The price of living passionately

In 2004, Mel Gibson directed a film called “The Passion of the Christ.” Perhaps you’re familiar with it. The movie focuses on Jesus’ final hours, depicting his death in gruesome detail.

The rest of his life is mostly edited out.

Some of us were raised in traditions that focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ suffering and death – referred to as his passion – while skipping what he was passionate about. The lessons he taught, the love he embodied, the relationships he established are relegated to verses recited on Sunday but relegated to the cutting floor the rest of the time.

The truth is that Jesus’ suffering and death weren’t his passion; they were the price he paid for his passion. And there’s a lesson in this story for all of us about living with the same passion.

He was passionate about healing and reconciliation, not only us to God but to one another as well. He passionately announced, embodied and created a sacred space where everyone is welcomed and treated as the beloved child of God that they are.

This alternate kingdom was the antithesis of Caesar’s kingdom, then and now.

The price for living passionately

He preached about God’s deep passion for the needy, the struggling, the oppressed – woe to the rich, blessed are the poor, the least are the greatest, help anyone who is bleeding by the side of the road. He made whole again anyone who came to him for healing.

And justice – he was deeply passionate about justice.

Gospel stories describe him staging a provocative Palm Sunday procession that confronts Caesar’s values of power, wealth, dominance, violence, and militarism.

He was passionately prophetic by overturning the tables of those who misuse religion – then and now – to amass power, preserve the status quo, and ignore the needs of those they are supposed to serve.

This was his passion. He lived it. He paid a price for it. And he invites us – no matter what faith or religious background — to do the same and live in a passionate way that challenges the status quo and heals the world. He challenges us to put our passionate lives on the line for those who are being trampled by the many opportunistic political and religious leaders of our world.

Each of us can, in our own unique way, bring love, healing, reconciliation, restoration and resurrection to our world, our society, our relationships. We’re forced to choose between between living passionately or playing it safe and never truly living at all, which is an even greater price to pay.

Jesus knew there would be a cost for his passion– there always is. He lived it anyway. May we, too, live passionate lives sustained by transformative love and daily resurrection.

On the road to a better place

The last step in our mending process is choosing a new destination. Once we’ve identified our current location, we pick the place we want to go, map a route and head out.

We must envision a better place – and describe it for others – before we can get there together. We need to develop a path forward and extend a hand for others to accompany us.

That’s how societies heal and move forward again.

So, what’s our vision for our society? How is it different from the vision of those who want to keep us divided, angry, fearful, miserable and at each other’s throats?

Moving toward a different place begins with showing people what it looks like. It involves sharing our vision and our dream for how we can live together in ways that benefit all people of goodwill.

Jesus talked about the kingdom of God more than anything. He described it, modeled it, lived it and enacted it through his words and his choices.

He reached out to those who were on the receiving end of someone’s cultural, religious or political war and invited them into this alternate and already-present kingdom that operates on love rather than violence and respects everyone as an equal child of God.

He described it as a place quite opposite of how his society operated – the last are first, the greatest are the least, the hurting are freely offered healing, those who are struggling take precedence.

He invited everyone into a different way of living. That’s our intent, too.

Offering the world a very different image

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., followed this pattern. He offered a different vision – a new destination – for a racially divided society. He offered his dream of a world where all God’s children were treated as equals. He advocated and enacted it as best he could while inviting others to join the holy and creative work.

How we go about it matters greatly.

We must resist the temptation to respond to violence – physical or verbal — with our own. We can’t allow those promoting war to suck us into their anger and hostility and fear.

We’re not here to join in their mutual destruction; we’re here to transform.

This doesn’t mean we allow others to spew hatred unchecked or harm others without a response. The question is in what form we respond.

Trading insult for insult gets us nowhere – eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth stuff. Instead, we challenge purveyors of war with a vision of peace built upon nonviolent work for justice and equality for all God’s children.

We’re not going to change the opinions of those consumed by a war mentality, but we can reach the many people who are listening to our conversations and, like us, looking for a better world.

Most of all, we begin this re-creative act by living and enacting our vision through our daily lives, making it real in our interactions with others. Slowly and inexorably, the movement grows and the healing occurs.

That’s the journey. And it’s already begun.

(“Praying Hands” image courtesy of josephleenovak @creativecommons.org)

Ready for change?

Whenever we make a major choice – an election, for instance – we create a possibility for change. Such a time is at hand. A long-awaited day has arrived in our deeply divided society.

We can keep going down the same dead-end path, or we can turn around and begin anew.

A lot of people are ready to chart a new course.

By every measure, our society is a mess. And, let’s admit it, so are we. We’re anxious and stressed and exhausted by years of chaos and conflict and bullying and divisiveness and lying and incivility from leaders in all parts our society, including religion.

We’ve inhaled a lot of toxic stuff, making it difficult to breath. We’re ready for fresh air. We’re yearning to heal and mend and move forward.

None of this is new. It’s a tale as old as time.

We humans have a history of falling and getting up. We wander away from what matters – love – and get completely lost. The question is how long we wander before we realize we’re lost and begin to find a way back.

Our Scriptures are full of such stories, tales of people and societies that were lost and then found. Our faith tradition is full of second chances, falling and rising, sin and redemption, death and resurrection, and division and reconciliation.

How do we get back on track? How do we mend and heal? Our faith provides a template.

The journey back begins with recognizing how far we’ve wandered off course. Prophets come along in many forms and challenge us to take an objective, unflinching look at ourselves.

They urge us to see what a mess we’ve become. See what needs to change. Compare what we’ve become to what we’re meant to be.

Then, we repent – a word that simply means aiming to do better. We commit to personal change as well as collective transformation. We re-center ourselves in love and renew our work to redeem and heal the world.

The mending process requires commitment and effort. Healing doesn’t just happen. Division doesn’t magically disappear. The fever won’t break until we address the underlying causes and eradicate the illness.

It’s holy and sacred work. It’s the work that’s given to us to do.

No, not everyone will be on board. Many will insist things are great and we need to keep heading in the same direction. They’ll continue stoking fear and hatred and endless wars over culture, politics and religion.

No matter.

We don’t need to get everyone on board; all we need is enough people committed to making a difference. That’s how it always works.

Each of us is a strong stitch than can pull things back together. Stitch by stitch, we repair what others have torn apart. We make all things new again.

That is the story of our faith. That is the way of human history. People come along to repair what others have ripped apart, including the parts of themselves that have gotten torn.

Tomorrow: Looking at ourselves

(“Praying Hands” image courtesy of josephleenovak @creativecommons.org)

Lessons of restlessness

restless thibaud saintin CC

Restlessness can be a good teacher.

We all feel restless at various times in our lives — I’m feeling that way now, and I’m sure I’m not alone. With the pandemic, many of our routines are gone. Favorite diversions are no longer available.

We’re used to being on the daily treadmill and now the machine is unplugged, and we don’t know what to do next. Every day feels the same. Our usual coping mechanisms are unavailable.

Restlessness abounds. And it has some important things it wishes to teach us.

Normally, we try to avoid the lessons by anesthetizing it with alcohol or other substances. We seek temporary good feelings that are never as deep or enduring as we want.

We buy something, or we watch something, or we start some project hoping it will bring the missing sense of satisfaction. It never provides more than temporary relief.

And then the feeling returns to remind us that something important is missing from our life right now.

Augustine had the famous line about how our souls are restless until they rest in our God of love. We must let that love transform us, heal us and animate us.

Only then do we get the peace and purpose we crave. Only then is our restlessness replaced by an energizing connectedness.

These challenging weeks provide a chance to take a closer look and see what needs to be stripped away to create space for what we really want.

We can see what sidetracks us from where we need to go. We can take inventory of the ways we fall into the trap of merely killing time or relieving boredom instead of living deeply.

We can identify things we substitute for love and fulfillment.

The pandemic has temporarily stripped away our diversions and temporary fixes, creating room to grow – if we choose. May our restlessness point us toward what we really desire.

As Richard Rohr puts it, “If there is no living water flowing through us, then we must pray for the desire for it to flow! Once the desire for something more is stirred and recognized, it is just a matter of time.

“Nothing less will ever totally satisfy us again.”

(Photo courtesy of Thibaud Saintin @creativecommons.org)

 

No going back

Personal Transformation

Several of my friends were cured of cancer. They describe how every part of their lives was turned inside-out during treatment. They asked God to help them through it. They longed for everything to return to normal.

Once healed, their lives were never the same. The experience changed them significantly. What once seemed so important was now unsatisfying. They experienced life differently.

When they realized there was no going back to how things were before cancer, they went through depression and grieved the loss of their former lives. Some of them got angry at God.

Eventually, they made peace with their circumstances and set about transforming their lives into something new and better – more real, more alive, more Spirit-filled.

Although not thankful for the illness, they recognized that it interrupted their lives in needed ways. They felt more peace and joy. Their relationships – including with God – grew richer and deeper and more satisfying.

I’ve thought about those friends as we navigate the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways, our lives also have been turned inside-out. We yearn for things to go back to how they were a few months ago.

They can’t. Nor should they.

The interruptions provide a chance to examine at our lives and make needed changes. This applies not only to our individual lives, but to our faith communities and our societies as well.

The pandemic can teach us necessary lessons and become an impetus for changes that make us better.

Our challenge is to take a clear-eyed look at how our lives need to be refocused, how our faith communities need to adapt, and how the systems and values of our society must be significantly reformed.

For the next week, we’ll consider some of those areas to spark thoughts that lead us to transformation.

We can’t go back to the way things were three months ago – it’s not possible. Nor should we try.

Instead, we can embrace this opportunity to grow into people and societies that do a better job of caring for ourselves and all God’s children. We have an opportunity to grow closer to one another and to God, who yearns for us to experience the gift of life and the joy of love more deeply.

Let us make the journey together.

Tomorrow: Learning from our restlessness

(Image “Personal Transformation” courtesy of GroggyFroggy @creativecommons.org)

Living in the dustbin

ashes2

I hate dusting. The process seems so useless because dust immediately returns. Why is there so much dust? What’s in that stuff anyway?

 

I did some research and got disturbing answers, including enlarged photos of dust mites that can’t be unseen. I also got a surprise. Turns out that much of that dust in my house is … me.

 

Our bodies shed skin cells as new ones take their place. Each of us is like the Pig-Pen character in “Peanuts,” leaving dustiness wherever we go. We tend to think that someday we’ll turn into a pile of dust, but the process is already in motion.

 

There’s a lot of us in the dust.

 

Some people are celebrating Ash Wednesday today, a necessary reminder that this phase of life is short and precious and must be fully appreciated. Ashes symbolize how our bodies will return fully to their elemental state someday.

 

But the turn-to-dust process has already begun, and so has the rebirthing part. We’re already dust, and we’re already reborn. The process is hard-wired into everyone and everything.

 

It’s how it all works.

 

A poetic story in Scripture reminds that we’re formed from the dust of earth and thus bound intimately to all creation. Science takes it one step further, detailing how in our elemental form we’re made of the same stuff as everything in the universe.

 

Yes, we’re both earth dust and star dust. And everything follows a path of endless transformation, which is a very cool thing even if we sometimes wish it were otherwise.

 

Earth dust and star dust

Death is a necessary ingredient in the process. Without it, nothing new could appear. New life is created out of the space created when something else is let go.

 

All things are continuously made new, including us.

 

Faith itself is about daily transformation, shedding old ways and replacing them with new. As the saying goes, old wineskins must be discarded. If we cling to the old, we’ll watch it turn to dust in our hands.

 

As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, “Almost always when I experience God, it comes in the form of some kind of death and resurrection. … It’s about spiritual physics. Something has to die for something new to live.”

 

When we recognize the spiritual physics at work — the intimacy between death and rebirth — we worry a little less about future burial and focus more on nurturing the life being reborn within us and around us.

 

All things new

Spirituality is about embracing the daily transformation. “Dying to self” involves gradually letting go of selfishness, fear, prejudice, judgment, insecurity, ego – anything that prevents us from loving more deeply and inclusively.

 

Our spiritual exfoliation creates room for compassion and empathy and joy and hope and healing. We become more invested in transforming ourselves and our world.

 

This process also works on our collective level. We see it unfolding in our society right now.

 

A culture that has for so long reserved power and privilege for a certain caste — white, wealthy, male, straight, Christian — is being shed, bit by bit, to create space for something new. Some church people are trying to provide life support, but it’s futile. To borrow an expression from Martin Luther King, Jr., such religion is dry as dust and ready for burial.

 

Leave the dead to bury the dead. God is working among the living. Put our focus there. Pay attention to the new life poking up from the ashes. Nurture it, celebrate it and grow it.

 

And feel free to skip the dusting chore if you wish. Consider it a sign of respect. After all, that dust gathered on our shelves and tabletops is you and me.

 

Well, OK, maybe dust once in a while. Those enlarged photos of dust mites are really disgusting.

Saints, souls and interwoven threads

woven

My sister was taking a nap after being up all night with her two sick boys. She had a vivid dream in which my grandmother, who had died years earlier, showed up and told her she needed to go help our mom right away.

The dream had an unusual texture, much different than others. My sister woke up and called our mom, who didn’t answer the phone. That was unusual.

My sister then called my brother, told her that Grams had showed up in a dream with a message to check on mom. So they did.

Mom hadn’t answered the calls because she was beginning to have a stroke. If they hadn’t arrived when they did, she likely would have died alone there on the couch.

How do you explain that?

Many people have shared similar stories with me. They, too, have had unusual dreams or intuitive moments where they felt nudged to do something. Often, someone who had died was providing the nudge.

How does all that work? We don’t know, exactly. But those moments remind us that there’s far, far more to life than we recognize or comprehend.

Never alone, not any of us

This past week, many faith communities celebrated All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The celebrations have spanned centuries and taken various forms. Different religions have different ways of honoring those who have died.

The celebrations come from the same core of faith: Those who die are still with us in ways we can’t fully understand or adequately explain. They’re never apart from our lives or our hearts.

We’re part of what some call the communion of saints — lives interwoven and inseparable. They’re still dear, and not-so-departed.

Creation is like a giant blanket. When we die, we move from one thread to another, but all the threads are woven together. We’re still wrapped tightly around one another, bound indivisibly to each other. Death doesn’t change it.

We’re reminded this week that death is not destruction, but transformation. Love and life never end – how could they? We can never lose our bond with those whom we love. They are still leading us and loving us in their own ways.

As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it:

“Apart from those who have fallen in combat, Americans tend to forget our ancestors, and we spend as little time as possible publicly mourning them. But in the church, we do the very odd thing of proclaiming that the dead are still part of us, a part of our lives, and are even an animating presence in the church.”

Live each day boldly, kindly and fully

I like the tradition of taking time this week to recognize and be thankful for the many dear people who are still part of our lives. Also, we renew our commitment to live as they continue to teach us. We resolve to be more like them – a saint – to the many souls that are part of our lives.

In that spirit, a saints-and-souls prayer:

Thank you, Giver of Life, for all of life. Yes, for all of it: The confusion, the unknowing, the joy, the surprises, the pain, the setbacks, the losses, the love that gets us through what comes next. Thank you so much! Help us to feel gratitude for this holy day, which is the most precious gift that any of us ever receives.

Thank you for those who are such blessings in our lives, those who teach us how to live and to laugh and to love. Remind us that they are always with us, instructing us and loving us and guiding us in their own ways — that part never changes.

Help us also to remember that you are here with us in each sacred moment. We’re never alone, not any of us.

Please give us the faith and courage to live each day boldly and kindly and fully, right up to the day when we trade our heartbeat for a deeper place in your heart, which is the source of unlimited love and unending life.

Amen.

Just letting it be …

let-it-be4

There’s an interesting back story to the song “Let It Be.” Paul McCartney wrote it while the Beatles were in the process of pulling apart – his “hour of darkness.” And his lyrics work on a couple of levels.

McCartney’s mother was named Mary and died when he was 14. She came to him in a dream during his difficult time, and that helped him get through it. The song is personal that way.

The lyrics also work on another level, borrowing from the story in Luke about the young woman named Mary who is visited by an angel. The story ends with her “Let it be,” the song’s title and chorus.

Wonderful words, great story. But to me, it’s Mary’s initial reaction in the story that sticks in my brain. When the angel greets her by saying that God thinks she’s just fabulous, Mary recoils. Her response is basically: “Wait, what? Favored? Fabulous? Me? No, no, no. You’ve got the wrong person. That’s not me!”

Can we all identify? She has heard voices her whole life – the ones that we also hear – telling her she’s certainly not favored and she definitely doesn’t measure up. You know those voices.

Wait, what? Favored? Me?

The ones that tell us we’re not smart enough, not pretty enough, not handsome enough, not educated enough, not thin enough, not accomplished enough, not social enough, not funny enough, not fill-in-the-blank enough. The voices that take up residence in our heads.

Mary hears the voices, too. She’s not yet married, which means she’s most likely still a teenager. She hears all the voices that the teenage years bring us — you know the ones. Enough said.

There’s more. She’s a Jew living in the Roman world, one that treats Jews as inferior and worthless. A woman, she’s treated more as property than as a person in her own culture and religion. Plus, she’s growing up in Nazareth, a backwater place looked down upon by pretty much everyone.

Yep, those voices.

So, of course she recoils when she hears that God thinks she’s really great. She has a “Mary moment,” a time when insecurities and fears get in the way of seeing ourselves as we really are. We all have them.

Our own Mary moments

And I submit that the great miracle in the story isn’t that a young Jewish woman becomes pregnant, but how God reaches through her insecurities and fears and shows her that she’s capable of great things, regardless of what anybody else thinks.

Her sense of herself is transformed, and she’s now able to say “let it be,” even though her knees are a bit shaky and her voice a little weak.

God works the same miracle on each of us, coming to us in moments big and small and reminding us of who we are and what we can do. Sometimes the message comes from a persistent voice that we hear inside; sometimes it comes through someone else’s words. Either way, we’re told:

“Hi! It’s Me! You need to hear something. You know those voices you hear every day, the ones that want to keep you small? Ignore them as best you can. Instead, try to pay attention to my voice, the one that wants to make you big. Those other voices don’t really know you, but I do. I made you. I recognize how amazing and lovable you are.

“And I have some excellent ideas for you, some things that only you can do to help others and make the world better. You get to decide, though – free will and all. You can say yes, or you can say no. However, I am going to be persistent about it – just a warning!

“I know you”

“Maybe you’re afraid at first and you need more time to think about it. That’s OK, I totally understand. Maybe you’ll turn me down at first and have a change of heart after a while. I’m cool with that, too.

“But know this: If you choose to say yes, incredible things are going to happen. You want a miracle? You’ll get one. Not only will you help others, but you’ll be transformed in many ways, too. You’ll end up growing and going in directions you never considered, doing things you thought were beyond your reach, finding yourself fulfilled in ways you never imagined.

“I know that all of this is unsettling. But remember that you’re never alone in any of this. I’m always right here with you. I’ve got your back. Always. And I’ve got your hand. Always.

“So what do you say? Should we ‘Let it be’ together? I promise it’s going to be amazing, just like you.”