Loss, Intentionality, and Grace – Part II

I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” ~Isa. 65:17

Last week’s blog was really Part I of II. You are invited to read it here. I spoke of grief and loss, and how it is vitally important to allow the natural processes of grief to take hold. I also spoke of intentionality, and how a life well lived (also called the good life) can be defined by how one makes intentional efforts to better the self, and in doing so bettering society. I ended last week’s message with a quotation from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

Somewhat reading the tea leaves and anticipating passions being expressed about last week’s Congressional and Presidential elections, I knew that in Part II of today’s blog, I wanted to gift you with tangible ways of evolving one’s passions into com-passion. Put another way (and in question form) “How can we internalize and work through our passions, but with the ultimate goal being to release and transform our passion into compassion?” What helps me is to think about the breath: We breathe in our passions and the passions of others (coming at us from all sides), and if we hold our breath like we hold our anxiety and fear, then our body shuts down, or our bodies get sick. If we work (breathe) out our anxieties and fears with the help of Spirit, then new possibilities open up and compassion for self and society are realized.

I’m currently reading Richard Rohr’s new book, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. In it, he helps break down the complicated language of defining God as Trinity, and he gives example after example of how Trinity is best thought of and experienced as – relationship. Not only can we think of God eternally relating and loving God’s self, but Rohr reminds us that God is constantly inviting us into the relationship as well. We are gracefully invited to banquet and be with God in every aspect of our lives. In fact, Rohr argues, this invitation is all around us in the form of God’s creation from the subatomic particles of an atom – proton, neutron, and electron all gaining energy because of how they relate one to another as they orbit around the nucleus – to the planets in our solar system orbiting around our sun, and while the sun orbits around the Milky Way galaxy every 230 million years. He gives an example of how destructive it is when the subatomic particles stop relating one to another. If they suddenly stop relating and the atom is split, then a nuclear reaction takes place. Put in a different context, when relationships are broken, compromised, and dishonored, all too often divisions, detachment, fear, and separation are the results.

On Tuesday night, the poll numbers revealed how split we are as a country. But if we are honest with ourselves, didn’t we already know that? Didn’t we already know, or can we now confess that our society is virtually composed of tribes? We have the Tribe of MSNBC, the Tribe of Fox News, the Tribe of Republicans, and the Tribe of Democrats. There are even tribes within the tribes: Are you a conservative, moderate, or progressive Republican/Democrat/Libertarian/Green/Independent? Are you a one-issue voter, or not? Research has even shown that the social media platforms we use that are supposed to bring us closer as a society (like Facebook and Twitter) use algorithms that keep us in our own bubbles and echo chambers so that any thought, word, or deed that is open to debate is kept far, far away from us out of “respect” for one’s personal simulation of the world in which the self, the ID, the me/me/me/me has created. These tribes, bubbles, and echo chambers make us literally forget what it means to be in relationship and harmony with God, self, creation, and neighbor. Put differently, we are creating a reality in which we create God in our own images. We are the Hebrew people, and our tribal golden calf is based upon the illusion that the ego is the one, true self (Exodus 32).

My friend and colleague, Fr. Zachary Thompson, Rector of the Anglo-Catholic parish in Atlanta, Church of Our Savior, had a passing thought on what some term as ‘identity politics’. He said, “We often use categories such as boomers, millennial, urbanites, conservatives, liberals, ivory tower intellectuals, activists, keepers of the status quo, secularists, fundamentalists etc. etc. to speak of cultural phenomena; and too often we can use these categories to dismiss certain people so that we can advance an argument that is suitable to our way of thinking. We need to be careful to remember that we are talking about particular human beings made in the image of God with fears, hopes, dreams, and failures. A more interesting way to think of ourselves (and one another) is in relation to our development in sanctity, holiness of life, humility, meekness, kindness ([these are] degrees of deification [or] growing in the likeness of God).”

So how do we mend our brokenness and division? How do we allow God’s love to enter in through the cracks? How do we compassionately respond to God’s grace that is constantly being gifted to us?

Isaiah Chapter 65 might give us a clue to some of these questions. The context for the chapter is this: We have a broken, exiled people returning to their homeland, but when they arrive home the brokenness, anxiety, and fear continues. The Temple (which was destroyed before the exile) was still in ruins. The cities were still in crumbling disarray, but the compassionate voice of God through the prophet Isaiah uses the language of creation to give hope to God’s people. God says, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17). This throwback to the scene East of Eden permits the people to reimagine a New Jerusalem, a new city, a new homeland. These words of God also extends an invitation to the people to remember how to relate with God, self, and neighbor. Mary Eleanor Johns sums up this passage from the prophet Isaiah with these words,

“[W]e seek to participate in God’s new creation not as a means of earning it, but as a way of responding to God’s grace extended to us. Through our restored relationship with God and our relationship with all of God’s creations, we are given new lenses of hope by which can experience a foretaste of the new creation that Isaiah prophesies” (Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 4, p.294).

The key word for me in Mary Eleanor’s insight is the word, “respond”.

May our prayers this week ask for the grace to know the difference between re-acting and re-sponding, and passion from com-passion. May God also soften our hearts, and guide us in developing an intentional life that grows in sanctity, holiness of life, humility, meekness, and kindness. May our fears turn not into realities as we seek further relationship with God, neighbor, and enemy.

Question(s) on Suffering *

So much hate, violence, and overall uncertainty have been going on in the world around us this year. Our culture seems to wake up to nightmares daily instead of floating on a midsummer night’s dream. As a priest just finishing my first year of parish ministry, I have buried twelve persons, and counseled countless souls who are lost in grief, anxiety, and despair.

While I’m not an expert on suffering in the world, I have noticed a few things in my first year that gives me hope. Even though life can feel like the experience of a sparrow in a hurricane, those persons who approach the twister at the right angle seem to be the ones who are forever wounded, but also forever changed – forever changed (and wounded) for the better. It is a deep change full of humbleness, grace, and faith that start with the same question, but then upon realizing the madness in it, they administer an about-face, and proceed to march with a much nobler question in mind.

The problem that drives persons crazy is the question of “why”:

“Why is their suffering in the world?”

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“Why isn’t God listening to me?”

“Why aren’t things getting better?”

These are the “go-to” questions when it comes to suffering. They are the default position in the human psyche, but the default question seems to me to be the wrong one, or better, the question of “why” should follow at a later time – once the dust has settled, once the air has been cleared a bit, after everybody has gone home. “Why” is a great and profound question, but it is the starting point for the scientist, not the existentialist. I don’t know anybody who comes into my office asking, “why their mother died,” expecting me to say, “because she had cancer.” It would be cruel and ridiculous of me to answer in that way because the grieving person in front of me asking that question does not expect an answer in return. They simply want someone to ask it to – a personal sounding board, a lending of an ear.

The question of “why” might be humanity’s default pathway into the forest of our lives, but the road less traveled is a question of “what”:

“There is suffering in the world. What (if anything) am I going to do about it?”

“Bad things happen to good and evil people. What do I do when bad things happen to me?” “What are my patterns?” “What is my mindset?”

“God doesn’t seem to be listening to me. What can I do to reframe the question, the prayer, or even my life to get the sense that God is still here?”

“Things are not getting better. What do I need to refocus on in order to see life at another angle?”

Asking the question, “What” instead of “Why” takes away some of the sting from thorns found within the flesh. Asking the question “What” instead of “Why” brings us back to the present moment, to the here and now, to where we need to be. Instead of asking the initial question of “why” – “Why did Aunt Sally die?” what if we started with, “what?” “What am I going to do now that Aunt Sally has died?” Well, for starters you can cry. For starters, you can grieve. For starters, you can ask for a hug. You don’t have to take life ‘day-to-day.’ By asking the question of “what” you can take life ‘moment-to-moment’, a position much closer to our hearts than some future point within the day.

As a Christian, I believe we get closer to God by asking the question, “What” instead of “Why.” Starting with “Why” makes God seem so distant and isolated that we get the sense of our own distance and isolation from God. The question of “What” brings God closer because we can open our Bibles and tangibly see what Jesus was like. Then our eyes are more open to tangibly see the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love in our world today when we see ourselves and others acting like him. In other words, we are reminded of God’s love for us every time we get to experience love ourselves. I don’t have the answers to why there is suffering in the world, but what I do have are the questions. Lord, help me to ask the right ones.

*The following was an excerpt from my sermon preached Sunday, July 26, 2015. To read the full sermon, click here.