What Really Matters

No one needs another opinion right now, right?

It seems as if social media has inadvertently made everyone an expert in politics, social issues, and now infectious diseases.

God bless us for our good intentions.

I am not interested so much in offering another opinion on our current global pandemic. I know my skill sets. I will instead leave that for those who actually spend their lives researching, doing clinical work, and treating patients. They are the ones to whom we should be listening right now. And we are grateful for the important work they do.

Many of us have studied the words of Father Richard Rohr over the years and have always come back to one of his most profound insights- that great love and great suffering have the ability to create the potential for spiritual listening and larger seeing. And it is along these pathways by which a person, a family, a community, or even a world may be transformed.

There is no question that we find it so much easier, and so much more desirable, to move along this pathway when it is by the means of great love.  Conversely, we have a much more difficult time discovering anything redeemable, or of value, when it is found down the road of great suffering. Suffering can very easily break us down and move us into a place with varying degrees of worry, anxiety, helplessness, or despair.

This isn’t a judgment on how any of us individually process suffering, or even a judgment on those who suffer emotionally or psychologically. Six weeks ago, I went to my family doctor because I was experiencing anxiety for the first time in my life. Changing variables in my work life had produced a tightness in my chest and a feeling of being strangled. Fortunately it wasn’t a heart attack, but the reality of how anxiety can consume a person and it was a real experience for me. So I truly understand how deeply situations and our mental health can deeply affect us.

But despite where we may be internally, learning to listen and see in our suffering, or choosing to be fully present in our suffering, there is always a continuous invitation of the Spirit open to everyone, all the time, even and especially to those who have been deeply affected at the physical, emotional, physiological, or even spiritual level.

So no matter who you are, where you have been, what trauma you have experienced, or what you are currently experiencing in your life, this invitation welcomes you into a safe and quiet space where you are allowed to breath and then patiently listen and see amidst your suffering.

But while many of you may already be suffering, the potential for greater suffering always exists, which will necessitate more safe spaces and more patient guides to walk with people through the chaos and along the path of suffering.

There is no question that closings and cancellations, limitations on social functions, the loss of business or savings plans, the loss of employment and mounting bills, and the potential hospitalization or death of loved ones who have been infected will all certainly create varying degrees of suffering among us.

You may know exactly what I am talking about right now.

But I wonder if in this suffering, we will begin to walk together, truly walk together, to discover opportunities to learn, serve, and be transformed, rather than be consumed by our collective despair and antipathy.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not the canceling of events, large social gatherings, and other disruptions as personal assaults or attacks on our personal liberties and livelihoods, but as selfless moves we can all make together to protect our most vulnerable.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not all of the services that have been disrupted or how we no longer have everything at our fingertips or how inconvenienced we have become in some things, but all of the great opportunities we have to come together and use our resources to help our brothers and sisters who have reduced hours, who have lost jobs, who are losing business, or who are having a hard time making ends meet.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not all of the ugliness and divisiveness of politics and everything that works to divide us in our most difficult times, but all the ways we can unite without labels or affiliations to serve the greater good.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not all of the ways we have been, or will soon be, isolated and quarantined from each other, but all of the ways we can still be with one another and creatively reach out to talk, encourage, pray for, or maybe even sing with one another, like our brothers and sisters in Italy.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not lives with significantly limited options, isolated at home and on social media all day, but the opportunity to spend real face time with family around the table or to breathe fresh air in nature, while rediscovering our hearts and natural rhythm once again.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see that this time is teaching us, through abstinence, to appreciate all the things we had previously taken for granted.

It’s true that not every experience of trauma or suffering can easily be diverted by perspective or prayer. We will have to endure the anguish and pain of some traumas and sufferings head on. But in even that, we will have hopefully learned that we are not alone in this thing and that we truly have each other. We will have come to the realization that there is so much goodness in our lives and we will see it differently moving forward. And maybe, just maybe, through this suffering, we may learn to see each other differently, to learn to respect each other despite our differences, and to uncover a humanity below the surface that we may have forgotten was there.

Walking with you in this,

Brandon

The Impossibility of Joy (An Advent Reflection)

As I sit here presently, reflecting upon the past year and anticipating the year to come, it’s hard not to feel as if the heartache of the former can do anything but be carried into the latter.

I have friends who lost their full-term baby boy at birth. My 44-year old work partner for the last eight years died three weeks ago from cancer, leaving her husband and two middle school children. Our best friends lost their 15-year old son in a tragic, unexpected accident in February. I have friends who were arrested and put in jail this year, friends who have been diagnosed with cancer this year, friends whose marriages are crumbling and on the rocks, our 18-year old dog, our friend, passed away this year, and due to reductions at work I may not have a job in a couple of weeks.

It has been a hard year for me, my family, my friends, and maybe you as well.

Maybe you have lost a child, a parent, a friend, or a pet this year. Maybe you have been diagnosed with a terminal illness or know someone who has been. Maybe you are dealing with and carrying regret for relationships that have been destroyed because of your words or actions. Maybe you are lost and alone and don’t have anyone standing next to you, holding you up, and giving you the strength to carry on. Maybe you are holding on to disappointments and failures and wondering if you have any worth, value, or dignity remaining. Maybe you have had a miscarriage or had difficulty getting pregnant. Maybe you have lost a job and are struggling to provide or find a way forward. Maybe you have hurt your friends and your family and you feel as if you can never be forgiven.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

I had the realization recently that our days and months and years are fictitious constructs that do not really exist. They are artificially created measurements that divide up time to give us an order and a rhythm to our lives.

So it’s not as if a turn of the calendar page erases the heaviness in a heart, or takes away the burdened weight that is carried. It’s not as if the welcoming of a new year resets your mind or helps you forget the previous.

The days come and go.
The weeks accumulate.

Yet the heartache remains.

Our groaning does not understand time.
Our pain does not end with the calendar year.
Our suffering does not heal with the passing of time.

It is real yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It is here and here and here, moment by moment, and has no regard for imaginary and illusory divisions of time, nor does it wane with the opening of gifts or with yuletide cheer, nor is it convinced to subside with New Year’s resolutions. Our groaning, our pain, our suffering has no regard for hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries, or millennia.

In a very real way, it is transcendent and collective- it is beyond time and it affects us all. Our groaning, our pain, our suffering has ravaged and devoured us since our very first collective nephesh, or breath of life.

I know this may seem like the saddest Christmas piece you have ever read, but I want to give each of you hope that even in our deepest despair we are surprisingly and unexpectedly and impossibly met with good news of great joy.

Please trust me, I do not offer that as a cheap and easy religious platitude, as a bandaid to a gaping, gushing wound. Deep calls to deep.

From our cynical and jaded perspective, as those in the midst of present suffering, there is a profound absurdity in the message from the angelic messenger that appeared to the shepherds in the field the day Christ was born, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Without context, this “good news of great joy” seems to drop into a sterile, unburdened history that couldn’t possibly understand the real heartache of the modern man or woman.

But again, our groaning, our pain, our suffering does not understand time and has been our shared, human experience from the first breath.

The announcement of “good news of great joy” seemed as absurd and improbable then, as it seems now, as if we all know that somehow joy is not commensurate for a history of pain and suffering.

But what is joy exactly?

Is it not sitting down for that first cup of coffee in the morning, smelling it, tasting it, savoring it? Is it not every delicate cut of the onion, celery, carrots and the deeply satisfying aroma of the earthy spices when making soup in the cold of winter while the delicate snowflakes fall outside? Is it not walking outside on an autumn evening when you close your eyes and breathe deep the magnificent fall fragrance? Is it not closing your eyes while being enveloped and suspended by your favorite song, noticing every harmony, every note, every melody? Is it not sitting around a table with your best friends with great food getting lost in conversation? Is it not closing your eyes and holding your baby, hugging your children, the touch of your spouse, and the embrace of your mom and dad while you savor every moment?

That is joy.

Joy is a piercing in the thin veil where heaven and earth come together. It is a present taste of that which will be fully and completely realized in the future. It is an awakening to the resident goodness of all things. It is shalom. You can see it. You can feel it. You can hear it. You can taste it. And you know it is good. And you long for it, not in fleeting, transient moments, but in perpetuity.

But while joy is an ever-present reality to which we open wide our souls to receive, it is also a remembering and a longing. It is a remembering of those moments and how they have passed and a deep longing to be there one more time.

Joy is the ever-present gift of now, an eternal present receiving, that one can experience despite our changing life conditions or our sufferings, but it is also the deepest unsatisfied longing of your soul.

And that is what makes the Advent, the Incarnation of Christ, good news of great joy for all people.

The union of heaven and earth has come perfectly together in the Christ-child, assuring us that we, too, can enter into this joy presently, despite our collective sufferings.

But even more, the Advent is good news in that it promises a resurrected future in which our joy will finally be made complete at the renewal of all things. Every feeling, every touch, every song, every embrace, every memory, every unsatisfied longing will be satisfied. Every terrible wrong will be made right. Every deep wound will be healed. Every crushing heartache will be comforted. Every painful tear will be wiped away.

Praise God, there is good news, indeed, and it will be a great joy for all the people.

Joyfully longing…

Brandon

When Hope is Lost (A Lesson from Birds)

I have begun the process of changing my mind about birds.

Sure, you may not find a stranger first sentence than that, but those closest to me know that I have this unreasonable phobia of the feathered friend. It has something to do with a mother bird dive-bombing my head to protect her nest when I was five. And no, to answer your question, I was not bothering her nest. I was simply going next door to a friend’s house. But, there is no reasoning with a mother bird. Anyway, my neurosis aside, I am slowly taking steps to rediscovering the beauty (or some redeeming quality) in birds.

An Indiana winter can be brutal and bone-chilling. And it is not made any more bearable by the local meteorologists who giddily, and a bit too affectionately, begin referring to it as a Polar Vortex. The tragedy is they don’t realize that by calling it a “Polar Vortex,” it psychologically becomes twenty degrees colder in our heads. Let’s just be honest here, we do not need “Polar” anything in Indiana, especially when it is already pitch black at 4pm in the middle of December.

But there was a moment a few years ago in late winter, when darkness still owned the morning and the cold refused to let go of everything in it’s grip, that I heard the sweetest song.

Through the shroud of night, before the sun’s first rays, amid the polar chill, a melody of hopeful anticipation pierced the dark veil of winter and announced that spring would soon be arriving.

It was glorious and profound.

The processional of spring, a time of life, new beginnings, and spectacular beauty was coming! And it was being ushered in through song by feathered vocalists announcing it’s arrival.

I, a crusty-eyed morning zombie of multi-layered, nighttime attire (pre-coffee), could not miss this staggering metaphor. When a season of darkness surrounds us and seems as if it will last forever, we may very well begin to believe that this is the way life will always be. But even in the darkness that may surround us, if we are still enough to hear it and patient enough to trust it, there is always the sweet song of the Spirit, leading us in hopeful anticipation, surprising us with beauty in the present, and giving us a glimpse of the life that’s yet to come.

I know it is terribly difficult to discuss how we can learn to see beauty amidst the wreckage when we are in the throes of a painful life situation, whether it be temporary or permanent. But, it is in this place where we must always begin- in the place of our pain, in the place of our suffering. For it is in that place where we can, mostly easily, lose heart, feel lost and defeated, grow wildly cynical, and begin to blame God for our condition or circumstance.

Even more, our pain can become the place from where we begin to live our lives.

The crushing weight of our suffering will always try to convince us that the pain we are experiencing is our only reality and that there is nothing redeemable there, ever. And as a result, the pain we are experiencing can begin to manifest outwardly in our lives into our words and actions, ultimately affecting how we see the world and how we relate to others.

That is what suffering can do. It can cause us to reside in our pain, no matter how great or small that pain is, and then become the lens through which we begin to see people, situations, and the world as a whole. And over time, our pain through suffering can very easily spiral downward and lead to questions and then the destruction of our identity, our worth, and our purpose in life.

Living constantly in the burden and pain of our suffering can either become an end destination or a passageway for each of us.

As an end destination, the pain of our suffering can become a place where we stay in bitterness, sadness, anger, hatred, and unforgiveness.

As a passageway, our pain through suffering can become the pathway to profound life transformation and new ways of seeing the world.

Suffering breaks us down into insufferable little parts where we can either self-destruct or cry out helplessly to God, because we are in a place where we have seemingly lost control. Our sense of self has been shattered. Our identity has been obliterated. And it is in our place of pain through suffering where we can choose whether we make it our final destination or a transformative passageway.

That is the profound mystery of suffering. Suffering strips away any and all control we believed we had over people and situations. And it is in this place, our place of suffering, the place where we have lost all control, where our hearts and minds can either be closed off or open to the healing and transformative love of God.

And no matter who you are or what you have been through, or are currently going through, you can choose what you want to do with your pain, and how you receive suffering. You can let it dominate and control how you see the world and relate to others, or you can use it as a means to be taught and guided into a new and more beautiful way of living.

In hope,

Brandon