and personally love the symbols one encounters in a cemetery. Architecturally, we see this all over a city like ours. On each of the corners of the roof of the main Chicago Library building downtown, there are giant owls representing knowledge. At the top of the deco-style Board of Trade there is the figure of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. Churches have steeples crowned with crosses, and their interior spaces are often covered in symbols everywhere you look!

Beyond the literal symbols which hopefully help us maneuver the world in which we live, there is the use of symbols to convey ideas and qualities– symbol-ism. We also encounter symbolism all around us. The statues we choose to erect in our town squares, the people we choose to honor by with the naming public buildings and spaces, even the parables Jesus shared to convey his wisdom teachings are dripping in symbolism. The challenges with symbols and symbolism are first, do we understand the meaning behind the symbol, and second, do we use the symbol to “move” into something new– a thought, an action, an idea?

This week, Juneteenth was declared a National Holiday, which is good and right, and overdue. We must tell the truth, and all of the truth in our teaching of history if we are to create a space of dignity and repentance, and for far too long truths of black and brown people, of indigenous and immigrant cultures, have been conveniently “left out” of much of the narrative– swept under the rug of our published histories. Indeed, we must begin by educating our populations of what the real history is — but knowing what a symbol is isn’t enough. Juneteenth, now known as Juneteenth National Independence Day and historically known as Jubilee Day, Black Independence Day, and Emancipation Day, commemorates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when General Order No. 3 was announced by Union Army general Gordon Granger, proclaiming freedom for slaves in Texas, the last state to free enslaved peoples. This is absolutely a worthy commemoration and worth celebrating, but we must also be sober in our acknowledgement that so much work is yet to be accomplished in the full emancipation of formerly enslaved peoples. 156 years have passed since that first Jubilee Day in 1865. 156 years of battles and blood, laws and lies. 156 years of a country reckoning with its identity and the reality that this American Dream has for so many been a lived nightmare for far too long.

Symbolism such as a national holiday is important and valuable, but only if contemplating it brings about some real transformation. When Jesus shared parables with the people it was merely a starting place. Each of them had an opportunity to interact with that truth in themselves and then as a group until that wisdom translated into conversion — into a new way of living and loving. Today we are still presented with that same opportunity. Will we dance through the doorways of truth into a new way of living and loving, moving closer and closer to unity and peace, or will we simply stand starring at the threshold as the invitation becomes faded and forgotten? As this country yet again attempts to move beyond mere words and symbols, I pray we will begin to see real fruits of change and healing– and all in the name of, and for the sake of, a God who deeply loves us.

Images of the Ascension

Forty days after Easter, on a Thursday, the Church commemorates the Feast of the Ascension, the day Jesus is remembered as having ascended bodily into the skies in a dramatic “final departure”, recorded in the first chapter in the book of Acts. I can’t help but be reminded of the many paintings from my art history classes around this subject. Many of the examples you will find are constructed in a similar manner. Jesus is typically the central figure, sometimes surrounded by heavenly beings. He is often hovering above the ground, usually suspended on a cloud of some kind with his arms outstretched and his gaze heavenward. I find there is usually a docile energy to these scenes, an almost disingenuous quality to the hyper-posed figures. Not all the depictions of this subject are like this of course, but it is more common than you might realize. There are, however, two unique paintings of the Ascension which I find much more mesmerizing, even contemplative.

The first, is a watercolor by James Tissot, circa 1886-1894. In this depiction, Jesus is not visible at all. Instead, there is simply a pair of footprints left on the mount, flanked by two strange and stoic angels whose gaze locks with the viewer while they calmly point “up”. Surrounding the lower portion of the scene is a crowd of spectators, franticly searching the sky in shock and amazement. “Do not cling to me…” I hear Jesus saying to us. And while we deeply yearn to accept the beauty and power of Jesus’ request, we can’t quite silence our egoic fear that we have somehow been “left behind” falling prey to our mind-made traumas like the crowd in the painting.

The second painting is The Ascension of the Christ, 1958 by Salvador Dali. Here, in typical Dali fashion, The entire perspective of the painting is turned on its head. The central focus is of Christ’s feet, as if the viewer is underneath Jesus as he ascends away from us. Jesus’ hands are clenched awkwardly, and we see his body encircled in an almost egg-like aura while God (represented by Dali’s wife) and the Holy Spirit as a dove await the approaching Christ. There is a sense of both birth and death in the same instant in Dali’s image. The dynamism of the trinity itself is on full display in this fantastic moment as Christ is both present in creation while absorbed back into oneness with Creator and Spirit.

Both of these expressions of the Ascension compel me to push beyond the conventional images of this scene to the depths of the real mystery at work. Like a breath moving in and out, God moves through creation… out at Jesus’ birth… in at Jesus’ death and burial… out at the Resurrection… in at the Ascension and soon– out at Pentecost. Take a moment of silence to think about that, meditating on Christ’s movement on each of your own breaths. That is the true intimacy we share with God, always moving in us, as near as our very breath.

James Tissot, Ascension, Watercolor on vellum paper Circa 1886 – 1894, Brooklyn Museum

Salvador Dali, The Ascension of the Christ, Oil 1958, The Dali Museum