Father Mark, Reflections

What Forgiveness Is

As I was engaged with our beloved late Bishop Bob Hibbs’ book, An Altar in Your Heart, the thought came to me about Easter again.  Easter was different this past year, not in the event itself but in the way we observed it.  Easter, if we are awakened to its infinite Reality, is every Sunday and every day.   We are fed both communally by the Christ who comes through each of us to others and individually through the time we invest in quiet moments to reflect, contemplate and receive the Divine Breath of “Peace be with you.”  Due to the COVID-19, the balance of being fed spiritually through the community and individually has been skewed requiring a more intentional focus on the individual prayer life to sustain our spiritual core.

Bob writes of mercy being like a river from God to us.   Mercy flows between our own personal and collective Good Friday’s and Christ’s benevolent, radiant Easter presence carrying us by the Spirit into Christ and the Father so that the words of Jesus become a reality:  “May we be one as the Father and I are one.” 

So what this forgiveness actually does—this never ending stream of Living Water, is carry us into God.  Forgiveness isn’t just an erasing of our naughty check marks on the black board.  Forgiveness, the Living Stream of mercy, changes us—heals us, transforms us, enlightens our darkness down to our toe nails.  We aren’t the same after we receive forgiveness because receiving forgiveness is receiving Christ himself.  We’re not meant to be our old phony, try to get by, afraid to reveal, scared to be honest, afraid to be still, resentful, afraid to be hurt, and scared to give or receive love, selves.   Jesus’ Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor scared the beegeebers out of Peter, James and John.  They couldn’t hold the Light coming through Jesus.   Light hurts before it feels good.  It’s like a stiff muscle.  We know we need to exercise it to get the full range of motion.  But boy does it hurt on the way getting there.  But once we’re there, oh what a joy to be free to move again!  The Transfiguration is like a holy laser that cuts through everything that afflicts us, either removing it or transforming it.  Let us bathe in your Blessed Light O Jesus and give us the faith to remain present through any discomfort to receive your healing. 

Forgiveness is a stream of mercy and Divine Light eternally available to us.   This is what Easter does.

Forgiveness doesn’t work like the commercial’s positive attitude of saying, ’”just do it.” Like Mary, let us with open hearts respond, “Let it (forgiveness) be done to me according to thy Word.”  

May the Peace and Light of Forgiveness be yours this day and hereafter,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

What’s in a Flag?

Yesterday was Flag Day, the anniversary of the adoption of our first flag of the colonies by the Second Continental Congress in 1777. 

Flags represent as symbols what a community of people value, their ideals and identity.  I remember first hearing in the 1960’s the term “flag wavers” used in a denigrating tone.  As much as a flag can be a symbol that people who hold the same values gather around,  a flag can also be seen or used as a divisive element by others.  The values which the flag represents must be continually reassessed as our lives in our efforts to live up to these ideals else we fall away from them and chaos results.

One of the problems with flags and the ideals that symbolize what the flag represents, is that we’re not very good at living up to those ideals.  I am not always aware of how I do not live up to the values represented in our flag and the Constitution which underlies it.  The fault is not with the flag nor is with the Constitution.  The fault is with me.

I don’t care what flag you want to talk about. No one can live up to its ideals.  It doesn’t mean the ideals are necessarily flawed.  But it does mean that I need to do a self-examination about how I might adjust my life to honor them. 

To make it more personal, I believe everyone reading this has at least one relative or friend who has died or suffered while defending the ideals which we feebly try to uphold.   Transferring the focus from the flag to my uncle who died and my father and brothers who risked their lives to uphold these ideals puts “flesh” on the flag for me.  When I see their faces on the flag, then the flag changes from an object or an “it,” to people who were and are very much alive–all the way back to our Founders and Framers.  None of them were perfect. None of us are. That doesn’t mean the ideals for which the flag represents are false. It just means we’re not true.

One of the ideals our flag represents is in being able to be free enough to seek God as individuals. Not every flag represents this. One of our flag’s ideals is understood as the human need to seek the Divine. The unencumbered liberty to seek Divine Inspiration enables us to fulfill the Great Commandment of “loving God with our whole, heart, mind, soul and strength” which in turn enables me to live more fully into the ideals that the flag represents and to respect those who, like me, live under it. I ask myself: “How can I love those faces known and unknown which I see on the flag—how can I love them back?”

I can love them in my heart, mind and soul because our hearts, minds and souls are no longer limited by this world because the Divine lives within us. We also have the freedom to love them in this world.   Vicariously, by passing on the same love to others we know—the true ideal—they might benefit from all the gifts that God showers on us and share in the ideals of the flag, which we cannot perfectly live up to.  Loving others as directed by God, allowed by the First Amendment, makes it a darn sight easier than in other countries where they are not. We allow others the same Liberty as we have under the flag and serve them as Christ serves us.  

In this way, we have freedom of religion which manifests itself by serving others and living the “Golden Rule” of allowing others the same Liberty. The love of God serves those in the state while not encroaching on their Liberty. Loving like this takes a lot of practice–a lifetime of it.

If you have ever read any works on spiritual development such as Kohlberg, Westerhoff and Fowler, we realize that the First Amendment of the flag we live under encourages us to grow into the full spiritual beings that we are and were created to become. We can live fully in both worlds: Jesus’ Kingdom not of this world, and the world under the flag in which we live.

To Liberty: the Liberty we have in Christ and the Liberty granted to us under the flag. May we be faithful in both.

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

God will get us home

If there is good in the grief I have for my parents it’s in all the memories I have that continue to visit me over the last almost two years. They rise in my mind when they choose and not on a fixed schedule. The memories are often sweet or bitter-sweet, missing them. Their presence waxes and wanes through times where they feel close to me now in the form as members of the communion of saints and other times in those memories.

One of the ironic things I’ve noticed that at times, and I know many of you with whom I converse tell me, that at this time we don’t quite feel “at home” during this era of the COVID. Since I am at home most of the time when I am not in the office, I find it ironic that I at times don’t feel “at home” at home. Months ago, I felt “at home” at home. But the invisible force of the COVID has restricted life around me so that it at times seeps into life at home.

I remember when I was around six. We had just visited my God parents/family friends on the opposite side of the city over Christmas. It was late, pitch dark, cold and snowing when we left, having snow and ice chunks on the road that I could hear crunching under the tires. I was very sleepy as my younger brother was already asleep next to me in the back seat. I watched my dad drive, focused on the road, thinking about how hard it must be to go through all of these challenges to get home. There was a great comfort in watching him navigate the weather and the roads until I had fallen asleep myself. The usual 25 minute trip probably took twice that long. But I didn’t know it because I didn’t realize we were home until I found myself being carried in my father’s arms into the house. We made it! We were HOME! I felt even more at home in the warm bed he laid me in.

My father imitated God that night. He brought me through the weather, darkness and cold to bring me home. God is like this. In fact it’s God that gave my father a spirit to do just this. To bring me home.

God brings us home also, even when we don’t feel “at home” in our homes because we’re not at home within ourselves due to all sorts of challenges that keep us off balance and disconnected from our heavenly Father. So when I don’t feel “at home” at home, then perhaps I need to sit in the seat again, close my eyes and allow the Presence of the One who waits within me, to awaken me to the fact that I’ve been asleep and that he’s had me in his arms all the time.

There was an abbot who once taught his monks to “sit in your cell (room), and your cell will teach you everything. ” There was another abbot who taught his monks, when asked the question of the origin of suffering: “All suffering comes from one’s inability to sit still and be alone.”

Being “alone” in God is not isolation. It is solitude. Solitude is the place where we encounter the Holy who enters us with his life. We can remain in solitude while being with others provided that we cultivate this solitude within in our quiet spaces with God.

God has provided us a seat on which to sit in order for us to address our restlessness and estrangement. If we sit with him, he will carry us home within himself.

I bet this will work for you too. Prayer is a very active process until we are released to rest in God, who is in the driver’s seat.

May you know what it means to be carried,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Oh what a tangled web we weave…

Justice

What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive” from Sir Walter Scott’s “Marmion,” refers to how complicated life becomes when people begin deceiving themselves by deceiving others.

The word, “justice,” has been growing in use with greater frequency and with an increasing hypersensitivity over the last decade.  Since one of the tasks of clergy is to clarify the current times in the light of the gospel, I will attempt to reveal what our understanding of the God of history as recorded through Holy Scripture and the Christ event has to say about it.

In English, the word, justice, means “conformity to truth, fact or reason established in the rule of law.”   Justice carries with it a sense of “equity” meaning that there is freedom from bias or favoritism. Hold on to that thought.

The word, “justice from its Hebrew and Aramaic origins, comes from the word, Tzedek, meaning that righteousness and justice (the words are used interchangeably), are attributes of God.   To be righteous means to be straight or aligned with God and the way of God.   Jesus himself taught (Matt. 5) “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  Being filled with God is the outcome of those who seek him and his way—according to Jesus is the ultimate satisfaction.

We who are created in His image have duty to exercise righteousness, the way of God, in our daily lives.  Acts of charity are a moral obligation rather than a signal of how virtuous we are.   Virtue signaling rises out of an empty soul. True “doing” comes out of the “Being” of God.   When we’re “in God,” we don’t need to be noticed.

From here is where things get complicated. 

St. Paul realizes the tangled web when he writes to the Church in Rome (Chapter 10):  Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 

Thinking that we’re smarter than we really are, (one of the diseases borne in the Enlightenment’s birthing of humanism) we think we have a better way of doing things.  What makes it difficult is that the ideals of humanism sometimes intertwine with Judaeo-Christian ethics.   It is easy to desire justice but then to redefine it, not by the Nature of God but by pragmatic ideas that subtly help us to adjust the Law of Nature and Rule of Law according to our convenience or what initially seems to benefit us.  The human mind can be very slippery, noted in the humorous response of Adam to God when God confronted Adam in the Garden of Eden, asking if he had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.   Instead of answering God, Adam did a convenient side step, redirecting the conversation saying, “the woman gave me the fruit so I ate.”  Nice try Adam.  We still all play Adam from time to time, trying to reorder life to what’s convenient for us rather than to listen for the righteousness of God. Comfort trumps Truth. But only in our minds as chaos is following close behind.

So the web is tangled and we continue to blame others for our problems to ignore our own lack of being centered in God and his way.   Instead of Justice being pursued with just methods, we pad it a little so that justice is redefined as “you owe me—the world owes me.”  The problem here is that justice does not advocate pragmatic, utilitarian thoughts or deception. 

Restraint is the way to address injustice as we must first begin with ourselves—taking the log out of our own eye before we can take the speck out of our brother’s (Matt. 7). Justice must be tempered with grace and love.  This does not eliminate consequences but places justice in a realm where redemption is possible. 

An indicator whether we’re living in alignment with the righteous character of God is when we are experiencing quietness and peace.   God the “author of peace and lover of concord” whose righteousness is quietness and peace passes on these benefits to those who are united in the Spirit. 

But what do we do in the meantime? People treat others and ourselves unjustly (we probably aren’t focusing on if we are treating others unjustly). How do we deal or cope with this? Jesus us taught us the Golden Rule but he also taught us about forgiveness. Forgiveness is a far better option than remaining angry and resentful ad infinitum. I’ve known people who have been angry and bitter for years at others, perhaps God as well. There’s nothing more miserable that sucks the joy out of life that being resentful.

If we go through life expecting everyone to treat us justly, we have most likely already received our rude awakening. Jesus wasn’t insulted or resentful of those who manipulated reality to send him to the cross. He expected it. A person can only function at their level of spiritual depth which will lead to bias and favoritism which is not justice at all. Jesus forgave them which is why he could still love until his last breath. For me to go through a day with expecting that others will treat me justly by not hurting me by an act of omission or commission is practicing the fine art of insanity. This doesn’t mean I do not address the person and seek reconciliation.

The truth is, I cannot make anyone else be just, or respond justly to an injustice. This is outside of the bounds of reality. Only God who knows the human heart can reach into the hearts of human beings to implant His Spirit which will yield love, justice, forgiveness and the other fruits of the Spirit. My best option is to embody the Presence of Christ so deeply that others see Christ through me and then are awakened to the justice, mercy, love, forgiveness and peace only He can offer. This way of the cross, to allow Christ to crucify the death that is living within me is hard work-which is why so few attempt it–or even knows it exists.

I will leave you with a prayer I learned years ago and found to be helpful from the AA Big Book: ” God, I offer myself to Thee To build with me & to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy love & Thy way of life. Let me do Thy will always.”

Peace,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Different Kinds of Debt

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Romans 13:8.

Debt is a way of life in our country, often too much so. I have always liked it when I have no debt as there’s an invisible collar of weight that falls off my neck and shoulders. Being indebted metaphorically reminds me of the Zoninus collars used in Roman times and cumbersome wood collars which would have been heavy to wear and must have been hard on the body. For me, indebtedness is a form of slavery in that part of us is owned by to whatever or whomever we are in debt. I find it ironic that we in a sense “freely” choose to enslave ourselves when we “sign on the dotted line.” Of course, today, just go online and in a manner of a few minutes, you can click part of your life away with a “quick” loan that doesn’t seem so quick because years are spent paying it off. We are more free to move and live without debt. Of course there are the times when debt can be part of a long range plan to initiate a preferred stable outcome. At the same time it is easy to rationalize taking on more debt due to a potential impulsive choice.

Zoninus collar, used in Roman times

St. Paul speaks of another type of debt when he says, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” I often ponder what Paul saw going on around him that moved the Spirit to inspire him to write this passage. What does this passage say to you? Sit with it a moment. What rises to your awareness?

Do we feel we “owe” things to others? What is our thought process that underlies this? If I have made an agreement or contract with another, I surely do owe the other my part of the contract. On the other hand,I feel like I owe an unpayable debt to veterans. It is a debt that I cannot repay because they made a willing sacrifice to ensure the freedom I enjoy. The only thing I can do is “play it forward” by living in such a way that I can support the freedom of others.

In examining our thought process, we may discover that we believe that we owe something to someone because we are in some ways tied to that person or entity in unhealthy ways. One example I see is when parents feel that they owe their children to save them from suffering. This is reasonable to some extent but crosses the boundary when they bail them out from the problems that children create for themselves over and over again instead of allowing the children to learn from their poor choices. This error in thinking often revolves around parents not being able to watch their children suffer when suffering is a part of life and a sign that somewhere a life boundary was crossed. Instead of guiding children by allowing them to learn from experience in how to make better choices, we remove the consequence. The lesson is taken away from them and the cycle repeats over and over again ad infinitum. Then the children begin to expect others to be responsible for them and to hold their discomfort at bay. The soul and spirit of the child or adult-child if they have never grown out of this crisis becomes impoverished.

Do we feel like others owe us? If it’s a contract or agreement that we have made and content of the agreement is understood by both parties, the answer may be yes. The concern I have with this question is that I see a growing number of people growing up with the cognitive distortion that “people or the world owe me….” (fill in the blank). This belief system is the way to misery because it lives by the false belief that we are the center of the universe and that life and everyone it is revolves around “me.”

St. Paul’s admonition to not fall into debt with others either in temporal ways or by becoming emotionally bound to them prevents us from being controlled by forces that may not be healthy. This is why he shifts from the theme of indebtedness to love one another. But we have to understand what the word, “love,” is. Love is often misunderstood as attachment: i.e. we “love” what serves us. “I love you” means “you make me feel good” or “I love what you do for me.” The rush of hormones surging within usually keeps us from realizing this. The “love” Paul is teaching us about has nothing to do with attachment.

The love of which Paul speaks is Divine Love which begins by the ability to see any or all the members in the Trinity within the other person(s). Since we love because he first loved us (I John 4), we, having the Trinity within us, naturally serve the Trinity within the other person(s). If I having trouble loving another in this way, seeing and serving the Trinity within them, then I have lost touch with the Reality that I am Divinely loved myself. We can’t give away what we haven’t received.

This is why Divine Love isn’t a contract, with the party of the first part saying to the party of the second part, “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Rather, Divine Love is a Covenant, where for example, two individuals make a covenant with each other, not to love tit for tat, but “to love the other–to serve the other” for what’s in other’s best interests. A marriage covenant speaks of our commitment for the other, not what the other will give to us.

At the core of all of this, this is not to mean that we do not need love from others. We’re human. The love coming from others can support us. The core of this is that the Holy Trinity is our source for equipping us with how and the energy to manifest the love that God has given us to the other. This doesn’t mean that we cannot enjoy our attachments with others because we receive blessings from them. But attachment can never stand alone because it is ultimately self-centered.

God is the source of love and the deep well from whom we draw the living water to drink and pass along to others. This is what St. Paul calls “whose service is perfect freedom because there is no debt in Divine Love. Instead we receive liberty and the taste of Divine Life in the here and how. Love essentially means “union with God.” Sharing Divine Love makes us one with one another.

I would rather live freely in Divine Love than live in debt. How about you?

Peace,

Fr. Mark