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."


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. <>.

Geggel, Laura. Micro Mollusk Breaks Record for World's Tiniest Snail. LiveScience, 2 Nov. 2015. Web. <>.

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:

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."


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? 





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 charmolypê, 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." 


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

Friday, May 12, 2017

Being In The Beatitudes: Beginning Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

"Melancholy" by Edvard Munch

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

"It is well with those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

I must admit, meditating on, studying, praying and trying to live out the second of the Beatitudes was not one I was looking forward to starting this week. How many of us truly want to stop and focus on the subject of mourning and what it really means to? We live in a culture that's obsessed with personal happiness (to an unhealthy and destructive degree) and we tend to want to avoid anything to do with mourning and lament. 

When people are grieving a loss, we often expect them to get over it and get on with their lives - or at least to project that they are. We are uncomfortable with grief, with loss, with mourning. And with those who are going through mourning, we struggle to know how to act, what to say or what to do. Many avoid those who are suffering because it's too awkward and uncomfortable.

Christ knew how to laugh and celebrate and have a good time, enjoying a meal and fellowship. But he also deeply understood sorrow and mourning. The prophet Isaiah refers to Christ as "a man of suffering" and "familiar with pain" and "deepest grief." He wept over Lazarus and over Jerusalem. Yet many Christians prefer the joy and want to skip over the suffering, the pain, the sorrow, the mourning and the lamenting. Pass the pain! Mountaintops only, please. We believe it shows weakness and, maybe, even a lack of faith to be caught in loss, loneliness, and sorrow.

Psychologists are even finding that so many in our modern society do not know how to grieve.
More often than not, people today want to ignore or push past their feelings and find mourning to be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. This is unhealthy and can cause further problems later on.

Mourning requires us to be vulnerable. It means we have to admit. "I'm hurting and I don't have it all together right now."  Mourning means we have to take off our masks and reveal how hurt we really are. And we, in the Church, need to be able to hold that hurt. Too often, I have seen those who are suffering a loss, avoided by others who pretend not to see them or barely speak to them before dashing off to talk to someone else. The Church should be the place where our woundedness is welcomed, where our sorrow is a sacrament, where our tears are prayers of lament.

Recently, I was asked. "Why do  you think God has allowed you to go through depression?"

"To give me greater empathy for others who are suffering," I replied. And it's true. All of the struggles have made me more compassionate, made me not turn away from those who are hurting. Our hearts, like Christ's, are meant to be broken open to the suffering of others. As the Church, we are meant to be open to the wounds of the world. It's why I lament what has been going on in places like Syria and Yemen. 

Yet, as I am beginning to approach this verse in Matthew this week, I began to reflect on what I am mourning in my own life. Certainly, as the Papa to an adoptive son, I mourn the childhood he didn't have and the one that he did. I mourn the pain and suffering it has and continues to have on him.

"Blessed are (or "It is well with") those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" reveal to us that God not only sees our suffering but enters into it with us. Nicolas Wolterstorff writes in his book Lament for a Son:

God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers.
The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart.
Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.
It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live.
I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor
and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see
his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.

Psalm 34:18 reminds us of this, "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed."

To be comforted, we must mourn. Only when we mourn are we given the promise that God will, indeed, comfort us. Why? Because mourning is healing. Mourning is releasing the suffering. Tears are our prayers that God treasures so much that He keeps them (Psalm 56:8). Not a single tear is unnoticed or forgotten. Someone who understood this was Elisabeth Eliot.  Her husband was the missionary Jim Eliot, who was speared to death by the very tribe he was ministering to, After his murder, she would go to Quito, Ecuador to minister herself to the very people who killed her husband. From this she wrote these words, "Out of the deepest pain comes the greatest sense of the presence of God and the love of God."

"Blessed are those who mourn" is a promise that God will come close to us in our sorrows, that this is His very nature. The Greek word for comfort paraklethesontai comes from the root word parakletos meaning "the one called to be alongside us." When we mourn, God comes alongside us in our agony, our suffering, our sorrow. Matthew 5:4 is a verse that's a reminder of consolation and comfort. God feels what we feel. When we hurt, God hurts just as any good parent does when their child is suffering. He enters into solidarity with us when we mourn.

So, for anyone who's suffering right now, you are not alone in this. God is there. God's heart breaks as your heart breaks. He is tender and gentle. Your tears are His tears and you will be comforted.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

We Stood Upon Stars: Finding God In Lost Places

What I love about the Bible is that it teaches us how theology always involves biography (people) and geography (places). Throughout the Old Testament, we see how Abram sets up altars along his spiritual journey to becoming Abraham, the father of many nations. At one point, Genesis is so specific on this it states that he built an altar near "the great trees of Mamre in Hebron." 

Yet how many of us view the places where we are, where we visit, are exactly the places where we can encounter the presence God in our lives? In this collection of essays, Roger W. Thompson does and he writes about it in wonderful prose:

We search mountaintops and valley, deserts and oceans, hoping sunrises and long views through the canyons will help us discover who we are, or who we still want to be. The language of our hearts reflects that of creation because in both are the fingerprints of God.

How many of us have lost that concept of the sacredness of place and how that relates to our lives. Throughout the book, the author connects the places of John Muir, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac to the memories of his own life, of his family and friendships amidst rivers, mountains and deserts and does so with humor, honesty and wide-eyed wonder. 

One of the most beautiful chapters (A Gathered Blue) in the book is one that deals with sorrow and grieving over the loss of their stillborn child. While in Sonoma. California, Roger and his wife begin touring the vineyards of wine country. In one of my favorite passages in the book, Thompson writes:

The earth was organized in undulating rows of vineyards. The vineyards were created with love, and the love could be tasted in every glass of wine. With a little distance we were able to talk about the loss. We walked the vineyards, where we learned the best wines grow in struggled soil. We studied the vines, scarred with age. The signs left behind by years of pruning are easily visible. We also learned that the best wine grapes grow on vines with the most scars. Struggles create richness and complexity, producing a wine worth sharing. Pruning is an act of love by the vinedresser.

What a gorgeous metaphor for the heartbreak he and his wife were going through and one that relates to all of our lives. 

Roger W. Thompson understands the importance that the world can have on us both physically and spiritually. In our technological age where we spend so much time looking at our screens, we have lost much of the wonder that comes with the impact of being out in nature. The places Thompson writes of (Big Sur, Yellowstone, the Black Hills, the Sierras) are able to expand our imaginations and open one's world in ways nothing else can.  These places expose us to what he calls "the deeper magic behind it."  It is magic indeed and this book makes me long to go out exploring it even more.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Poem As Prayer

One of the poets whose work I return to most is the metaphysical poet George Herbert, who was also an Anglican priest. He wrote his poetry in English, Latin and Greek. All of his poems deal with religious themes of man in relationship to God. Of them he once wrote, that his poems were a "picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus, my Master." Richard Baxter, an English puritan church leader, poet and hymn writer said, "Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth in God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books."

The poem "Love" is a favorite of mine, as well as being one of the most cherished poems of the great French mystic and philosopher, Simone Weil. Weil said of the poem, "I used to think I was reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer." For me, I have often used this poem as a prayer, especially in times when I could not find the words to pray on my own. Poetry often has been that for me and Herbert's best translates into prayer for me just as the Psalms do, which Herbert often found inspiration from. I have used this very poem as prayer and as mediation. 

George Herbert

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I'd lack'd anything.

'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here.'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I'

'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Being In The Beatitudes: Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

What do you do when there is someone in despair literally on your front doorstep?

What do you do if they are homeless?

Do you pretend not to see them? Ignore them?

This week I have begun meditating on and praying Matthew 5:3, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." So what does God do? Puts the poor in spirit on my very front doorstep. Doesn't God realize I'm busy? I don't even have to ask if God brought this man here because it's that obvious. I feel like God is saying, "Okay, you're studying this verse, but are you living it? Really?"

If I didn't want to, I could hear this man groaning in his suffering. I peek out my front door and see him sitting there, on the sidewalk, slumped down wearing an old, dirty Carolina Panthers jersey. It's dirty and worn. He's a large guy. Much bigger than myself. He's right in front of my house. If I go out there, he knows that I live here. I don't have the safety of being somewhere else where the stranger has no clue as to where I live. I don't know anything about this man:

Is he on drugs?

Is he violent?

Does any of that really matter? God has him there, as if to remind me that I cannot distance myself from the poor. One is right there before me.

"God," I pray, "I get it. I don't like it, but I get it."

I unlock my front door and go out to him. Unable to think of anything better to ask, I ask the obvious, "Are you okay?"

"Nobody sees me! Nobody sees me!" he keeps repeating.

"But I see you," I tell him and I sit next to him, despite the overwhelming smell, especially of sweat and urine. His face is unshaven and his hair is unwashed and matted to his head.

Despite my being right there next to him, he just repeats himself. "Nobody sees me! Nobody sees me!" He doesn't stop until I touch his arm. He startled and recoiled back. His eyes look at me: filled with confusion and uncertainty,

"I see you," I say again and this time he hears me. "I'm here because I see you - and I hear you."

He looks baffled. He just stares at me: puzzled, as if trying to figure out if I'm real or just in his head. "Who are you?" he finally blurted out.

I introduced myself and asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?"

He continued to stare at me for quite a good minute or so, which is unnerving, but I kept his gaze. In his eyes I saw disorientation and perplexity. When he saw that I saw him, he finally replied, "I'm hungry."

"Okay, I can make you a sandwich," I said getting up from the sidewalk and he immediately said, "But not a ham sandwich. I don't like ham."

I walked back inside and fixed him a sandwich and put it on a paper plate with a pickle and some chips before grabbing a bottled water and taking it back outside to him. As I handed him the plate, he looked in disgust, "I hate pickles."

"So don't eat it." And he didn't, but tossed it onto the street.

He took the plate and began to scarf down the sandwich and the chips. I sat down again next tom him. We must have looked like quite a pair to those who drove past us - or my neighbors.

Overhead I noticed a hawk in the beautiful, blue Spring sky. I thought of my younger son and how he would love to see it right now. The air was full of birdsong and him chewing with his mouth open.

Once he'd finished his sandwich and chips, the guy tossed the plate in my yard like it was a Frisbee, got up from the sidewalk and headed off down the street, drinking from the bottle of water and muttering to himself. No thanks or gratitude or even conversation. I don't even know his name.

As I stood up, I thought about what I have been reflecting on, studying and pondering all week long: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

No one looking at that man I just fed would think, "Yup, his is the kingdom of heaven."

Would they even think that of me?

What does that statement even mean?

It's baffling. Of course, all of the Sermon on the Mount is and must have been with its mixture of paradox: comforting and confronting all at the same time about what the kingdom of heaven is. Was it good news? To some. Maybe. Those who were poor might have been more receptive than those of wealth, power and prestige would have been. How many of us, would have, like the rich young ruler, turned away at some point during the Beatitudes?

All must have been baffled and confused.

Christ was redefining for them what a Messiah was every day by his actions and his teachings and who he associated with. Now, here he was, redefining what the kingdom was. He was telling Israel, "You long for the kingdom of David when you should be longing for the kingdom of God instead." He was teaching them the difference between their expectations and the reality of what a messiah and the kingdom looked like. It was just as baffling to the Romans, who's concept of kingdom was an empire built on conquering and bloodshed and a religion that sought to bolster their political system.

"Blessed are," Jesus begins after he's seated himself as any Rabbi of authority would do before proclaiming the word of the Lord. "Blessed are" has lost its meaning in our modern culture (particularly American culture) where blessed means health and wealth and the American dream. Some translators write "Happy" instead of "Blessed" but that brings about its own problems in a world where personal happiness is seen as the ultimate goal and should be pursued at all costs. As I struggled with both, the hymn "It Is Well" played on my iPod (three times during one morning commute). That's when it struck me that "Blessed are" could be translated as "It is well with . . ."

"It is well with the poor of spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

"It is well" is not circumstantial (based on the good feelings and good times being had) but on the eternal (a hope beyond the present).

But what does this verse mean in my own life?

Having grown up in a fractured home that was, in many ways, toxic to my own development, I have been plagued with self-doubts, insecurities, anxieties, depression, and became very guarded. Added to this, I was a shy, introverted, day-dreaming, small kid: all of which made me prone to bullying (verbal and physical). Because I didn't feel secure at home or at school, I felt shame and helplessness. I wondered why all of this was happening to me and why did God even create me because there was clearly something wrong with myself. None of this is a plus when I got married. It wasn't easy for my wife to be married to a man who was, in may ways, still a scared, hurt child inside. I was about self-protection first (never a good thing in a spouse) and I hid behind a wall of silence where no one else could get in or hurt me if I felt overwhelmed. It was a mechanism I had developed as a kid and never lost. It's also why I live so much in my imagination and books. Retreating into myself was my way of saying, "I will reject you before you can reject and hurt me."

After years of counseling, I began to learn how to unlearn all the harmful patterns I had and learn to begin to trust others, especially my wife. I had to be vulnerable and allow her to be able to sit with my pains, hurts, and fears. It's what Brené Brown writes about the process of moving from shame (disconnection) to empathy (connection). I had to be willing to risk my shame to see the empathy and love my wife had for what I had been through and to trust that she would love me anyway. And I have had to undergo the same process with God. This is poverty of spirit.

I also learned from my wife that to be poor in spirit is to have empathy, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.

Poverty of spirit is understanding connectedness: not only to God but to others. It's realizing that we are not only wanted by Christ in spite of our woundedness but because of our woundedness. It's those scars that reveal the pathway to healing and the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom is full of such wounded warriors: the least of these, the lonely of these, the broken of these. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God" is a promise. It is a welcoming to those who so often have felt unwelcomed, alone, and marginalized.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit" are the ones Jesus is telling, "Let go." It's not just a holding on to of money and possessions, but of fears, losses, hurts, broken promises, abuse, anger, shame, low self-esteem, insecurities . . .

This is radical relationship built not on equality, but on Jesus saying, "You will never measure up. You will never be good enough. You will never love yourself or accept yourself enough. But I do. I accept you and love you and want you."

He wants the forgotten, the unwanted, the unloved, the broken, the oppressed, the persecuted, the discriminated against, the bullied, the battered, the abused, the violated, the poor, the undesirable, the refugee, the neglected, the orphan, the widow, the powerless, the disenfranchised, the disconnected and lost.

God told the prophet Isaiah, "But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word" (66:2).

"Trembles at my word."

As I thought about that, I thought about how the word trembles can have more than one meaning. Trembles can mean that one shakes out of fear and terror.

The other, which I find more appropriate, is the trembling one has at the touch of a lover, not out of fear, but of expectation and want. It is trembling with desire. God as a lover who longs for relationship with us and wants us to return that affection, who "trembles at my word."

It makes me recall the white stone with our new name on it that Christ gives us in heaven. This name is our true name, our true identity. Part of me wonders if, when we open our hand and look at that white stone, all of us won't find engraved on it this single word: Beloved.

Beloved as all our true names, our true identities.

That is the promise.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

That is not some platitude, but a promise. It is not only the veil being lifted to give us glimmerings on the edge of the kingdom's workings, but a call, an invitation to worthiness. "You may not matter here," Christ says, "but you do to me, you do in the kingdom. You are why I came."

Christ sees the beautiful in the ugly, the beloved in the broken, the chosenness in the companionless, the worthiness in the worthless, and the priceless in the poor in spirit. We are all undeserving. We are all poor in spirit and have nothing to offer but ourselves and Christ looks at us with loving tenderness and reaches out his hand to say, "Yes, come with me and be my beloved." Our empty hands are not meant to hold the things of this world, but his hands in our own.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

He came because he loves those poor in spirit.

We only need open our hands, open our hearts.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit . . ."

Blessed, beloved, indeed.