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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Note To My Sons Before Father's Day


One of the greatest joys in my life is being Papa to both of you, my sons, and I wanted to take some time to put down a few thoughts on what I want to impart to you two on what I find important in life so that, when you have children of your own, you can pass on your own to them.

First off, seek wisdom and not wealth. There are so few who still choose the path of wisdom over the path of wealth. If wealth should come, that's fine, but don't make it your ultimate goal. I hear so many people say, "If I only had more money, I would be..." There is no being in wealth or acquisition of it or possessions. Being is never found in the external but is only an internal work of maturity and  practice formed in daily habit.  Wisdom is begun in wonder. Never be afraid to invite the question. Only be afraid of the places and the people who don't and won't allow others to, either. And every question does not need an answer. Sometimes it is enough to just ask and to simply be present in the mystery that cannot be answered. Always keep an open mind. A closed mind shows open ignorance.
Truth is not found in facts. Facts are too dusty and frail to contain Truth. Information is not wisdom. the world is too full of information and too lacking in wisdom.

Choose delight over terror, joy over fear, amazement over judgment, and curiosity over cynicism. Cynicism is far too easy in this world. It is much braver and harder to be open and compassionate. It is difficult to find optimism in a society that promotes distrust and creates the "other." There are no others in this world. Just as you were created in the image of God, so, too, are everyone that you meet. Sometimes it's harder to find that spark within them, though it may be buried deep within the hidden wounds we cannot see.

Many people will try to tell you what success is, but do not become misguided in the desire to make a name for yourself. It is not about who people claim or believe you to be, it is about who you really are when no one's around. Your choices will determine your character. You will make mistakes, learn from them. Allow them to shape you but not define you. Failure is not failing but allowing that failure to stop you, from blinding you to the opportunities they provide for growth, maturity and understanding.

Don't let hardships make you hard. Hurts can heal if you don't choose hatred. Too many in our world often express their pain through anger, hostility, and violence. Don't be one of them. Learn to lament because only by mourning or grieving can one know peace. It is only when we try to avoid sorrow that we keep ourselves from wholeness. Those wounds you suffer are also ways to reach out to those who are suffering and to help them heal. This requires the strength of humility and vulnerability with others. That is not an easy choice but it is the right one, even if you get hurt by them in the process.

What is the trait I want most for both of you?

Kindness.

I want you to become kind men. There need to be more of them.

Don't try to be tough. Masculinity is not found there. It's found in tenderness, in not being afraid to cry, or to express one's thoughts and feelings. You do not have to prove yourselves, you just need to truly be yourselves. Be the caring, thoughtful and generous people I know that you both really are.

Let your love be unconditional, your imagination be infinite, your passion be filled with compassion.

Be present. Only when you are awake and aware can you see the miracles of life that are all around you. Never neglect the small and insignificant because, when one draws closer to them, one may just as well discover the Infinite.

Know that I am always proud of you both. Not because of what you achieve, but because of who you both are. My approval is never based on awards or accolades, but on the simple fact that you are my sons and I love you.  This means I love you for exactly who you are and not on what grades you get, awards you're given, or material success you have in life. My love will not rise and fall with the tides of accomplishments. Love does not withdraw when you fail and then return when you have achievements because my love is not an elevator that goes up and down with how you perform. That's not love.

Seek contentment and joy, which are not found in circumstances but in the rootedness of who you are and Whose you are.

Love music, not noise.

Be a creator, not a consumer.

Encourage others. Build them up instead of tearing them down, as we have too many people in this world who do the opposite. While it's easy to find fault, its more Christ-like to find beauty and goodness, especially in the frailties of others.

May your hearts know love. Your arms, embrace. Your mind, dreams.

Let your lives be filled with the little, simple joys of life because they alone are the ones that make for a truly rich life. One of those, I pray you find, is hearing yourself called, "Papa."

I love you both. I love you dearly.



Sunday, June 11, 2017

Being In The Beatitudes: Modeling Meekness


As a Papa to two sons, as I approach the verse 5:5, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," I began to ponder: How does one best model meekness for them? It's certainly not something we see in our culture very often. More often, boys look up to athletes who arrogantly brag and boast. We certainly cannot imagine them in terms of "meekness." In fact, I would dare to say that if men and boys were polled they would defined meekness as weakness. They would see meekness as timid, fragile, and wimpy. Is that what Christ is referring to when he said the meek would inherit the earth? Is he referencing those who are spineless, frail and are push-overs?

Was Jesus really saying, "Blessed are the weaklings and cowards, for they shall inherit the earth"?

The Hebrew word for meek is anav and means: poor, afflicted, humble.
The Greek word is praus and means: mild, gentle

Most of us would hear words like "poor and afflicted" with disdain and are definitely not quick to embrace them. How many of us want to model that for our kids?

Meekness is not a lack of confidence. It is not being a doormat. It is not being indecisive.


In my own life, I grew up with a strong example of meekness in my grandfather, who I called "Papa Fred." He was a quiet and humble man, who was strong of character. At his funeral, everyone spoke of him being a "true gentleman" and it that he never said an unkind word about anyone. I cannot recall a single time he ever raised his voice and yet I saw him as strong, as someone to emulate and want to be like. When I first read the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, I could not help but see the character of Atticus Finch in terms of my grandfather. There was that quiet strength that both men have. They do not brag or complain, but live their lives in a manner that reflects their dignity and the dignity of others. They do not see the need to put others down to make themselves look better. Atticus tells his son Jem, "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what." My grandfather, like Atticus, understood that one made the choice to do the right thing, even when it wasn't the easy thing to do, and that the majority is not one's conscience and should never be. He was the one who taught me that a closed mind showed open ignorance. His strength was a deep, inner strength.  He may not have been what the world deems successful, but to me, he was what I wanted most to become. I saw how a man who was far from wealthy, still did what he could to help others, including taking in family members in need to live in the small, two-bedroom house he and my grandmother lived in. 


One of the strongest examples in our modern culture of meekness is Fred Rogers. Like my grandfather, Mister Rogers was a mild, quiet man who treated others with dignity and respect. As a child, I loved watching his television show on PBS. His voice and demeanor was always calm and gentle. He spoke directly to the camera, to us, and made us feel we mattered, that we were important, and that we really was his neighbor. I saw in him a living example of someone who took Christ's words that all were our neighbors literally. He brought viewers into his community. "Mutual caring relationships," he once said, "requires kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other's achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain." When I read those words, I thought, "He just encapsulated the Beatitudes." And everyone who knew Fred Rogers would vouch that the man lived his life just as he presented on television. There was no on-screen Fred Rogers and a different one off-camera. Even when he accepted his lifetime achievement award, he used the opportunity to make those in the audience feel good about themselves, he made this award not about himself, but about others and kindness. "We live in a world," he said, "in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say, 'It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.' Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes."

Fred Rogers was not a weak, indecisive man. No, he was a true leader who led by example, by compassion, by seeing the worth of each and every person. I think of men like him when I read Matthew 5:5, especially in how Eugene H. Peterson translated this verse as, "You're blessed when you're content with just who you are - no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought."

Meekness is drawing one's strength not from bullying others or bragging about one's own accomplishments or from what one has attained and owns. It's not boastful or flexing one's muscles. The strength one has in meekness is realizing that one does not need to do any of those things to be noticed because they aren't seeking to be noticed. They are simply living their lives in a manner that exhorts and encourages, lifts up instead of tearing down, reaches out in mercy and compassion instead of always trying to angle for what they can get out of a situation or relationship. They realize that the best way to approach interactions with others is not as transactional but as transformational.

This is why I try to model meekness for my sons. I want them to grow up and become the kind of men who aren't cocky and arrogant, who don't need to put others down but to treat everyone with dignity and respect. I attempt to live my life in a way that is not pushy, self-serving and filled with self-assertion. I don't want them to believe in the survival of the fittest, that the strong should devour the weak, but, instead, that the they should identify themselves with the weak and to work for the equality and justice of all who are oppressed or discriminated against.

I teach my sons that no matter how smart they are, there is always someone who is smarter (and to learn from them) and those who are not (and to help teach them). Whatever talents they have, they are to be used, not to make a name for oneself, but to humbly use whatever gifts they have to establish community and the best in others.

Meekness is stepping outside of self to serving. When I look up meekness, the first image that appears is of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. Meekness is setting aside one's pride to humble oneself to serve. It is not thinking too highly or too lowly of oneself, because one isn't thinking of oneself. One is focused on others.

Men like my Papa Fred and Fred Rogers lived this out in their daily lives. When others saw their humility, they did not mock or deride their characters, but spoke highly and admired them for their peaceful natures, their givingness, their tender-hearted and kind natures. These were not men who were seen as weak but as self-less helpers. They both treated all as their neighbors.

Fred Rogers said, "When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed."

I strive to model meekness because the world needs more people who understand the strength that comes with humility and integrity, mercy and compassion, kindness and generosity. If we view meekness that way, why wouldn't we want the meek to inherit the earth? It would be a better world for it.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Well Of Wonder



Ever since I first read the Narnia and Middle Earth series by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R, Tolkien, I have been fascinated by the lives and faith of both men. Over the years I have continued to read more of not only their own writing, but books on both Lewis and Tolkien, as well as their group The Inklings. Needless to say, I am excited every time a new book comes out in the hopes of learning more. The latest offering is Clyde S. Kilby's A Well of Wonder: Essays on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings. Like most books on the subject, it's heavier on Lewis and Tolkien. Kilby, who was a professor at Wheaton, founded Marion E. Wade Center, which became the center for studying the Inklings, Dorothy L. Sayers, and their influences (including George MacDonald).

The book begins with a wonderful poem by Luci Shaw that's a tribute to her late professor, Clyde S. Kilby that not only encapsulates the man she knew, but those about which this book is written, and the world of imagination and faith they all brought to the world. She writes how he "swung open for all of us the wardrobe door" and caused us to ""re-explore" the worlds these men created (Middle Earth, Narnia, Utter East, Prelandra) and ends the poem with:

There in that room
we smell the past, untainted by decay or death
but fragrant, for in there
the mallorns bloom
and all the blessed air
is warm with Aslan's breath.

It's library as eternity. The wonder is Eternal Wonder. Shaw encapsulates what all of these men were doing in their own work: imagination and mythology pointing heavenward. 

Kilby's A Well of Wonder is a collection of essays, discussions, talks and interviews that are broken up into three sections:

1. C.S. Lewis
2. J.R.R. Tolkien
3. The Inklings

Each of the sections have small portraits of the men they are covering, but most of the essays focus on topics of theology, mythology and the shape all of these men have had on imagination. While Kilby only met Lewis once, he did strike up a friendship with Tolkien whereby the two men began writing to each other. Kilby would return to Oxford to help his friend with the publication of The Silmarillion.

One of my favorite essays in this collection is the one on Dorothy L. Sayers, best known for her mystery novels (with her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey), but who, like Lewis and Tolkien, knew a great deal about classical and modern languages. Like Lewis, Sayers was also a Christian apologist, with her best known book being The Mind of the Maker.

Throughout the book, Clyde S. Kilby takes up the subject that Lewis, Tolkien and the Inklings held: that at the heart of all myth is symbol and truth and that all mythology is meant to point one to the reality of the Truth that is found in Christianity (the True Myth). It was the argument that Tolkien used to convert Lewis to the faith.

Like the authors he is writing about, Kilby brings a sense of wonder about his subject, which is not really the men he's writing about, but about the Source that inspired all of their writings. For those who might be intimidated by reading a collection of essays by a noted scholar, Kilgy's writing style is more conversational and easily approachable to anyone interested in the subject.



Sunday, June 4, 2017

Begin In Wonder


Recently I've begun a new blog that asks the question, "How can we lead a more meaningful life?" It is an exploration of curiosity, asking questions and finding new perspectives through literature, poetry, the arts, nature, science and philosophy. It's a place to undertake wondering and wandering in this glorious world around us. It's meant as an encouragement and a place of nourishment. It's about finding new ways to learn how to pay attention and be present. It's about making the connections between creativity and creation, thought and awareness, science and spirit. If this is something that interests you, here is the link for you to check my new blog out:

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Glory To God In The Smallest


How much of the world have I missed until I kneel, as if in prayer? 

Pulling weeds in my garden, I moved one of the stones around the edges and discovered a small snail. For some reason that day, I stopped and watched as it very slowly, slowly made its way along the stone. 

"You're moving at a snail's pace." is a complaint we have for someone who's being poky or lazy, though I have often heard it whenever I get caught up in my Walter Mitty moments. Snails travel at only one meter per hour. For some reason, watching this tiny garden snail, made me think of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's statement, "Above all, trust in the slow work of God." How contrary that is to our own human nature. We are so caught up in our frenetic pace and everything must be quick as if to slow down means to die. Yet, as I knelt there observing the snail, I imagined Christ saying, "Consider the snails . . ."  The peaceful pace of its slowness caused me, that day, to pause in my own as I watched it make its trail of broken, slimy, white mucus on the rock as it moved along in its deliberate progress. What would the world be like if we all moved at such a slower pace? If we move determined, but not rushing mindlessly. Instead, as Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, "Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience."

I came to nature not through a scientist or naturalist (though I would later love the works of Thoreau, Muir, Eiseley and Dillard) but through a poet, Emily Dickinson. She wrote of the miraculous minutiae of a fly or a bee. Her poetry first introduced me to the spiritual concepts of paying attention, being aware, and being present. My guess is, if I had not discovered her poems, I would probably not have stopped to watch this snail, observing its otherwise unobserved existence. How many of us do? Most of us never notice a snail until its eating the leaves of one of our plants. 

I had become so caught up in watching this snail that I had not even noticed that the clear blue sky had become first and ashy gray and then a darker one. It was only when it began to rain that my attention was broken from my studying this small snail. As the rain came down heavier, I dashed inside the house, where my older son asked, "What were you doing out there for so long?"

"Watching a snail," I replied and waited for him to respond with, "Why?" 

But he didn't. 

He must be used to my peculiarities (such as my habit of watching clouds or my fascination with rocks or leaves or shadows).  Ever since I was a child, I could be caught up in curious absorption of the world around me. It came from my finding solace in two things: books and exploring the woods behind our house (both of which were solitary activities for me).  My pockets were filled with my finds: small animal skulls, smooth stones, owl pellets. Or I'd bring home an abandoned wasp nest, bird's nest, or turtle shell. These would join my collection of sea shells, a stingray's shell, arrow heads, and petrified wood. Out in the woods, I would watch birds, rabbits, a fox, frogs, turtles, and it was where I experienced God long before I experienced my Creator in any church. In Gravity and Grace, the French philosopher Simone Weil wrote, "As Creator, God is present in everything which exists as soon as it exists."

"The heavens declared the glory of God," the Psalmist wrote, "and the skies proclaim his handiwork." How easy it is to gaze up at the stars or an ocean or a mountain range or even a bird in flight and be filled with a sense of awe and wonder, but what about the minuscule?  Do I find traces of God in the insignificant and small?  As I watched this snail, I thought about how gastropods existed 500 million years ago compared to humans, which are only around 6 million years ago. Unlike ourselves, snails were a part of the Cambrian explosion of life forms. How many immeasurable events over the course of history have they survived? According to the Carnegie Museum of Natural Sciences, they have thrived so much that there are over 800,000 known species of gastropods. 

The latest discovery, according to an article in the journal ZooKeys, is the Acmella nana (nanus being Latin for dwarf) and is the smallest known snail in the world at only 0.5 to 0.6 millimeters across and can only be seen under a microscope. To give you a perspective on its smallness, ten of them can fit into the eye of a needle. And it's only one of 48 new snail species discovered in Borneo according to the Naturalists Biodiversity Center. In Borneo alone there are 500 native snails, that's as many as all of North America. The limestone caves they inhabit are 16 to 20 million years old with voluminous, intricate chambers where it can take a century for the limestone to form just half an inch. The snails have evolved smaller and smaller so that they can utilize microscale environments their competitors cannot access as they feed on the microbial films that grow on the rock. If these caves were to be destroyed, 500 snail species would be completely wiped out. To quote Simone Weil once more, "The vulnerability of precious things is beautiful because vulnerability is a mark of existence." 

 Imagine the child-like delight God must have taken in creating these snails so small that they would not be discovered until a few years ago. How many more are unknown to us even today? And how much do we have to still to know about the ones we have discovered both on land and in sea? Certainly, thousands of new species of animals and plants are found each year. In 2012 alone, there were 20,000 new species discovered from insects, to plants, to microbes, to fungi, to mammals. There is so much that remains unknown on this planet alone that it makes me agree with the English essayist Leigh Hunt, "If we can conceive of no end of space, why should we conceive an end of new creations, whatever our poor little bounds of historical time might even appear to argue the contrary." It' overwhelming and to know that God did not have to create such diversity and with such complexity. How can one not be so overwhelmed that one doesn't fall to one’s knees in adoration and worship?

The human brain alone is astounding being composed of 100 billion neurons. Compare that to the humble snail, which has only two. Despite that, scientists at the University of Sussex are studying the brains of snails to better understand how the mind works in terms of explaining how complex behavioral decisions are made. They did this by watching how freshwater snails searched for lettuce. Using electrodes to record small electrical charges, called action potentials, in individual neurons they "discovered a controller type neuron which lets the snail's brain know potential food is present and a second neuron which transmits signals telling the snail's brain what its motivational state is, i.e., whether it's hungry or not," according to Professor George Kemenes, one of those working on the project. "Our study," he told Lynsey Ford, "reveals for the first time how just two neurons can create a mechanism in an animal's brain which drives and optimizes complex decision making tasks. It also shows how this system helps to manage how much energy they use once they make a decision."

As soon as my shadow falls across the rock, the snail quickly pops into its shell. This is because they have light sense cells that warn them. I pick up the shell to study it more closely. 

It's amazing to think of how long gastropods have been around. How much of their survival is due to that heavy wheel of its shell? Each one's unique. The snail I watched had an acorn-colored shell with spiral shape. Made of calcium carbonate the shells are secreted from the part of the body known as the mantle. Its structure and mechanical properties are being studied by biologists and engineers to improve everything from airplane hulls to sports equipment to orthopedic applications. 

The more I watch this snail, the more I, like the Psalmist, want to cry out, "O Lord, how manifold your works: in wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures" (104:24).  Or at least break into the hymn "This Is My Father's World." Being attuned to such a small creature made me understand how the excavation of the eternal can begin in the external earth. God can be found in His creations. As Colossians 1:16-17 reminds me, "For by him all things were created, in heaven and earth, visible and invisible . . . all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together." In a sense, seeing this snail gave me a glimpse of the numinous, a glimpse behind the veil of the invisible by the visible before me in the world. 

It also made me aware of how, when we are aware, we are connected to each other. Charles Darwin wrote that we "may all be netted together in one gigantic mode of experience." How can one not be filled with awe, wonder, amazement and worship when we realize that science and faith need not be at odds, that both are meant to point us past our concrete certainties to something grander, greater than ourselves: The Divine Mystery that has formed and shaped and created all things. And isn't it amazing to be reminded of this by something as seemingly small and insignificant as a snail? So, next time you're in your garden, pause for a moment and, "Consider the snails."


Citations:

Ford, Lynsey. "Snails Reveal How Two Brain Cells Can Hold the Key to Decision Making."The University of Sussex. N.p., 09 Aug. 2016. Web. 21 Apr. 2017. <http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/35787>.

Geggel, Laura. Micro Mollusk Breaks Record for World's Tiniest Snail. LiveScience, 2 Nov. 2015. Web. <http://www.livescience.com/52664-borneo-smallest-snail.html>.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God: A Must-Read Review


I first encountered Jonathan Edward's sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" while taking an American Literature class in undergraduate school. It was a horrifying piece of writing that, according to accounts, had his congregation weeping and wailing and repenting to escape the terrors of hell fire and damnation. It also presented an angry, vengeful God who held sinners over the flames like a boy might an insect over a small fire.

Though it wasn't until college that I encountered Edward's sermon, I had come across this portrait of God when I was a young impressionable boy. It wasn't in the preaching or teaching of the Presbyterian church we first attended, but in something called a "Chick Tract" by a cartoonist named Jack Chick. I loved to draw cartoons and illustrations. I read comic books and newspaper cartoons voraciously. When my mother took me to a Christian bookstore in what used to be an old church, I noticed a rack of small comic books over by a staircase leading downstairs. It was roped off so customers couldn't go down there and the lights were off, so it was creepy to a young boy with an overactive imagination. This fear was worsened when I began to read this small comic books with titles like "This Was Your Life," "The Choice," "Are Roman Catholics Christians?" and  "The Beast." This were horrific comics that ended with a faceless God tossing people (sinners) into the fiery lake of hell. Why I kept reading them, I don't know but those comics deeply shook me, so much so, that when I put the last one back on the rack, I gazed down into the darkness of that lower level and fully expected to see hell.

But those tracts did great damage by making me wonder: Was this really how God was?

"Chick Tracts" along with some of the non denominational churches we would later attend, would further this angry God and how one could easily make the wrong choice and, should one suddenly die, and end up in eternal damnation.

I wasn't the only one to encounter this theology. In his latest book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Brian Zahnd writes of his own experience with Jonathan Edward's sermon and Jack Chick's tracts. This book asks: Does God's wrath or God's love define Christianity?

It's a question I have been wrestling with for years. I believe that how we view God will impact not only our faith, but how we see others as well. If we view God as angry, vengeful, bloodthirsty and desiring retribution, then my attitude towards God is based out of fear and a desire to escape punishment. It also affects how I look at and treat other people, especially those who I consider nonbelievers or sinners. But if my perspective of God is one that is shaped by love, and not fear, then I will view all through the lens of His grace, mercy, compassion and, ultimately, through Christ.

All of scriptures must be read through the lens of Christ. If it matches with Jesus, then it reflects God, but if it doesn't, then it is not a reflection of our Creator but the creation. We see a lot of that throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, where Israel projects onto God their fears, their hatreds, and their tribalism. So much of the God they present reflects both themselves and the pagan gods they saw in cultures around them.

On reflecting on the cross, Zahnd writes:

"God did not kill Jesus; we did. What God did was to raise Jesus from the dead and in Christ give us a new way of organizing the world. Instead of being organized around blame and ritual killing, the world is to now be organized around forgiveness and co-suffering love. The cross is not the place where God vents his wrath on Jesus. The cross is the place where human fear and anger are absorbed into God's eternal love and recycled in the saving mercy of Christ . . . The cross of Christ is the end of sacrifice. It's not the appeasement of a vengeful deity but the supreme demonstration of God's everlasting love."

Throughout this book, Brian Zahnd confronts the theology of God as loving and not one of vengeance, by using scripture and other theologians (from the early Church Fathers to Saint Augustine to C.S. Lewis). He covers everything from "The Crucified God" to hell (Hell is the love of God refused), heaven and the book of Revelation.

Which is the gospel?

A wrathful or a loving God?

Which would be good news if you were to hear it for the first time?

That is exactly what Brian Zahnd presents as he writes of his own story and how he came to embrace the reality that: I am a forgiven sinner now being healed in the hands of a loving God.

This book by Waterbrook has not yet been released, but will be on August 15, 2017.


Brian Zahnd's official website and blog:
https://brianzahnd.com

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Being In The Beatitudes: Beginning Blessed Are The Meek



"Blessed are the meek," Jesus begins the third of the Beatitudes and, I must admit, whenever I hear that, my mind immediately goes to one of my favorite films, Dead Poets Society, and the character of Steven Meeks. He's one who walks the line between being a rebel and a good student. While he and Pitts, who also has an unfortunate name, covertly build a radio together to listen to rock n' roll music, he tends to not stray too far into disobeying the rules, like Charlie Dalton and Neil Perry. But is he a good example of meekness, at least in terms of what Christ is referring to in this beatitude?

All of the beatitudes are a portrait of the character of Christ. Each one is like a piece of the puzzle that, when looked at all together, form the whole of his identity and how our identities are to be shaped by following him. So when we filter meekness we must do so through Christ and not how the term "meek" is considered in our culture. If asked, most would admit that the first word that comes to mind when they hear the word "meekness" is "weakness."

In Hebrew the word for meek is anau and means "humble." In Greek the word is praus and means "mild, gentle."

When Christ said, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," he must have been alluding to and it would have been connected to in the minds of his Jewish listeners with Psalm 37:11, "But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity." I wonder how many who heard this thought, as many do today, "Is he kidding?" We live in a world that promotes the Darwinian survival of the fittest. Be assertive. Be aggressive. Be in control. Be the boss. Like Sinatra singing "New York, New York":

I wanna wake up in a city that doesn't sleep
And find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap.

It's all about getting ahead. We prize domination. To the victor goes the spoils. As Julius Caesar once said, "If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it." Our own current President bragged, "My whole life is about winning. I don't lose often. I almost never lose." 

Live large. Be in charge.

There are no bumper-stickers promoting meekness. No Nike ads using meekness in their slogans. And yet Christ is telling all those who were listening that meekness is real power, for they alone shall inherit the earth. Humorist James Thurber once quipped. "Let the meek inherit the earth - they have it coming to them."

Of course, Christ also said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Not exactly what one would hear from the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a politician running for President, or an football player before the Super Bowl. Yet Jesus is unconcerned with the way the world operates because he is focused solely on how the kingdom of God operates and how that should be the way it is on earth as well. 

When Jesus announced that it was the meek who would inherit the earth, one wonders what the reaction of the Roman soldiers standing at the edges would have been. Snickering? Scoffing? Sarcastic laughs or looks at each other? They knew that Rome was ruling the earth and it wasn't because of any kind of meekness. They understood it was due to war, taking charge through violence and aggression. The meek were those trod underfoot. The meek were the ones who were victimized and suffered injustice at the hands of the rich and powerful. How many in our own government, if Christ was addressing Congress would also mock and ridicule him? How many in the Pentagon would dismiss Jesus as a peace-loving hippie? A kook? Dismiss him as a simple-minded dreamer? 

Even when Constantine declared Christianity to be the national religion, he did no convert because he knew he could not run an empire and live by the Beatitudes. In fact, he did not become a true believer until his deathbed when it would no longer cost him his political power. 

The Beatitudes aren't practical. They aren't the way to get things done. They aren't the way to rule and reign - at least not for long. Not in this world. That's why so few even attempt to.  Even among those who claim to be Christians. That's why we express such admiration for Saint Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa but we don't actually want to be them; after all, they never make the Forbes 100 or People's Most Beautiful list. We prefer our comforts and our way of life. I'm certainly no exception. As someone who grew up bullied for being quiet, shy and an introvert, I definitely don't want to be labeled "meek." We see being called "meek" as a stigmatization, as a humiliation. It is an insult. Meekness is mocked and reviled.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher whose philosophy has influence much of modern thought, wrote in works like Beyond Good and Evil that Christ teaching such things as "meekness" only acted to weaken a people or culture. His view was that meekness stifled great individual potential and held back Western culture. Nietzsche rejected meekness as a parasitic revolt by the lowly against the lofty and powerful. Ayn Rand would continue this assault on the idea of meekness and she even rewrote the Sermon on the Mount to reflect her own philosophy. She changed this Beatitude to say, "Blessed are the bankers' trust-funded sons and daughters, for they shall inherit the Earth." Ayn Rand is cited as someone who deeply influenced Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.

On the flip-side, Mahatma Gandhi embraced the Sermon on the Mount. Every day, for forty years, he studied and lived them out. For him, he saw meekness as strength by choosing nonviolence over violence, compassion over aggression, and peace over war. The only picture that he had on the wall of his ashram was one of Christ with the words "He is our peace." He wrote how reading the Sermon on the Mount for the first time "went straight to his heart." It was by living out the Beatitudes through peaceful nonviolence that Gandhi would go on to influence Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Meekness as seen in Christ, Gandhi, Dr. King, Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day is not weakness at all. They had a deep inner strength that reacted to violence and hatred and fear with peace, love and compassion. Their outer lives revealed the depth of their inner lives. They grasped that to be meek was to walk in peace, abide in mercy, live in kindness. But the structures of power are not built on such a system as put forth by Christ. It's all about force and sustaining the status quo (much of which is rooted in injustice and inequality).

Christ calls us to learn from him because he is "gentle and humble at heart." This goes against human nature. We tend to hold tightly to our pride and balk at the mere idea of meekness, gentleness and humility because those will only get us taken advantage of. That's why there are Christians who dismiss the Beatitudes as not meant to be taken literally. Why? Because they fear everything they have will be taken away from them. We understand that meekness means that we can no longer put ourselves and our own wants first. This call of Christ to meekness requires of us to let go of the spotlight and grasping after platforms and self-promotion. It means we are not the center of attention, the focus or the most important. Meekness does not seek to sit in the seat of importance, as Jesus warned in the Parable of the Guests. His warning: pride will bring you low, but humility beings you true honor in the eyes of God.

Mother Teresa wrote, "The only thing Jesus has asked us to be is meek and humble of heart, and to do this, he has taught us to pray. He has put 'meek' first. From that one word comes gentleness, thoughtfulness, simplicity, generosity, truthfulness. For whom? For one another. Jesus put 'humility' after meekness. We cannot love one another unless we hear the voice of God in our hearts."

Meekness is contentedness. It is acceptance of what God gives us and not wrestling for more or the pie. It is not a clamoring to get to the top of the ladder. It is not Frank Sinatra belting out, "I did it my way!" Christ is calling us to the opposite. Not our way, but the way that calls us to die to self, to deny self, to pick up our cross and follow him. In The Message, Eugene Peterson translated Matthew 5:5 as, "You're blessed when you're content with just who you are - no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought." This is truly counter-cultural and revolutionary. It is a break from all that our world holds important and dear. It is going against the grain of  our wants to, instead, unite our will with the will of God. It is a redefining of success to wanting what's best for all of humanity. It is realizing that if even one is suffering, we are called to go them and relieve that suffering. As Nelson Mandela once said, "As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest."

Meekness is identifying ourselves with the least of these, no matter who we are. It's realizing that if we build a wall, Jesus will always be on the side of the wall of those in the most need. Christ identifies himself with the marginalized, the victimized, the persecuted, the oppressed, the poor, the broken, the hurting, and the forgotten. He is with those at Standing Rock, not with the ones who want to take the land for profit and gain. He is with those who are trapped in human trafficking, not those who are making their billions off the backs of the impoverished (in industries like chocolate, coffee, technology and pornography). He is with those who suffer atrocities, not the mighty powers who are committing them in the name of self-interest. If Christ aligns himself with those who suffer injustice and oppression, how can we, as his followers, not do the same? To do so requires the true strength of meekness.

Are we willing to no longer be neutral or indifferent and become meek? Only meekness will be able to tear down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. Only meekness is revolutionary enough to be able to end poverty, famine, war, injustice and the evils of inequality of any kind. Is it any wonder then that the meek shall inherit the earth?



Saturday, May 20, 2017

Jesus Journey: A Must-Read Review


How often do we meditate on or even think about the humanity of Jesus? I think the reason why is churches focus so much on his divinity and are extremely uncomfortable confronting the humanity of Jesus. We preach the Christ not the man.In his book Jesus Journey: Shattering the Glass Superhero and Discovering the Humanity of God, Trent Sheppard does just that: examines the humanity of Jesus. And he does so in such a way that it makes the reader long to go back into their Bibles and see Jesus with new eyes and a fresh perspective.

So often we come to the scriptures with our preconceived ideas of God and Jesus, or our perceptions are shaped by Sunday school stories (many never move past those), and so we never delve deeper into what did it really mean for Jesus to be fully God and fully man. But what exactly does that mean? Do we wrestle with this mystery of incarnation fully? Do we honestly stop to think about how Jesus was, indeed, flesh and blood? That the Word really and truly became flesh? That he was born an infant just as we all were, that he was breastfed and had to have his diapers changed as we all do. As he grew, did he struggle to fit in? If he had a hard time, is that where much of his connection to the outsiders and the fringe of society came from?

Do we think of Jesus experiencing pain, loneliness, joy, hunger, exhaustion, and the gamut of emotions and experiences that make someone human? Or do we prefer the Jesus from the felt board of our Sunday school classes?  Do we simply make him a kind of spiritual superhero?

Do we stop to think about his disciples and how young they really were (all between the ages of 15 and 25)? Certainly stopping to consider that makes me more compassionate towards their foibles and flaws; after all, when I consider what I was like in my own youth, what kind of bumbling and misguided disciple would I have been? What must it have been like for these young men, all good monotheistic Jews, to even begin to consider this man, their Rabbi, as God? Sheppard even makes the connection that Peter, stepping out of the boat to come to Jesus on the water, possibly did so, not because he understood that Jesus was divine, but because the man Jesus was walking on the water before him.

What Trent Sheppard does well in this book is to make us see the humanity of Jesus. By using the four gospels, the author takes a closer examination of Jesus' relationship to his parents Mary and Joseph and to his heavenly Abba, to his fellowship with his disciples, as well as his final days on earth. The book is an invitation to the reader to explore the life of Jesus as a Jew from Nazareth who is the son of God. In writing of Jesus' humanity, Sheppard does not, like Thomas Jefferson focus on the humanness and deny the divinity (as Jefferson created his own New Testament with only Christ's teachings and he cut out any mention of the miracles or the resurrection). This book restores the humanity and embraces the divinity. And Sheppard offers beautiful insight into both.

Jesus Journey is meant to be read as a 40 day devotional and each section ends with a call for the reader to Ponder, Pray, and Practice what they have just reflected on.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn: A Short Meditation On Race

"Alan Friend, Vicksburg, Miss" by Baldwin Lee

As I waited in the school car line to pick up my younger son, I watched as a young African-American mother went to pick up her daughter from the daycare across the street. She was holding her toddler son. I watched them enter the day care and thought about how precious that baby boy was as he rested his head against her shoulder. Then, I felt a sense of mourning for that boy's life. Why?

How many whites view his young life as a miracle now but will their attitude and perception of him change as he grows older?

How will they see him when he's a teenager?

Or a young man?

Will they go from seeing him as precious to someone who's threatening? Someone to be scared of?

How will he view himself as he grows older?

Children all have such promise for their futures, but at what age will those dreams die or get lost? 

Will he be one of those who get suspended? African-American males are 2 1/2 times more likely to be. How will he think of himself if he struggles academically? If he's one of the many 12th graders who can only read at an 8th grade level? How will his view of himself change if he even finishes school?  Will he be one of the 40% of African-American males who do drop out? 

How will he see himself when he gets older, goes into a store and finds himself watched more closely than his white peers? 

And what about how he views the police? Sadly, if he's pulled over by a cop, his experience could far different than if one of my sons were. 

How will he see himself when he sees young men like Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice or Alton Sterling or Freddie Gray killed by the police? How will he not see that his life is worth less? How will he not see the violent injustice that racism plays in this country? 

As I thought about the future of this toddler, I mourned the narrative of race in our country. Of how this little boy will be far more aware of his skin color than my sons ever have to be. How often will he be judged not by his identity but simply by the pigment of his skin?

Will he be the one out of five that will suffer depression? Or, even more tragic, one of those who take their own lives? Suicide among African-American males have doubled in the last two decades. Suicide is the third leading cause of death (after heart disease and homicide). 

Sitting there in my car, I prayed for that little boy. I prayed for his life and his future. I prayed that he would grow in stature and wisdom and success. 

I prayed for change in this country and for that change to begin with me, as we can only pray. 

And I mourned.

After all, how does this child go from being seen as a miracle to having to protest that his very life matters?


Two great books to read on the subject matter that I highly recommend are:


The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin



Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Meditating On Matthew 5:4


When I undertook this extended time of studying, meditating on, and attempting to live out the Beatitudes, what I am discovering is that it allows me to spend more time on a single verse of scripture instead of merely trying to rush through a book. Instead, by focusing on each verse for however long the Spirit leads me to, I begin to delve more deeply into what exactly that verse means in terms of text and context, as well as application and asking myself how I can best live out what Christ taught through the Sermon on the Mount. 

Often when I read scriptures it is not seeking answers so much as listening for questions. Those questions that stir up in me are the ones that drive me deeper, to investigate further and to probe what a particular passage or verse means. Certainly this is turning out to be the case for Matthew 5:4, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." In the past, like many, I used to pass over verses like this one that deal with a subject I often like to forget and not spend a lot of time pondering: mourning. I can relate to Emily Dickinson's writing:

The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering . . .

What's she's getting at here, is our desire to avoid pain, suffering, and sorrow.  We attempt to either avoid them or to "deaden the pain" in whatever form we can (be it alcohol, drugs, shopping, entertainment, etcetera). Certainly it caused me to reflect on how, after 9/11, President George W. Bush asked the country, not to mourn, but to go shopping in response to the attacks. How very American and very contrary this is to what Christ has called us to. He does not say, "Blessed are those who shop, for they shall be comforted." No, comforted is not the same as comfortable. Christ also understood that, when we don't properly mourn, we don't properly heal. 

The word for mourn in Hebrew is abal and means to grieve or lament. But there is another word in Hebrew for mourn. qadar, that also means to darken or become dark. To enter mourning is, in its way, entering darkness. It can be grieving over a death of a person or a personal hope or dream. Christ is not referring to mourning over personal sin in this Beatitude, but a lament over a loss in one's life that causes sorrow and grief.  And when Christ speaks of mourning, he is using the present active participle. This is about someone who is in the process of mourning.

Unlike our current culture, the Jewish culture that Jesus lived in, understood the importance of mourning. For them, mourning could involve:
- rending of clothes
- dressing in sackcloth
- covering oneself in ashes
- shaving one's head and beard

Mourning could last anywhere from 7 to 30 days. There were people who were actually employed to mourn (How would you like that job? And it's not a thing of the past, but continues to be a growing industry in the Western world).  

During the time of mourning, a special meal of condolence was prepared for after the burial ceremony. Mourners remained in the home of the friend or family throughout the seven days. Prayers were offered. The Torah was read. Memorial candles were lit. 

Just think of how much that had to impact those who had lost someone to have their friends and family stop their own lives to be with them to mourn? All of them were showing that, in some way, the world was changed, it was now different for all of them, that they, too, felt the loss. As well as loved those who were in mourning. 

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

Why?

In mourning, we empty ourselves of ourselves in grief  and, it's only when emptied, that God can not only comfort us, but fill us with His Spirit. There is a saying that rightly goes, "He who mourns, mends. Mourning is active and requires time. Mourning is a way of expressing our loss, our despair, our vulnerability, our fear and our disorientation at what has just happened. It is a way of wrestling with and processing what has just happened (whether it be the death of a loved one, loss of a job, the end of a marriage). Mourning is a part of spiritual growth. It is going through what psychologists call the five stages of grief and moving from denial to acceptance. If we do not mourn, we cannot properly and, in a healthy manner, accomplish this. Without mourning, we may find ourselves trapped within our anger and our hurts. Our wounds do not heal but only grow deeper. Our hearts may harden, especially towards God whom we may blame for the loss.  

Yet it's when we allow ourselves to mourn, that we allow others to truly be a part of our lives: not just the happy, joyous occasions, but in the midst of our pain, which most often deepens our friendships with those who are willing to be there and hold our hurt. It also allows us, as followers of Christ, to be Christ-like in going to those who are in desperate need of compassion and comforting. It allows us to hold that hurt and to be present for their grief. We can cry as they cry. We can, often say nothing, but simply be present, to hold their hand and just listen. This means we are not to be Job's companions who offer up their answers, but to be gentle and tender-hearted to someone who's wounded and mourning a loss. To be with the broken while they are broken. This is true intimacy. Yet none of this can happen if we do not mourn and be with those who do.

I truly believe that the comfort God will give us during our mourning most often comes through those who are there for us. Who offer us reminders that we are not alone, that we are thought of and loved, that we are being prayed for and remembered while we are grieving. 

I love how Henri Nouwen writes about this in his book Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

This is what Christ is calling us to in this Beatitude. This is what the Christian life is all about. This is how we can mourn and yet say, "It is well." 




Monday, May 15, 2017

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn: The Spiritual Practice Of Sorrow

"Old Man in Sorrow" by Vincent Van Gogh

The longer I have begun to meditate on "Blessed are those who mourn," the more I began to see more deeply into the spiritual side of sorrow. That it is not only sacred and holy, but spiritually necessary.  As I am studying the Beatitudes more closely and how these challenging verses can change and become a part of my daily life, I have begun reading books about them. One that I'm currently reading is John Dear's The Beatitudes of Peace and, as I'm reflecting on how I can better incorporate "Blessed are those who mourn" as part of my spiritual practice (not an easy one to do, by the way), I read this from Dear's book:

This Beatitude invites us to make grief part of our spiritual
practice. Once a week, or perhaps even daily, we need to
take time to grieve. We make time to sit in silence with God
to grieve the death of thousands of sisters and brothers, mourn
the destruction of millions of creatures and creation itself, and
let the pain of our common loss break our hearts. We become
vulnerable, enter the pain of humanity and creation, and 
embrace it. In doing so, we grieve with God who grieves and
weeps. Only then will our heart be broken and the God of 
peace console us.

Since I already have a daily practice of sitting silently with God, this concept of using part of those times to grieve for others was one I knew I could include into these times. In doing so, I would cultivate compassion as I mourned for the poor and oppressed, for those in war-torn countries, for those who are dying senselessly from malnutrition or preventable diseases. This act of grieving for another is a way to form connection between myself and those I'm mourning for, something I have discovered in my grieving for Syria and its people. 

When I come in silence, I must ask myself, "Does the pain of others break my heart as it does God's?" 

Do I mourn the death of a Syrian mother as much as I did my own?  Do I mourn for the Syrian father who lost his twins in the chemical attack as if they were my own children?

Mourning in this fashion molds me into a more Christ-like follower as I am drawn into compassion for the suffering of others and not focusing on myself. It is heart-breaking to stop and consider that 470,000 of my brothers and sisters have died in Syria and created 6.1 million internationally displaced people. More than 117,000 have either been detained or disappeared. Or mourn the 7,600 people who have died in Yemen since March, 2015. The crisis there is so bad that 70% of the population is in dire need of aid. 

Do we mourn the fact that 6 to 8 million people die annually from not having clean drinking water? From the fact that 315,000 of those are children?

Or that every 10 seconds a child dies from hunger?

We should be mourning because both of these are preventable. 

Do we mourn the fact that 1,500 LGBT youth commit suicide each year? That 30% of gay youth attempt suicide by the age of 15? That they are 6 times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexuals?

Do we mourn the racial injustice in this country? That African-Americans are killed by police 2.5 times more than whites. Unarmed African-American men are more likely by six-to-one to be shot by police over unarmed white men. If Dylann Roof had been an African-American teen who had shot a white church, he wouldn't be in prison, he'd be dead. 

Do we mourn the injustice of our criminal system that favors the rich over the poor? A criminal system that is racially biased? According to the NAACP, from the brief period of 1998 to 2008 the number incarcerated went drastically from 500,000 to 2.3 million people. We only have 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prisoners. Of the 2.3 million, African-Americans constitute over half. If African-Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rate as whites, the prison population would decline by over half. One in six African-American men are incarcerated ,as of 2001. That means that 1 in 3 black males born will be during his lifetime. Should we not mourn this? Should we not mourn that, despite the fact that whites use drugs 5 times more than African-Americans, African-Americans are sent to prison over 10 times more for drug offenses than whites? Should we not morn that the prison system is big business? That over $70 billion dollars a year is spent on corrections?  

Do we mourn the fact that so much of the wealth of this country was built on the backs and bloodshed of Native and African Americans? And for those who would dismiss this as being in the past, look at the effects this has had on the communities of both groups. 

Consider that suicide among Native American youth are double that of of the national rate. Native Americans also have the highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse. This country has taken away their land, their culture, their identities and left them at an economic disadvantage. 28.3% of Native Americans are in poverty. That's the highest rate of any race in the United States. That means one in four Native Americans are in poverty. At Standing Rock, it's 43.2%. As I had begun meditating on "Blessed are those who mourn," one of the first things that came to my mind was the Trail of Tears. How does this verse relate to those whose ancestors were forced to take this tragic march? Has God comforted them? Would they say that God has? Do we mourn over their response because it is we who have failed them? Do we mourn that we proclaimed Christ all the while we were slaughtering them, raping them, taking away all that they had? I mourn in the hopes that, even now, that God will be close to them, close to those who are brokenhearted and crushed in spirit. 

Do we mourn for those who are sexually assaulted? Every 98 seconds someone is. The average in America is 321,500 victims (ages 12 and up) are raped or sexually assaulted each year. Ages 12-34 are the ages most likely to be. Do we mourn for the victims or blame them? Does our justice system? Do we mourn for the fact that 33% of women who were raped consider suicide? Transgender students are more likely to be victims of sexual assault. Do we mourn for them or dismiss this out of homophobia? Do we mourn that 11.2% of students experience rape or sexual assault each year? Worldwide, 1 in every 3 women have been beaten, abused or coerced into sex. 1/3 of American women said they have been physically or sexually abused by their spouse or boyfriend. 1 in 5 high school girls say they have been either physically or sexually abused by someone they were dating. Do we mourn for them or blame them? Do we mourn or do we ask, "What was the girl wearing?" or "What was she drinking?" 

Do we mourn for those caught in human and sexual trafficking? There are 20-30 million people caught in slavery today. That's more than in all of human history. 600,00 to 800,000 people are trafficked across borders each year. 80% are female. Half are children. 80% of those are for sex, Only 19% for labor. 13 million children are caught in human trafficking. Should these numbers not cause us to mourn? Should we not weep and cry out before God? 

Do we mourn that too many in our country care more about gun rights than human rights? That 300,000 people are killed by firearms in the U.S. each year? That 30 people are shot and murdered each day? In terms of gun homicides worldwide, the statistics are glaring:
- Japan has less than 50
- Germany, Italy and France have less than 150
- Canada has less than 200
But the United States has over 10,000
Is that not a reason to mourn? 

How do we react when we see statistics like all of these? 

Dismissively?

Defensively?

Offended?

Overwhelmed?

How would Christ react to them?

Do we mourn because those numbers are more than mere statistics but are human lives that have died needlessly. That each one reveals a part of society, a part of our world, that may or may not be something we're aware of. But, as followers of Christ, we should be. 

Do we mourn because God mourns over each and every one of them?

I am beginning to take time to mourn. To lament in prayer through tears and crying out. Weeping for justice. 

My favorite prophet, Jeremiah, was known as the weeping prophet. He understood the holiness of lament, of weeping, of mourning. He also grasped the spiritual principle that those who mourn will be comforted or, as he wrote about how God "will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow." 

In the Orthodox church they have a wonderful phrase called "bright sadness." This comes from the Greek word charmolyp√™, which means "bitter joy" or "joyful mourning." It's a term, like the Beatitudes themselves, that describes a paradoxical state, in this case a mingling of joy and grief.  The poet Naomi Shihab Nye understood this when she wrote, "Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing." 

Why? 

Because we cannot disconnect one from the other. 

This "bright sadness" allows us to see the suffering of others and to better understand the connectedness we have to them, that we are, all of us, deeply interconnected. It means the suffering of another becomes our suffering.  "Blessed are those who mourn" means we bear witness to the suffering of others and reach out in mercy (Blessed are the merciful). To mourn for their suffering is to bear their burdens. We hold their sadness within our the context of God's brightness.  That from the darkness comes the light. That Good Friday leads to Easter. Death to resurrection. Mourning to joy.

By undergoing the spiritual practice of mourning for other's suffering, we no longer try to keep sorrow from ourselves, but welcome it as a way to draw closer to both God and those we are mourning for. 

If we do so, how can we not be transformed? 

How would it not transform how we see and interact with others?

As I was grocery shopping last week, there was an older woman in front of me in the line. She was very irritable and nothing was making her happy. This woman was angry that they were out-of-stock on an item that was on sale. While this lady fussed and complained, the young woman behind the register was patient and kind as she listened to this woman's tirade. She was apologetic and generously gentle with someone who did not deserve this response. The clerk was being more than polite because it was her job, but somehow she managed to get this older woman to open up and she revealed to the clerk, "I'm sorry. I know I'm being difficult. I always am this time of year. You see, this is the anniversary of my daughter's death. It's always very, very hard for me." The young woman behind the register then revealed, "I've lost a child, too." I watched as these two women shared not only their pain, but tears. They ended up hugging by the end of the transaction. But what amazed me was how the clerk could have simply just done her job, unconcerned and merely to get this difficult customer out of there, but she took the time and from that came healing. It was beautiful and I had to wipe tears from my own eyes. That was how we, as the body of Christ, should be to all we come across daily. 

When we open our hearts to the grief and sorrows of another, we become more tender-hearted (just as that grocery clerk was). When we mourn, we move from ego to empathy. 

Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is "a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance." Too many Churches only want the laughing and the dancing, but they are missing out on the even deeper spiritual experience of mourning because only by mourning will we be comforted by the God who mourns with us. When we mourn for others, we find ourselves becoming both more deeply involved in life and yet less attached to it, as we become more attached to the things of God (especially since we are focusing on others and not ourselves). 

One of my favorite English novelists, George Eliot, once wrote, "Deep unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism, a regeneration, the initiation into a new state." I believe this is true. When we enter the "deep unspeakable suffering" of others we find ourselves transformed into more Christ-like people who are more compassionate, more loving, more kind, more concerned about others than ourselves. Think of how that would change the world if we began to live like that?

To mourn is to let go of arrogance, ego, and pride. To mourn is to no longer claiming responsibility, It is identifying ourselves before God with those who are suffering. When we mourn for others, we no longer see them as "other" or as an abstraction or as statistics. When we mourn for others, we more closely identify ourselves with them. It becomes no longer about assigning blame or criticizing them. It goes from asking, "Why are they suffering?"  to, more importantly, asking, "What can I do to alleviate that suffering?" When we more closely identify ourselves with them, we will then be more open to advocating and working on their behalf, to seek justice for them, to offer them comfort, and we become the compassion of Christ to others. 

Thomas Merton, in his wisdom, understood the importance of mourning. "The truth that many people never understand until it is too late," he said, "is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to you fear of being hurt." Yet when we mourn for the suffering we see in the world around us, the less we fear being hurt because we understand, deep down, that God will not abandon us, but will, in fact, be there with us to comfort us. This is the promise of Matthew 5:4. This is the spiritual reality of the kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. That is why I have begun the spiritual practice of mourning.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

"Does Your Heart Break" by The Brilliance