Faith

Cocina

What blog does not end the year reflecting on the last year and looking forward to the next? And try to make some sense of what has happened?

What has happened in this last year? There were the big events with a new incoming US President, David Bowie died, North Korea launched a long-range rocket into space and conducted numbers of nuclear bomb tests, more suicide bombings than we can count, Prince died, Muhammad Ali died, the UK exited the EU, a solar airplane completed an around the world trip, the Olympics were held in Brazil, and the Cubs won the World Series. Both my sons went college, and Tracy and I became part-time empty nesters. My company made a major acquisition, for which I managed the IT transition. When my office moved, my commute went from 45 minutes one-way to 90 minutes one-way. I rode the Pan Mass Challenge. I vacationed. I binge watched a few series. I read 21 books. All in all, on the macro scale, it was a stressful year, but at the personal, at the this-is-where-I-live level, it was a big year. A challenging year. One with a lot of change.

On the spiritual front — what this blog is about — it was a flat year. I struggled through most of the year to experience a sense of growth. After having a few years of feeling like I had ascended the mountains and experienced the amazing view of life from the peaks, this past year felt like a walk into the valley, and into a desert. In fact, In September, Tracy and I went to Napa Valley for a week, visiting with her sister and brother-in-law. And one day I went for a bike ride, crossing the Napa valley into Suisun Valley where I literally rode through a desert in 105-degree weather. And I thought at the time, this is how I have been feeling.

And so, out of water, and a little lost, I was contemplating just exactly how I was going to get back to my starting point, or if I was going to have call someone to come and pick me up. I mean it was hot. And I was parched. And I had 25 miles still to go, across some steep climbs. Then Pedro’s Cocina, seemingly out of nowhere. After riding for the last 40 minutes hardly seeing any cars, a place to get something to eat? Soda, Gatorade. Food. And a friendly proprietor, with some advice on how to get back to Napa, and encouragement to keep going even though I was out in the middle of the day in such heat.

Keep going? I mean, really? I was the one on the bike. I had the work ahead, at least as far as riding was concerned. This was the desert. This was hard.  But his reasoning was easy, “You have come this far, and it’s beautiful out here.”

That was right.  It was beautiful out there. And it still is.

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Faith

A Monastery. An Incarnation.

Up until I was 14, my family lived outside of Washington, DC. On Christmas Eve, we would go to the midnight mass at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington. It was all of these things — quiet, holy, beautiful, somber, peaceful, uplifting, light, dark, simple, complicated. Full of ritual. Full of yearning. Full of hope. And full of a sense that this baby, Jesus, was someone different than the rest. So as a boy of 8 or 10 I thought of this baby Jesus as strangely the same and yet strangely different and yet supremely important in an intangible way in the midst of middle-class, suburban DC. My parents divorced, I moved away.

The Christmas mass at the monastery was the blending together of heaven and earth. A celebration of the moment the worlds collided and heaven restated its part in the world. The incarnation. Indeed, God becoming man. And so Jesus came to be with us. But why? Because. Because God would not simply be a distant, all-powerful being that would receive the accolades of His people in temples and ritual and priestly orders.

You see, God wishes that no person should be His enemy. Yet in desiring that no person should be His enemy, he became a person so that he could dwell with us, be us, show us, love us in the flesh, and be for us what we could not be ourselves — perfect love. He became us. He became one of the beings who were, in fact, His enemy.

From the beginning, God walked with His people in the Garden. And He would return to dwell with the people he intended all along to be with. And yes, if Christ became Man, it is because He wanted to. Not because He had to.

We ourselves, and all the part of the world we encounter, decide if we can accept this presence, can decide if we will allow it to consecrate our being, and can move among people as if Christ were here. This is the great invitation to each person and for us to contemplate and live out. God with us. We live like this because we want to. Not because we have to.

If we believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth — not a single person, not a religious affiliation, not a political view, not a racial identification, not a gender orientation, not an economic class, not a educational background — in whom we are not prepared to see, in deep transformative and holy ways, the mystery, the presence of Christ. We can choose to accept others as part of this created world in which God dwells, or we can choose to ignore the hidden, encompassing beauty of God being with us.

Immanuel.

God with us.

Great joy is in seeing Christ in everyone.

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Faith

Losing Faith

Imagine your nature is such that all you are designed to do is to love God. Everything that you are and everything that you can be is simply transcended by this idea. Then imagine finding that this completely eludes you and that everything you hope for is completely misaligned with this idea, and you find your own existences is still the fulfillment of your own desires and cravings. In The New Seeds of Contemplation, this is essentially what Thomas Merton calls compunction, a feeling of guilt followed by an unhealthy behavior that leads us into more alienating behaviors and takes us away from faith.

I have seen it happen a lot. People have an emotional connection with God, we extol this experiences, and encourage the believer to extend the divine encounter with bible reading, small groups, acts of service, and evangelizing. But the emotional divine connection is elusive, and often believers are left wondering how to obtain it again. And so the church encourages the same activities… Bible reading, evangelizing, small groups. The believer may recover a sense of connection, but many times these methods lead to a complacency and abandonment of the initial hope of a changed life.

When people stop “believing” most times they say it is because they don’t “feel it” anymore. And it is usually followed by a sense that music has become boring, the sermons irrelevant, the service projects a chore and church friends distant. In or words, spiritual loneliness. But so often, this is the experience right on the cusp of something better, and these activities that are unfulfilling are human endeavors to keep you engaged. What God is asking is you abandon your whole self, including your church self, to His will, and to enter into a one-of-a-kind relationship with Him. A relationship exactly suited to who you are created to be.

Having experienced this myself (and continue to experience), this is the path we must go through to arrive at a deep, abounding faith. But many times the church, especially us evangelicals, fail to recognize this critical juncture. Instead of acknowledging that the journey to tranquility goes through the desert, we direct more of the same activities that are leaving so many without a path to a truer experience of God. Is it any wonder churches don’t grow when the constant barrage of “let’s feel good” wears thin?

The truth is, friends, if you are at the point where you want to walk away because you no longer “feel” it, this is the place where God wants you to be, and this is the place where God is asking you to abandon all your conceptions of what church and faith has been, and to walk with Him into the next phase of your relationship.

Your spiritual path must be simplified and redirected. Yes, by all means continue to go to church and engage in His word, but as spiritual seekers, sometimes — and often for long periods of time — the barrenness of faith is real, and His love for us is not built on the gimmicks of lights, sounds, sermons, service and experience. True love, true peace, true engagement is found by those who acknowledge that faith cannot rely on what others have made for us to experience. Faith is my sole and direct engagement with Him.

It is in great praise and thankfulness that I accept this emptiness. The vast love of God’s hope for us when is where we stand at the edge. It is a gift. And any gift from God is better than my own dim understanding of how to experience Him. When the sermons or the music stop resonating, it’s because He is saying, “That is not me. I am something better. I am something richer. Come, let me show you.”

I know, right? It sounds really, really crazy that when so much of Church becomes empty He is actually asking us to walk more closely with Him. He is asking us to abandon a false sense of who He is and to enter into a deeper, genuine relationship with His divine self. Not somebody else’s music or somebody else’s words or somebody else’s service project, but our own concerning Him.

So do this first every day, and be committed to just this. Tell God, in your own voice, that you are seeking Him. Tell Him honestly what your faith feels like. Tell Him honestly where you are struggling. And wait. I can’t tell you for how long. But I assure you He is there with you. And you will not look back on this time as anything other than a great transformation and a great gift to a deeper awareness of His presence.

 

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Faith

American Blessing

I have been thinking about this idea of the US being blessed for the last few months. Being blessed implies that there is a way to assign goodness to an action or result of one’s standing. Did God bless me with good health? Or did I just make some good choices? When I get sick, did God make me sick, or did I get sick because I made some bad choices? (Is that an anti-blessing?) Did God bless me with my good job, and what was my role versus what God gave me? Or did I respond to the circumstances in a way that led to good outcomes? I simply don’t know what is a blessing and what is a result of my personal choices. But what I do know is I can be grateful either way.

Now on the national scale, we have many incredible things to be grateful for, but I think we fall into a trap. We ascribe our blessings to some special favor God has given us. And when we don’t have that special favor, we say America is losing its greatness and on the verge of losing its God-given blessings because of a long list of rationales including our insufficient virtue. In other words, we’re rich and powerful because God blessed us due to our ways of living (and to be ignored, slavery, the systematic annihilation of Native Americas, but extolled our wealth and freedom). Somehow some people just know this American blessing to be true. It is a power packed sentiment, and I have to admit, it is alluring to think we are special in the Creator’s eyes.

I think we confuse our national prosperity, freedom, and safety with some type of divine blessing. That’s a mistake easy to make. After all, why wouldn’t there be some external factor giving us all these things? But Jesus told us differently. He told us what being blessed is. And he told us how we are to know that we are blessed. It all comes down to our attitudes and our actions. Just after he began his ministry, Jesus sat down with a crowd, and he taught them. And the first thing he taught, according to the Gospel of Matthew, was what it means to be blessed.

Matthew 5:3-12 (NRSV)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

We Christians have to beware we do often confuse prosperity with what Jesus described as being blessed. Maybe if Jesus had said, “Blessed are the constitutional republicans, for they shall have great wealth and power and righteousness.” Well, then I could be convinced America has great blessings through its form of government (a constitutional republic). But Jesus did not say that. Instead, he talked about the way an individual is supposed to live. He said our blessings would be derived from being poor in spirit, being meek, being merciful, being a peacemaker. And a result, we would know the kingdom, we would inherit the earth, we would receive mercy, and we would be called a child of God.

So is America all these things: poor in spirit, meek, peacemaker? Are we pure in heart as a country? Can we even be pure in heart? Perhaps, as a country, we could. But I think it would be fair to say a lot would have to change. But as a Christian, I know what Jesus taught does not have to be on a national level. It must be personal. That is hard stuff in this day and age, and this idea goes against the current national climate. But blessings are not a direct result of my earthly citizenship. They are a result of my individual choices and the way I live. And in that area alone I — we all — have significant work to do. And that’s the key idea, and one of the more frequently missed points of Jesus’ ministry: work on yourself first, and the rest will follow.

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Faith

Faith, Distraction, Politics

This tumultuous political season in the US is over. Two fighting candidates, two fighting parties, a divided country. And the worst of it? Church members growing to dislike, chastise, criticize and condemn people with different political values. On the last point, I am sure that Satan is laughing really hard about it. After all, creating division is his specialty. And so, it’s really unfortunate that a lot of us bought into it. It was sometimes so emotional and upsetting, I couldn’t completely resist getting into the debate myself.

I want the country to continue to be great, I want better health care, I want safer streets, I want updated infrastructure. So, I think I want all the same things Trump has said that he will do. And I hope his promises are fulfilled in ways that bring more people together and create more opportunity. He, and his closely affiliated political party, have an opportunity to enact policy in the way they believe will bring about greater prosperity, more safety and an enhanced sense of well-being for the US. I hope Mr. Trump is successful, and I can’t imagine what will happen if he is not, or if some of the worst fears come true.

It does not matter who the President is. Not really. Not when you think about eternity. Not when you think about just how small the Earth is compared to the universe. Not when you think about the truth we are all one giant meteor strike away from oblivion. Not when you think about the fact that within fifty years or so, most everybody who is alive now will be dead (more other people will be alive, I hope, but not most of us living now). Not when you think about the hope and truth that what really matters is loving people fully and deeply despite life circumstances.

God in His infinite wisdom isn’t asking us to make a profession of faith in a candidate, or a planet or a thing of any material worth. He is asking us to enter into a relationship with Himself. That is to say that all the political rambling in the last few months has simply fulfilled a simple purpose that was not God’s — I was often drawn away from Him by spending more time reading the news than His word, spending more time debating social policy than focusing on genuine Love, and a whole list of other distractions that kept me — and so many others — from what mattered the most. Him.

I was harshly reminded in my devotions not too long ago, Mark 4:18-19 (NRSV) “And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.” Ouch.

It’s easy, isn’t it, to deny or ignore the thorns? It’s easier to wear tougher outer layers, right? Perhaps even cloak our faith in the armor of being correct politically? Or the armor of being better than someone else? Or the armor of being more chosen than someone else?

As a country, and as Christians, we’re too often ready to call those thorns beautiful flowers instead of what they really are: A warning.

So my prayer is this. Lord, help me cast off the thorns, and bring me back to the fertile soil. Help me to see the truth of the world around me. And bring back, too, Lord, all who have fallen away from the path of seeking your Mercy and you Justice. Help me exemplify your sacrificial Love. Help us, Lord, be reconcilers. Help us, Lord, to see with your eyes, hear with your ears and to love with your heart.

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Faith

Blind but now I see

In John 9, Jesus encountered a man blind from birth, and he gave him his sight.  The Pharisees were incensed that Jesus healed the blind man, and so they interrogated this blind beggar to understand what had really happened. In his own way, the beggar admonished them, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” And this truth greatly angered the Pharisees.

As I read this story, I wondered about something.  What was it like to receive sight after being blind all of one’s life? If the first thing you saw were an apple and an orange, what would you think?  Would you know color? Or shape? If you saw a pair of twins, would you think they were the same person? Would a beautiful sunset inspire a sense of awe? Would a cliff, inches away, make you step back?  Would smoke be a warning?  What would you think of the moon at night? Would you know lion is a danger but kitten is not?

It’s astounding when I stop and think about it.  I have never been blind, but I have worn glasses most of my life.  And being without my glasses for even short periods is very frustrating.  In fact, the first thing I lose is the ability to interpret people’s expressions.  Expressions are too complicated if you can’t seem them clearly.  What would the blind man have seen in the faces of the Pharisees? Anger? Fear? Or did he recognize anything at all?  The blind man did not seem to know Jesus was the Son of Man, and had to be told that it was, in fact, Jesus. What would he have seen in Jesus’ expression during this conversation? Love? Patience? Admonition?

It takes years to be able to interpret expressions, and years to perceive depth, and texture, and danger, and beauty. And yet, the blind man sees.  He sees well enough that Jesus has to go and find him after his encounter with the Pharisees. Find, I think, in the sense that the blind man was moving about. He was seeking out this new world. He did not seem to be clinging in fear to something he could not comprehend or interpret.

And Jesus went on to explain that it is spiritual blindness that was far worse than physical blindness. As astounding as recovered sight is, and as much as we would receive it with a sense of exploration and wonder and awe and even fear, it’s the spiritual seeing Jesus said we have to have.

Faith is the continuing illumination of that which we could not see.  And in a world seen with a spiritual vision, like a person with new sight, where can we not venture?

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Faith

25 Reflections of Gratitude on this Day of Thanks Giving

Whenever I start my day expressing gratitude, then I am statistically assured of a positive (+) day more than a negative (-) one. My own research has proven this time and again.
Gratitude is a noun.  It describes the state of feeling thankful for something that’s been granted or given without wanting anything in return. And there’s no verb form of gratitude.  To show gratitude —is to thank. So here are my 25 refections of gratitude on this day of thanks giving.  There is an order in this list.  But it might not be what you think.
  1. Tracy, my wife of over 26 years.  Best friend.  The one who understands me the most.  And makes happiness real.
  2. Two sons, both in college, who keep me young by challenging my middle-aged thinking.
  3. In-laws. Two cherished people who have been unselfishly generous. And still with us in their 80’s.
  4. Sisters-in-laws.  Brother-in-law.  Nephew. That extended family who are fun and love me just the way I am.
  5. Bikes.  Biking.  Going for rides.  Alone.  In groups.  Big hills.  No hills.  Just bikes.  Cycling.  Oh, and hand signals and lights (keeping me safer from all the distracted drivers out there).
  6. Dogs.  Now we have four.  Misty is old and blind, but still a fetcher.  Linus curmudgeon.  Wilson blissful.  Lucy a terror (but too cute for wrath).
  7. Wine.  Mostly wine.  Sometimes bourbon.  Tequila.  Beer.  Never alone, but with people I love and care for.
  8. Work.  A job that has been been the most challenging I have ever had.  Stretching me outside my comfort zones.  Making me notice new things.  And listening for truth and pursuing what is right. And a boss who is super awesome.  And peers who make work more than just fun.
  9. Change.  In small ways and big.  From daily routines to big life events.  I am not always good at it, but learning how important change is to moving forward.
  10. Hundreds of years of peaceful transition of US political power.  It works. Let’s hope it stays that way.
  11. Reading.  Books. Blogs.  News.  It’s amazing really, that we can recognize shapes that represent words that convey meaning.
  12. Music.  All kinds.  Classical, rock -n-n roll, downbeat.  And so many ways to listen to music! Napster. Pandora.  It’s like having an infinite music collection. Although albums did like kind of cool.
  13. Movies.  Big epic thrillers.  The more science fiction the better.  And romantic comedies.  I just like having my mind bent and my heart tugged.
  14. The Internet.  Access to so much content. And some of it is true! And weather forecasts galore (and more accurate than ever!)
  15. Trains.  Recently, started taking the train to Cambridge.  Too long to drive.  But I get tot read more.  Listen to music more.
  16. A house we’ve modified and cared for where the guys have grown up.  Dogs have run around.  People have visited for long and short times.
  17. Food.  Mostly ice-cream and chocolate.  And a good burger.  With cheese.
  18. Health.  At 53 no major issues.  That’s not a jinx is it?
  19. Oceans.  I could sit on any beach at any time in any place and find tranquility.
  20. Writing.  I don’t write as often as I would like, but when I do, my mind is focused.
  21. Church.  It’s a community.  And I have come a long way in understanding and trusting in Jesus.
  22. My parents. Long gone, but they brought me to life.  And my brothers who shaped my early years.
  23. Coffee.  Need I say more?
  24. Navigation systems.  Never lost.  But also no need to follow a planned route.
  25. Today.  Another gift.  Another opportunity.
I have others.  Cinnamon frosted pop tarts.  Pecan cluster/Turtle blizzard from Dairy Queen.  Fall colors.  Thunder storms.  Swimming.  Saunas.  Outdoor showers.  Back packs (long history).  Spell chekcers.
Happy Thanks Giving.
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