A Borrowed Vision

A BORROWED VISION

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith… For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith…”—Romans 1:16-17

Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you…”—Acts 18:9-10

I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and unrighteous. Therefore I do my best always to have a clear conscience toward God and all people”—Acts 24:15-16

Advent, a Anglicized word taken from the Latin adventus, means “coming” or “arrival.”  This is the period of time that Western Christians anxiously wait and prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ (Christmas).  Much like Lent and Pentecost, this liturgical period is a time for reflection—both somber and celebratory—helping Christians to better align with the Word, Will and Way of the Lord in their daily thoughts, intentions, and actions.  Aside from beautiful green wreaths, red ribbons, candle lightings, scripture readings, and festive songs, Advent should serve as a time for us to contemplate the idea of waiting and preparing for the arrival of Christ (in both “comings”), which poses the question: are we ready?

When I teach writing and/or persuasive communication, I always introduce my students to the open-ended question—What’s the point? This is useless during the creative, drafting period, but really comes in handy during revision and pre-presentation. Whether they are preparing a persuasive essay or a formal oral argument, I remind them that, by the end of the piece, their reader or audience member has the right to ask this question: Well, what’s the point? What’s the purpose behind all of this? Those essays and speeches rooted in a strong, specific thesis statement (and helpful, insightful research) usually have a point, or purpose, and so by the end the audience is satisfied.  However, when preparing for a paper submission or presentation, the writer or speaker should always ask him or herself that question…does this piece have a clear purpose?… Will my reader/audience feel like there is a purpose behind it or am I wasting their time?

For Christians, we should try to always ask ourselves the question: are we ready? We can pose this question in our daily affairs, challenging ourselves in honor the birth of Christ and his second coming.

When I think of my life, and how my own recognition of sin (and my continued desire to be set free of sin) led me to Christ, I think about what I used to live for… what got me up out of bed each morning (that which also led to my soul’s discontent)… and I reflect on the first half of a passage from Romans 8-11:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

I have lived much of my life in sin—i.e., thoughts, intentions and actions that have kept me disconnected from the Love and Grace of God, as well as the accountability and support of a greater community of Christians—and I believe this lifestyle is perpetuated from the short-sided view that there is nothing beyond the flesh. I have lived my life for myself—my wants and desires.

When the scripture refers “flesh,” at least in the passage I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, it doesn’t simply mean the body (i.e., sex), but finite interests (temporal concerns)—that there is nothing beyond human life and earth.  Much of my sin is a byproduct of glorifying the NOW—my body, others bodies, quick pleasure, the mind, materials (materialism), accomplishment, pride, etc.

When I am connected to “things of the flesh,” I am enslaved to things that will fade away and die…things that are on lease…and my eyes are turned focused only on to that which is around me—how that which is around me can benefit me. In some ways, I take ownership of things that are not my own.

When I am chained to the world, I only look within to “elevate” myself to those around me…yet those around me who “live according to the flesh” are also in bondage. Many times there is no communal perspective. It is my personal belief that a rebellion from structure and good, orderly direction leads to violent chaos… isolation and depression.

Internal struggle and spiritual persecution are not always bad things, at least not when the eye is set on the Infinite—this life is but a second of what’s to come.

“We suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” – Romans 8:17

It is through many persecutions that we must enter into the kingdom of God”—Acts 14:22

So many people are terrified of being uncomfortable…even if for a second. However, growth is a result of change, and most change is uncomfortable. I don’t like being uncomfortable, and I usually don’t like change but I know that a life that attempts to avoid all pain is a life based in delusion… it is a life obsessed with “flesh” over Infinite Concern.

God wants us his children to be happy and successful, surely, but he also wants us to be challenged in order to be closer to him… to not think that we are the reasons why we are happy and successful—for this is the delusion … and tragedy of human nature and sin! He wants us to hear his word and decipher it properly in order to better understand his will and live in his way. However, I am human… and many times the way I want to live is not the way God wants me to live. This is understood. Scripture makes this clear. Knowing is a start. The gospels make this clear. The path has been laid out, but it is a narrow one, and not everyone will follow it. Part of following the path (or at least seeing the path) is in understanding the limits of being human. I was born to sin, but God’s Grace helps me to recognize and turn to that which will save me from myself.  Advent reminds me that I have the opportunity to use the shortcoming of my mortality and human nature as ways to grow closer to Christ, which brings me closer to God. This reminds me of the Gospel:

When the Pharisees and their scribes ask Jesus why he sat and ate with sinners, he told them: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but the sinners to repentance”— Luke 5:31-32

Every day I reach for Perfection, but with the expectation that I will fall short time and time again… With this mindset, one that is align with scripture, I realize that part of Advent is assessing our past, present and future, and coming to realize that my eyes must always be turned to the light of Christ so that I may not stumble in darkness…. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, not things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” –Romans 8-38-39

While I have lived to fulfill interests and desires of the “flesh,” or lived for finite concern, I have seen the destruction that it brings, and I no longer want it. I have seen the effects of sin on society, and I no longer want to be part of the problem. The only way to escape its prison walls, and help others to find freedom, is to be okay with feeling the pain in order to be more confident and comfortable in turning to God to ask for its removal… In coming to Christ, on a daily basis, I have asked for new eyes… new sight… a borrowed vision:

you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” Romans 8:5-11

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Discipleship

Over the past few months, I have been speaking with my pastor and praying for an opportunity to be more directly involved with my church. For me, the most direct involvement comes from the study of God’s Word (as expressed in Scripture), and being present every Sunday for the message of sermon, small group and communal celebration. However, as I have grown closer to God through the Bible as living, breathing Word, I have felt a strong call to not only learn more (though this has been growing within me for a couple years)… but to share my life experience, knowledge, complex faith journey, and passion for Christ (and the DAILY challenge to live more Christ-like…especially tough during college football season in the Deep South!) with others.  And so, I turned to prayer.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…” (Romans 2:16)

It didn’t take too long before I received an answer to my prayers—a confirmation, of sorts. About a month ago, during my hour-long community from an especially long ten-hour work day, I received an email on my phone from my church’s youth Director of Youth Ministry. In his email, he asked me if I’d be interested in joining the Youth Ministry team on a voluntary basis.

In light of my prayers, and a few supportive conversations with our senior pastor, I felt like this was a path that opened up for me at the “right” time (and, as it turns out, for one or two other church members), and it didn’t take me more than five minutes to accept his offer.

Due to my crazy teaching schedule, I was unable to jump in for a few weeks. However, last Sunday I was given my first opportunity to teach Sunday school to the middle schoolers. What an absolutely AMAZING experience! This was a first for me in a few ways:

1) With the exception of participating in theological discussions and occasional presentation in a Systematic Theology class at the Drew University Seminary while working on my doctorate in Ancient Greek Mythology at the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, this was the first time I ever taught (and facilitated discussion) in a purely religious setting. By trade (at least my “trade” at age 30), I am an academic (Homeric Studies scholar-in-training and professor of writing and literature). Our Director was out of town for the holidays, and asked if I’d take over for him, and so this experience was like taking a dive into the deep-end of a new environment.

2) This class consisted of students between the ages of 11 and 14—middle school/junior high. Again, this is a first. Over the past four years, before landing a full-time job an hour down the road, I taught as an adjunct at six or seven colleges (not at one time, but during those 4 years), teaching creative writing, composition, research writing, literature, public- and persuasive speaking to students between the ages of 17 and 60! I can’t emphasize enough how much of a change this would be for me.

Despite the differences on paper, I spent a lot of last week praying and reflecting on the then-forthcoming experience. I knew that, unlike other events in my life, it was not about achieving perfection (though this is such a suspect word…). I knew that I was asked for a reason—I am a person who has changed, and continues to change, as a result of my personal relationship with God. Most importantly, as natural as it would be to want to believe it… THIS WAS NOT ABOUT ME.

Sure, in my mind I knew that I would be “leading” the small group, but my heart reassured me that this was about being open to be a vessel of the Living Word…to be, above all else, open-minded, humble and loving in my role as guide and mentor. So, I would/will be a guide and hope that, in time, I might become a mentor to these young, young adults during an exciting, yet difficult time of their lives. This is where prayer and reflection led me, and it brought me through whatever personal anxiety, insecurity and/or fear that I had—all generated by my selfish (human) thinking.

For God did not give us the spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 7).

The hour that I spent with the middle schoolers was beyond fulfilling! My experience in the classroom helped me handle a few potential technical difficulties with the computers, sound systems, and overhead projector screens. Once we were through the brief videos, I moved us into scripture summary, questions, and then discussion. I geared many of the questions toward us viewing the scripture, themes and conflicts in light of our experience, whatever that may be… In their case, what do they bring to the story in life experience (it’s not about “age” and station in life, but wherever we are in their lives…and, remember, that place is important regardless of our age and societal “experience”!), in what ways can they challenge themselves in light of the story, and how can we be more open to God’s will (and those around us who are walking the Christian path). Lastly, how can what we are learning from scripture (and other role-models in our lives) be used to help how WE live amongst others on our life-long faith journey (in a world of believers, non-believers, and those who straddle the line of dis/belief).

As much as I was concerned about the age, I felt natural around the middle schoolers. I was able to keep the lesson on track, covering most of the goals of the particular story we were studying, but I was also able to smile, laugh (a lot!), empathize and congratulate them for being who they were (and where they were) at the time we met. I was able to lead by knowledge and example, but not take myself so seriously. In fact, even in that hour, I was able to learn from. God inspired me and filled me with humility—something that I strive for, but is sometimes harder to access on a day-to-day basis, especially in my field. The deeper we got into discussion, the more I not only learned about them, and where they were in their lives, but also where I am in my life…and, most importantly, where I want to go.

After something like this, especially when it’s the first time, it can go one of two ways. While I felt like it was a success (though the teacher in me always points out areas where my teaching can be improved…areas that will smooth themselves out over time, and practice), I was reassured when I received an email from the Director a few days later. He said that one of the young students, the lone boy in that particular class I taught… and a very quiet one at that…approached him in person to let him know that I had done a great job with the class…and that they looked forward to having me again. What a compliment, especially coming from one of the middle schoolers… and one who is so introverted!  While the experience was not about me, it is still reassuring to know that something clicked. Besides, I am especially passionate about the Old Testament story of Elijah and God’s whisper outside the cave!

After this, I was invited to teach about two classes per month—two more Sundays this month (the week and later in the month) and two Sundays in January. In addition, I am excited to help with events away from the church. For those who have known me for a long time, a post like this would seem quite foreign. I can’t explain, nor will I completely try, but my life is 180 degrees different from what it once was… it was not an overnight process… it has been a process, and continues to be one, but my priorities have shifted; it’s not all about me and my short-sided ambition. Sure, I want to learn.

The LORD is my strength and my might (in other translations, “song”); he has become my salvation.”  (Psalms 118:17)

Sure, I want to succeed in life. “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding . . . for wisdom will come into [my] heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to [my] soul” (Proverbs 2:6; 10). Sure, I want to be happy. That said, I am WORN OUT from living life for me, and so now I live for Christ and others. I am now living for something greater!

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

I look forward to continuing to work with (and learning from) the middle schooler in Sunday school, and I will gladly welcome any additional opportunity where I can be of service to God, sharing my Joy with my fellow citizen. I am no longer afraid of the Path, regardless of its frequent unpredictability… and uncertainty. I now jump at new opportunities to shed skin.

“Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God.” (Philippians 1:3)

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True Gratitude is Not Always Pretty

With Thanksgiving right around the bend, gratitude is on our minds, and rightfully so! Amidst time with family and friends—that is, if we are fortunate enough to have them in our lives—we should spend a little time reflecting on the blessings in our lives, even if some of us believe we don’t have enough of them. We ALL experience gifts from God—however, we do not always recognize the wonders of his Ultimate Mystery.

Unfortunately, many of us are not always grateful for what we have at a given time in our lives, and this usually has to do with expectations. We don’t always recognize God’s goodness in our lives, and the world around us, because we are looking for something else…something found on our time, not Universal Time. There are many times we see through our own eyes, the eyes of the world, which is a limited vision. As a result, we act or react based upon what we see (or think we see), and when we do this, we become the greatest obstacle to our God-sight.

Despite our best efforts to succeed through expressions of human intelligence, our collective wisdom (what we call “progress”), we are incapable of seeing the inevitability of our human shortcomings—our failure. If failure is too hard of a term, then maybe we are trapped in a short-sided view of success…and an incapability of knowing how to reach our full potential. We are trapped, or maybe we have trapped ourselves in our human intelligence?

I have spent much of my life trapped, and it is a lonely place to be! What I thought was liberation—a voluntary disconnect from God—was really self-imprisonment. Even worse, I imprisoned others! I was looking for answers in the wrong places, turning to the wrong sources of wisdom. While I will not speak for all of you reading this, I suspect there are many of you who have been blinded by self (or Ego…whatever you want to call it)…and others will one day discover what I realized. I firmly believe that we cannot see even a tiny portion of God’s plan for us—Divine love, patience, grace, and judgment (i.e., our accountability to him)—if we are incapable of looking beyond ourselves. This is very difficult, especially if we attempt to rationalize our way into God-sight simply by mimicking that which we don’t truly know and accept and submit to the Infinite…

Christian scripture proclaims that God sends Christ to people who, despite their best efforts, act foolishly…those who fall short of perfection because they are too absorbed in themselves.  This does not mean that people constantly act in destructive ways, nor does this mean that man is incapable of wonderful feats, but that man stumbles…more than he or she would like to admit. If man did not stumble, man would be master of the universe… there would be no need God. If we look around at the state of the world, we see man certainly needs God. When this is realized, sometimes quickly…sometimes slowly, there is a realization that we need help… there is humility.

Humility is prerequisite to a God-filled life. One cannot have a God-filled life without faith. And how can we have faith without humility? If we don’t have humility, God will help us find it—this is a fact. We don’t need to search for God; He is all around us. He will appear when we need an improved vision. Until we are humbled, we are disconnected from God…He is not lost from us.  In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes: “Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe” (2:21-22). In addition, just a chapter later, in 1 Corinthians, he references a passage from the Apocalypse of Elijah, when he writes: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, / nor the human heart conceived, / what God has prepared for those who love him”–/ these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2: 9-10).

Many times God’s wonders are hidden in adversity and daily challenge…embedded in the shadows we feel darken our lives, making it hard to see beyond our problems. Still, why do most of us wait until the holiday season to share gratitude? If we are truly present, every single moment of each day of our limited mortal existence should be filled with gratitude and thanksgiving.

It is my belief that we cannot be grateful unless we have faith in something greater than ourselves (something beyond ourselves)—for me this is having God-sight—and God-sight is impossible without humility…and humility cannot be attained unless we have experienced and accepted the consequences of our human foolishness. There is no humility in a person who is incapable of love, and we cannot truly love and sympathize if we are trapped in the mire of ourselves. We will always be trapped in ourselves unless we learn to live for someone or something else. For me, this is Christ. If I dedicate my life to live for Christ, then day-by-day I will learn to love others more than I love myself…learn to love in a deeper way than I ever thought possible.

In this regard, I will learn to love like Christ, which is called agape. I will see others’ goals as greater than mine. Paul warns: “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.”  This leads to what he has to say about love: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

I am not delusional enough to believe that I am capable of truly expressing selfless love on my own accord. Babies are not born with this understanding of love. While I am good, I am good because God graced me with goodness. Faced with extreme adversity, my first inclination is not to love in the ways Paul suggests. In fact, on my own I’d rather never face challenge…I don’t like to be uncomfortable. Who does? Isn’t it so easy to love when things are going our way? This is a problematic phrase. Suffering is not a prerequisite for growing closer to your maker, and salvation does not always require a period of pain, but pain is an inevitable part of life and we don’t have to experience that pain by ourselves. In some cases, there is salvation in suffering, but the suffering does not have to last long if we have faith. God wants us to be free of anxieties, but God also wants us to trust in him when we are suffering—Christ suffered for us, and therefore we should turn to Christ when we are suffering…this will help us to garner strength. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 13-14). It is through my struggles that I move closer to God, to Christ’s love, and learn to be grateful for what I have.

Sure, I am grateful for when things “go my way,” but making the best of my struggles—a hurricane… a risky cross country move… a sick fiancée and family members…a tough job with long hours, mental strain, little security, and not the highest salary…medical bills from three states…relinquishing alcohol—and going to God when I handle them imperfectly forces me to look beyond myself, live for another, and trust in God. When I trust in God, I become more of a humble person. When I am more humble, I am more grateful for what I have…. and I am not searching for things I don’t have. In this way, I am happier, more loving, and eager to help other. Knowing I am God’s servant, I trust that he will give me what I need when I need it in order to provide me with the sight I need to spread his Word… and act out his Way. There is much to be grateful for… can you see it?

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“Transformation of a Trickster: Jacob Climbs the Ladder”

In the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, we meet many complex folks who were chosen by God for reasons beyond our limited, finite comprehension, in order to carry out his plan in a particular temporal place and time. Many of these men and women are faulted, and certainly imperfect. That might be a nice way of putting it. In most cases, they are downright shady characters—though I might give an exception to Esther—hey, they are human! Yet, all of them were at least partially willing to assume the immense responsibility, and that is what separates them from their peers—most importantly, they come to recognize God in their imperfection. These “sinners” are to be transformed because they own and (eventually) take recognition of their imperfections. In all things, they seek Perfection by way of knowing their way is not the right way. In this way, they are no longer sinful after removing that which blocks them from actively seeking (and receiving) the Divine through Ultimate Concerns. However, it’s a process. It takes time.

One of the most extraordinarily shady “characters” we meet in Genesis is Jacob. Though he was the youngest son of Isaac and Rebekah, grandson of Abraham, which made him a direct descendant of God’s greatest covenant, he was not—at least for much of his life—what we might consider a Godly -man. He was a smart, determined, but troubled man…and perhaps this was the case since conception. Jacob fought, in one way or another, since he was in his mother’s womb.  After twenty years of trying to have children, Rebekah finally conceived. The couple’s prayers were answered after twenty years of marriage; she was pregnant. However, we soon learn that the pregnancy was not an easy one: “The children struggled together within her.” With such physical discomfort, she was naturally worried about losing a child, and so she went to the Lord with her concerns. He reassured her of the inevitability of the birth of twins— two boys she would name Esau and Jacob. Additionally, he told her that there were “two nations in [her] womb, / and two peoples born of you shall be divided; / the one shall be stronger than the other, / the elder shall serve the younger.” When they were born, the eldest came out red and hairy, and so they named him Esau, to this symbolism. The youngest existed the womb “with his hand gripping Esau’s heel,” and because of this they named the younger Jacob, which in Arabic means “heel” or “leg-puller” (Genesis 25:22-26). Jacob’s name is not only significant in the cantankerous relationship between brothers, as well as the dynamics between the nations of Israel and Edom, but foreshadows his later interactions/ conflicts with God.

As the two boys matured into their roles, Esau emerged the stronger more masculine “skillful hunter” (in some translations “cunning,” though I think this translation is problematic, especially when considering other translations describe him later on as “dull” minded), “man of the field.” Jacob was  “a quiet man, living in tents.” However, not enough is given to explain his true talents, which stretch beyond the physical, if we can call them talents. Though he was not a hunter, he was much more skillful and cunning in life-strategy than his older brother. While God does not intervene to favor one over the other, at least not initially, like in the story of Cain and Abel, it is clear that Isaac prefers Esau and Rebekah favors Jacob. Additionally, in this early description of identity, Jacob is glossed over—he is the unassuming brother, which is ironic.

While God does not favor one’s intentions over the other, as in the story of Cain and Abel, this fraternal conflict and competition plays on the Hunter vs. Shepherd. The conflict between these two was not outwardly apparent, at least not in what we’ve been given in the text, until Esau came home one day famished after a long day of work. He found Jacob cooking in the tent and asked him for some of the food he was preparing. Jacob, seeing a hole in his brother’s armor, thought it through. He assessed the situation and acted. He agreed to share his food with Esau, but only on the condition that he relinquished his birthright. Once Esau swears on it, Jacob gives him the “red” lentil soup and drink. In this moment, we see the birth of the Trickster. This is the first of many situations where he uses his mind to successfully manipulate those around him. Esau was caught unawares, due to hunger, and unable to be entirely sure of the situation. As a result, Jacob begins the process of usurping power over him by outwitting him on an empty stomach. Esau’s mistake will have powerful consequence, and it will set up the expectation that he will be fooled again.

After the family took God’s advice to move to the land of Gerar in order to avoid problems in Egypt, and after the many tricks in which Abraham played his wife off as his sister in order to avoid death by King Aimelech of the Philistines (they are a very “tricky” family!), we arrive to a very important scene. Isaac is going blind, and thinks he is dying. Consequently, he wants to bless his sons (blessing during this time was very significant and was known to direct a person’s success in life) and talk about their future after what he believes is an inevitable death. In preparation for this event, he asks both to bring food on their behalf. Esau is the first to leave, heading out to go for a long hunt for game. Before Jacob can leave, Rebekah stops him and offers to prepare the food the way Isaac likes. She tells him that if he allows her to do this, and if he approaches his father first, then he will be blessed over Esau. Though Jacob is worried that his father will sense a fraud (not only is Esau’s voice different, but his arms are much hairier), he places his trust in his mother and follows her plan—this decision is driven by fear and greed- rooted in pride.

When the time came, Rebekah dressed Jacob in his brother’s clothing (note: his arms are covered with the hair from the animal skins, which would give him the smell of a hunter and the hairy hands of his brother), gave him the food, and sent him in first. When he approached his father, Isaac said: “Here I am; who are you, my son? Jacob, following his mother’s plan, responded: “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.” When Isaac suspects that the hunt did not take as long as it should have, he probes his son; however, Jacob, the talented manipulator, says, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” Isaac, still unsure of the situation, begs his son to come closer. He recognizes his son’s voice as that of Jacob, but needs to feel his arms. After he feels the hair on his hands (remember, the hair is that of an animal he wears), he questions him further, saying: “Are you really my son Esau?” Jacob responds, “I am.” Lastly, he asks him to come near him for a kiss, and it is the smell of game (the animal he is wearing) that is the last confirmation. As a result, Isaac blesses Jacob with his father’s one blessing.

Just like in a good drama, the deceiver leaves right before the true son arrives, and you can imagine the shock of both when they find out what happened. All Isaac can say in response to Esau’s tears are, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” In response, Esau says, “Is he not rightly named Jacob?” For he has supplanted me these two times. He takes away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessings.” Esau’s anger is understandably at fever pitch, and so Rebekah, fearing Esau’s threat to kill Jacob upon his father’s death, warns Jacob to leave for her brother Laban’s land in Haran, and to not return until Esau’s anger has diminished. From here on, Jacob, though blessed and in control of birthright, becomes an exile as a result of his greed. Additionally, we are unsure if he will even be able to live into the birthright upon his father’s death, mainly because Esau has threatened to kill him. In fact, the irony here is that both sons become exiles as a result of mother and son’s selfish trickery.

Though Rebekah is not an ideal role model, per say, she is a strong woman who learns how to assert her will in times where a women’s power was nearly nonexistent. In ancient times, mortal women did not much say so, at least not outside of the management of the house, and if they did have power it was because they found ways to empower themselves through subtle, intellectually cunning ways—Eve, Pharaoh’s daughter (who guarded Moses), Rebekah, Rachel, and Esther, just to name a few. This is exactly what Rebekah does—she uses her intelligence and craftiness to enhance the life of her son…a boy who was born with less opportunity than his brother—and she does it by unconventional means. It is by no mistake that Rebekah favors Jacob; he certainly takes after her with regards to using intellectual strategy to better himself.  However, he is also hindered by the sins of insecurity and greed, and though he is a man chosen by God, it will take a lot of painful toil in order to transform into a Godly man.

Isaac told Jacob that he could not marry a Canaanite woman, but would have to go live with Laban in Paddan-aram (land of Haran…a “pagan” land). There he would need to marry a woman, one of Laban’s daughters, from the house of Bethuuel. Jacob would assume power of the family name, but in a new land where he would “now live as an alien—land that God gave to Abraham” (28:4). It was during this journey to Haran that Jacob encountered God for the first time in a dream we refer to as “Jacob’s ladder,” though perhaps “stairway” or “ramp” is a more appropriate translation. All the same, God blesses the land to Jacob, and his family (more specifically, the line of Judah), and adds: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (28:12-16). This line really resonates later in Jacob’s faith journey, but at the time it is not really as important to him as it should be. Here he recognizes God’s presence, at least in the land he’s entered, and says: “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (28:17).  That said, I don’t believe Jacob truly finds God’s place in his soul [this sparks some deep questions: When thinking of God’s presence in humans, is “find” even the right word? Is God ever lost to us? Is it that we just chose not to recognize him during some stages of our life? Can we recognize God in us when our psyche and/or when our ego overshadows God?]. He is unable to fully trust in him for quite a while longer…this is part of his journey. This is Jacob’s ongoing struggle—perhaps it started in the womb— a crisis between what he is (and was) and what God wants him to be… between how he views himself and how God views him… between God’s will and his way.

During his time in Laban’s land, Jacob lives a busy life. He assumes his role of shepherd, and falls in love with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel. In order to give her away in marriage, Laban asks Jacob to work for seven years, which he does because of his genuine love: “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed but a day because of the love he had for her” (29:20). When the time came, Jacob asks Laban for Rachel, and he agrees to hand the bride over, but not in the way Isaac’s son had expected. Call it karma, or a receiving a taste of his own medicine, but Laban “took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her.” According to the text, when the morning came, the new groom was shocked to see Leah in bed next to him. This is both humorous and disturbing. Since he has slept with her, the marriage is officially sealed. While Jacob grows to love Leah, he still worships the ground Rachel walks on—she is prettier, and much more intelligent…like a mirror of his mother, no? Ironic? No. After their week-long honeymoon, Laban agrees to give Jacob his younger daughter, but if he promises that the young man will work for him another seven years, which he does.

After these seven additional years of work, Rachel is given to Jacob for a second wife. Rachel and Jacob are perfect for each other, for better or worse. Rachel is not only a beautiful woman, who is dedicated and in love with her husband, but she is also intelligent, cunning and bold. She, just like Rebekah, the first woman in Jacob’s life, to team up with him to better their situation—i.e., the sheep trick and the stealing of her father’s idols. In an act of revenge, she ruins her father’s life. In the end, Rachel and Jacob escapes Laban’s control, stronger and more powerful, leaving the man and his sons as exiles in their own land…disconnected from their family and celestial gods.

I am in no way condoning Jacob’s actions—he is a complex character, and he is hard to understand… as are most humans. While Jacob was chosen by God, and while God has great plans for him and his children (the line of Judah, in particular), I don’t think God necessarily chooses to micromanage every detail of a person’s life. Certainly God (and later the Lord – God in human form) works with people who are faulted…people who sin. In the Gospel According to Mathew, the Pharisees is disgusted to see Jesus eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, and asks the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus responds, saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:10-13). Jacob, like Adam, Moses, Noah, Solomon, David, and other “great men” of the Old Testament, and men Peter, Thomas, and Lazarus and others of the New Testament, deal with personal and spiritual issues. However, all of these men undergo profound personal transformations, as well as changes in how they perceive their place in the world around them.

Before Jacob changes for the better, he shows the absolute worst of his humanity. When he left Haran to return to Canaan, he heard rumors that his older brother was on his way with an army of 400, possibly to kill him. Instead of going out to meet Esau, what does he do? He does the coward thing, and this should be fully recognized as part of his journey.  Jacob divides his camp up into groups (humans and animals), putting the least important up front and the most important in the back. He positions himself, Rachel and Joseph (her favorite) in the very back, so that he is the last to come face to face with Esau.  It is in this moment that Jacob, perhaps for the first time, makes a direct prayer to God…what we call a “fox hole” prayer; however, it is a prayer…and he does show a concern for those beyond himself. He says: “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children.”

In this prayer, Jacob also reminds God’s promise that his people will inherit the land and be safe. This is the first step in humility before God. But instead of trusting in God’s will, he sends lines of animals out to appease Esau… again, to appease Esau…not God. In all of this not only does Jacob not trust in God, especially considering that God has chosen him and his people and made this clear many times, but he is a coward. He places his possessions, servants and some of his family before his own life. He hides behind them all, quivering under the suspicion but not proof that Esau is coming to kill him. His God is fear, manifested in the image of his greatest guilt—the wrongdoing he did to his brother by stealing his birthright and blessing.

What came as a result of Jacob’s prayer is not relief, but more conflict (this time internal)… and perhaps the most meaningful conflict of his life. The scene is confusing, and no one scholar has gotten it perfectly right (and here I am not professing that I am an Old Testament scholar, not by any means), but there are a lot of theories… and I have one. It was night and Jacob moved his family across the stream (in front of him, just in case Esau attacked) before going to bed. The text says:

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled him until daybreak. When the man saw he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ … Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’” When Jacob asked the man his name, he said: “Why is it that you ask my name?” The man did not give up his name, but blessed him, and Jacob knew. He called the place Peniel because according to Jacob, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The next day, Jacob arose with the sun and approached his camp, “limping because of his hip” (32:22-32).

The first thing to say about this odd wrestling match is that the “man” is certainly not a man…not at all. He is a divine opponent, and perhaps opponent is the wrong way of looking at it. Many say “he” is an angel of God sent by God. Others say he is actually God in the form of an angel, which is pretty much the same thing. Either way, “he” is a divine force representative of the mystery and power of God, and it is clear that Jacob is one of the few people in the Bible to see the face of God and live. In addition to these reads, some who read Jung would say that “he” is Jacob, or a part of him at the very least. In a Jungian read, Jacob, troubled man wrestles with his subconscious that wants desperately to get out, or influence him in a dramatic way. In keeping with this reading, he is wrestling the Shadow (see earlier posts, but that cavern in the deepest layer of self that holds the pure, raw energy of our psyche—something not all of us fight, but great hero’s have to encounter head on).

Then there are some who might combine the theological and psychological, like me, and see this as some sort of combination. Jacob is alone, and he is at the apex of his suffering—much of it caused by himself. This was the first time that he prayed a genuine prayer… not just to recognize God in a place, but invite Him into himself to correct what ails him. He does not ask to be “fixed,” but he certainly admits that he has hit what we might call a bottom… and he does not know what to do in order to make it better. Instead of God revealing himself in a burning bush, an earthquake, a defeat of Esau, or even a whisper outside the cave (Jacob is not as intuitive as Elijah), he physically engages Jacob with himself. God has always been in Jacob, but he was never able to hear him in his home country. He had to become his own individual… he had to make mistakes… he had to feel the pain of isolation and error… and he had to suffer in order to turn to him for a new way.

This wrestling match is certainly about more than God. If it were only about God, He would not have even played around with Jacob—He would kill him in that instant. No, there is a lesson here. God comes to Jacob and wrestles him in order to show him that he has the strength he never thought he had…and he’s had it in him since birth; he just needs to recognize. Likewise, God shows him that physical strength is not as important as internal strength—the state of the soul. He must step up and assume the hero’s role (in this case, hero is humble… a servant to family, friends, and stranger… because the servant is the leader in God’s eyes). If anything, the wrestling match not only brought out the hero in Jacob, but it unveiled God in Jacob. Now that Jacob knows that God is with him, even in the worst of times, he has the confidence to live God’s will. God allowed Jacob to win the wrestling match, or at least draw, because he wanted Jacob to remember that he must do some of the work… he can’t just turn to God and say, “Fix this problem I have gotten us into.” God needs a human that can rely on his word and live his will, but the human must take risks and live. God will not micromanage every detail, though he is always overseeing the pathway we follow under him. He leaves Jacob with a bum hip in order to remind him that he walks (imperfection) with God (perfection), yet they do it together.

After the wrestling match, Jacob experiences a significant faith transformation as a result of finding humility—in finding humility, he gains a confidence which shatters the insecurity of his birth order. He sheds himself to find his GOD SELF, and this gives him the kind of confidence to re-approach his fractured life in a way that serves as a model to others. After limping back to his people, he walks to the front of groups and faces Esau (the fear) head on, regardless of the possibility that Esau might have killed him upon first sight: “He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother” who welcomed him, a transformed man, in joy. Though the story progresses, and we do not have time for the later years of Jacob, at least not in this post, Esau certainly notices the change in his brother. He says: “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you” (33:1-12).

I see a lot of similarities between this Genesis story and my particular reading Homer’s Odyssey, especially the life and misadventures of Odysseus (his dependency on wit over physical strength; the relationship he has with his wife, Penelope, who was also a trickster—and her deception of the suitors that plague them; manipulation of identity to trick and assert power; and a conflicted, yet loving/dependent relationship between him and Athena). While I have a significant amount of research and writing on the transformation of Odysseus from hubristic to holistic hero, I need to give some more thought to ways in which these stories parallel each other. It might be that the only link is the hero’s battle of self and psychic transformation (shedding of ego) through humility… a dependence on a god over our own self-seeking perspective. I have already brought up the descent into the layers of the psyche (Jung) in order to confront the Shadow (what I might expand here to God-self—recognition of God embedded in our psyche), and a psychic transformation—but that’s as far as I will go for today. I will give this story of Jacob a bit more thought, and I might come back to it in a few weeks with parallels to my Homer writings. If not, I will keep my thoughts and other findings as is…

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“Seeking Him to Find Her to Know Me to Serve Him”

Proverbs is my favorite book in the Old Testament, in part because of its beautiful poetry, but mainly because of its dedication to knowledge and wisdom. The book explores the origin of wisdom, what it is, and exactly how to search for and embrace Her. Wait, her? Yes, Her!

Though the concept is fairly complex, and I am no preacher or theologian, I will try to briefly explain it as best as I can, then we will come back to it later.  In Proverbs, one of the sapiential books—those books dealing with wisdom: Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon—Wisdom is personified as an extension of God in His early creative acts. Thus, the book not only underscores the importance of knowledge and Wisdom in our lives, but also as a prerequisite and requirement for our understanding and reverence toward God. This is what’s most important. If we are to live more Christ-like, we must seek Her. Before we get a deeper exploration of Wisdom and how it should work in our lives, let’s first look at what the book says of knowledge.

Knowledge is mentioned early in Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). This line is repeated in chapter 9, though the concept is expanded to include wisdom. However, let’s first take a closer look at 1:7. First, don’t let “fear” bother you because it is probably not what you’re thinking, not a knee-quaking fear, but more like “awe” or “reverence” toward God. In order to have “awe” or “reverence” for God, we must believe in Him above all else, including ourselves. Furthermore, in order to be (and continue to be) fully aware of ourselves, at least on an existential level, we must be aware of our having been created. Our reverence toward God, and an understanding that He is the beginning and end of our existence, is an active acceptance and appreciation of his creative love, and this is a daily commitment. Our natural inclination is to rebel against authority, as well as the idea that we are not in control of, or can predict, our creation. Yet, we are proof of his loving creativity in total mystery. This passage is not implying that ALL knowledge relates to God, but that “the beginning of knowledge” starts when we are truly in awe of Him and his power to shape Chaos into Beauty.

Without a genuine awareness that our human knowledge as finite beings is rooted in the complete recognition of our creator-God… without of genuine awareness that we need to depend upon him and all that he has bestowed upon us through divine acts of Love and Grace… our “knowledge,” no matter how advanced we think we are, is extremely limited. When we think we are masters of [fill in the blank], bad things happen because we are not meant to know everything, and we don’t even come close.

In fact, Chapter 28 of Proverbs states that: “those who trust in their our wits are fools.” When we trust only in ourselves and other finite beings, we allow no room for God’s involvement— we choose to turn from God’s well-lit path in order to venture into the darkness. That beautiful path that God has unveiled for us is now shrouded in darkness—overshadowed by our pride, or an absence of faith. We believe taking our own path feels good, and maybe it does for a time. In addition, we think we have found a trail of progress—oh, what sweet liberation! I don’t know about you, but I have done this… over, and over again—for me, it’s called living…it’s called being human. However, we who have been, or continue to be, faithless fail to realize is that “the eyes of the Lord keep watch over knowledge . . . he overthrows the words of the faithless” (22:12). Is this enough?

Attempting to play God will leads us into a “deep darkness,” where we will not know “what [we] stumble over.” We can never be filled with knowledge of who we truly are, and our full potential as humans living God’s will, without the realization that we did not manufacture knowledge in the first place! By building knowledge, we are caring for a grace-filled gift that we in turn should use to grow closer to God. After all, as posed in the Book of Job, “Can [we] fathom the mysteries of God?”  In answering this, the Gospel implies that this is impossible, but does encourage knowledge, saying,  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” (Matthew 23:37).

We are fully introduced to Wisdom in Proverbs 2:

“For the Lord gives wisdom;

from his mouth comes knowledge and

understanding;

he stores up sound wisdom for the

upright…”

-Proverbs 2:6-7

“…preserving the way of his faithful

ones.

Then you will understand…

and equity, every good path;

for wisdom will come into your heart,

and knowledge will be pleasant to your

soul;

prudence will watch over you;

and understanding will guard you”

-Proverbs 2:8-11

And Proverbs 3:

“Happy are those who find wisdom,

and those who get understanding,

for her income is better than silver,

and her revenue better than gold.

She is more precious than jewels,

and nothing you desire can compare

with her.

Long life is in her right hand;

in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are ways of pleasantness,

and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who lay hold

of her;

those who hold her fast are called

happy” (Proverbs 3:13-18).

Wisdom is God-created and -infused, emerging from and as part of His divine knowledge over the created world. It’s important to understand, Wisdom is not a deity. Wisdom was “created…at the beginning of his work, / the first of his acts long ago” (Proverbs 8:22). She was “at the first, before the beginning of the earth” before people were ever created. Knowledge, which God in God’s entirety, came first; Wisdom, the personification of the creativity within, and connection to God’s absolute knowledge inspires Himself into creative acts, such as these:

“When he established the heavens, I was there . . . / when he made firm the skies above, / when he marked out the foundations of the earth, / then I was beside him, like a master worker” (Proverbs 8:27, 28, 29-30).

Therefore, it makes sense that we cannot be wise without first recognizing the root of knowledge in the universe—God—as well as his presence within ourselves: “To get wisdom is to love oneself” (19:8). Yet, the God-given wisdom that emerges from his knowledge, which can be recognized within those who recognize and are in “awe” of Him, cannot be created in a vacuum of lone human intellect or faith (i.e., “faith works is dead”). Wisdom is obtained through religious discipline—for, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge” (12:1), and the discipline is shown through sacrificing self in an attempt to shed pride. This is not an easy thing to do because it requires change and facing the unknown, which is beyond our control and conception. Nothing says this clearer than this: With regards to turning one’s life over to God’s wisdom: “I love those who love me / and those who seek me diligently find me” (8:17), and “happy are those who keep my ways” (8:32).

If you are like me, you are a driven person. While you fully realize that tomorrow is not a given, you hope to have many more years ahead of you in order to accomplish what you’re driven to do, as well as grow your personal, family life. And, if you are like me, you have certainly lived for yourself. When we are not living another, we are lost on the pathways of darkness—there is no true love, except love for oneself. When we are living for other humans, there is love, but it is a limited, lesser love. When we are living for God, we are connected to Divine/Infinite Love, which makes us more loving of the world we live in. This is not easy though, especially when we consider what Proverbs says about human ambition vs. God’s will:

“The plans of the mind belong to mortals, / but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord” (16:1), and “The human mind plans the way, / but the Lord directs the steps,” and so the ideal is to “Commit your work to the Lord, / and your plans will be established (16:9). / The Lord has made everything for its purpose” (16:3-4). What I love about these lines are how they highlight that—while we are complex intellectual beings with wonderful plans and ambitions—no amount of planning or strategizing can match what God has in store for us. No amount of study can match the knowledge and Wisdom God fills us with if we are ready to dedicate our talents to freely sharing his infinite Love and Grace. So, why delay?

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“After the Storm”

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”

-Corinthians 4:8-9

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

– James 1:2-4

On the evening of Oct. 28th, a year ago today, the outer bands of Hurricane Sandy started to brush up against the state of New Jersey. By the next morning, the super-storm was pounding Hoboken–a little town that sits directly across from Manhattan on the western side of the Hudson River–with noisy 100+ mph winds (keep in mind that old, one-sided glass panes are not meant for wind gusts of that force), torrential downpours, and plummeting temperatures. However, it was not the Category 1 (borderline 2) storm that brought the fury, but the overwhelmed Hudson River spilling over our public piers and riverfront parks. What with the freezing cold water that spewed from the Hudson, and the rain that was dumped onto our picturesque Mile-Squared town of 50,000…it flooded, quickly…well, at least 50% was under water.

When in Hoboken, Rebecca and I lived two streets from the river–on 6th street (14th street, where Eli Manning and his family live, was the most northern street on our grid), and we were very fortunate to be on a second-level apartment. In addition, our street was built on the highest part of town. Our apartment was not flooded, thank the Lord, but after losing power on the 28th we would not regain it for another two weeks…yet that was not the worst of it.

A couple days before the storm hit, on a Saturday morning, I was running around doing my best to prepare for the storm, which was not really announced in the NYC area as something to worry about until Saturday morning (if you remember, a category one hurricane named Irene had hit the area the year before, in late August, and it did not cause much damage or inconvenience). The first thing I did that day was walk down to my bank to deposit a work check. Once the deposit was recorded, I proceeded to walk around town and attempt to buy what food and supplies…were available— without many mega stores nearby and without a car to get to the larger stores, there were not many ways to effectively prepare before the storm (at category 1 or 2, we assumed would be fairly weak). Then, things got weird…

A few hours after going to the bank, I logged in to my iPhone bank app only to discover that ALL of my checking and savings accounts had been drained within the hour. A “check” for nearly $5,000, which I could not see on my app because it had not yet fully processed, had been written and cashed. I was left with multiple overdraft fees and a grand total of $0.94 cents. Rebecca, in her precautionary nature, had taken a couple hundred dollars out in cash. With less than 24 hours until the storm hit, we had $200 to our name.

When the power went out for good any and all perishable food we had, which we thought we could eat Sunday – Monday afternoon, was rendered useless. Thankfully, we had stocked up on some dry foods—pasta, bread, peanut butter, jelly, crackers, and water—but we did not have a lot (like, not enough for two weeks!) because no one thought the storm would last very long, and everyone in town panicked and tore through stores’ inventories. As store owners started to run low on product, which happened quickly, they jacked gauged prices to the extreme… I mean, to the extreme. I remember paying about $20 for two very small jars of peanut butter and jelly, and that was nothing compared to some supplies I needed from the local hardware store!

We, like most of the town, assumed the power would stay on throughout the storm. Even if we sustained the brunt of the storm for a day and night, we knew that the majority of Hoboken’s power lines, like Manhattan, are underground. Wind and lightning don’t harm us because of this fact. However, there was so much rain, and flooding from the Hudson, that power did not last more than a couple hours. In addition, the PATH train tracks, that hold the trains that connect us to Manhattan, were completely flooded…but of course we wouldn’t know that for another week.

Hoboken and Jersey City were pitch black. It was one of the eeriest blackouts I have ever seen, mainly because it lasted so long. It was also very cold—a damp, endless, bone-chilling cold, especially bearing the wind with no heat in the building. We had a flashlight and some candles, but that was about it. One would think that pasta, crackers, and water would get you through a disaster, but no matter how much you think about preparing, it is difficult to imagine three meals a day for more than a day or two. I am not saying that we starved, and we are thankful for what we had, but a body is meant to ingest protein… and so without it, the body is constantly in need of food… carbs just don’t do it, especially when you are cold, and tired. The money that could have gone to replenishing food had gone toward provisions the day before the storm hit.

The next morning, we walked around Hoboken—all I can say is that it reminded me of the movie, Mad Max. When I say walked around, I mean a couple streets—the ones not under water. We found out that nearly all basement, garden level, and first floor apartments were flooded. Some people had sewage and trash run-off in their living rooms. Many were homeless. People were cold, hungry, tired and exceedingly irritable. Cars were ruined, mud pasted the walls and windows of apartments, streets were neon green from sludge contamination, and taxi garages were nearly all but submerged— pictures would later show that you could only see the yellow tops of the cars’ roofs. There were rumors of elderly people stuck in their apartments, the NY/NJ subways being flooded, pumps in the Hudson, and the National Guard on its way. No one really knew when help would come, or what was going on, but we hoped it would change for the better. It took another day or so for the National Guard to come in with helicopters, but still there wasn’t much to do.

During the days that followed the storm, I saw the best and worst in my neighbors, but mainly the worst… a lot of the worst. I saw sidewalk cafes and restaurants try desperately to open their doors during the day and serve people in the dark, charging them double to triple their already overpriced meals with food that had nearly expired. Their signs read CASH ONLY (remember, after buying provisions, as well as buy a box of crackers to replace our food that had run out, we had nothing to our name). I saw people screaming at one another, nearly getting into fistfights, for standing in their way. I saw a visibly clean, wealthy little (well-fed) boy try to take two servings more than he should have from a soup line, then complain because it was too warm for him. By taking the extra cup, the old woman behind him with nothing left with nothing because they had run out of food. Rebecca had to watch this boy, knowing that her food allergies were so bad that a bite from that particular food (egg-based) would make her throat close, yet she was very hungry.

The worst that happened was related to our local bodega, run by a woman we saw nearly every morning—she would not spare us/loan us a dollar when we came up short buying a loaf bread with quarters that I had scrounged from under the bed and in the couch, and so we were left empty-handed and, at that point, nearly empty bellied. I heard violence outside our window in a town that was normally fairly free of it—people taking advantage of the darkness to rob and loot. Hospitals had to close, which was terrifying. No police force.

But, from all of the sadness, there were also moments of joy and pride in our fellow man. On Wednesday, a few days after the storm hit, we were down to a few more crackers and bottled water. Our phones and computers had lost their charge on Tuesday morning, and our energy was waning—Rebecca was confined to the bed, and when I went to walk down our street, which wasn’t flooded, I could not get from 6th to 1st street and back without nearly passing out from exhaustion.

That afternoon, I had decided to head over to our church, to see if they had any resources for food—since no business in town was giving away anything (the one soup line near us only served for a few hours the day before, mainly due to a lack of supplies). As I was a block away from our church, I saw something amazing—a brownstone that had electricity, or at least enough generators to have power. Outside there was a sign—COMMUNITY CHARGE STATION. This gracious couple had put chairs outside their brownstone and allowed locals to plug in to their power-strip! I nearly ran back home, dragged Rebecca out of bed, along with her phone, and we plugged in.

Once we garnered enough power, we started to write everyone we knew in NYC and Chicago to try to get news about the storm. The signals were extremely weak, and our phones were acting funny, but Rebecca was able to get in touch with a good friend of hers—a childhood friend who used to live in NYC and works for NBC, but had recently relocated to Chicago. Her friend offered to make as many calls as she could, from Chicago, to car services that she had used when working for NBC in NYC. Since the lines were all down (for phone calls), she would try to get us OUT of Hoboken, as she mentioned the news had said that Hoboken would possibly be without power for a month, and ATMs would be down as long as power was out. In addition, she told us that the train tracks (both above and below ground) were totally flooded, and that might be 1-3 months. There were rumors that the buses would be out of commission for a long time, as well.  From my end, I was able to text an adjunct professor colleague of mine who lived in Brooklyn, and he graciously offered to take us in, if we could make it out there—no questions asked. With barely any food, Rebecca’s terrible allergies looming in a town without a working hospital, no money and no ATMs, and not much hospitality from those who had more than us, we sat out in the cold and waited, and waited. Later that night, Rebecca’s friend found a car that would come to Hoboken… that is, if the driver could navigate around the flood zones!

Wednesday night, nearly 72 hours since the storm hit, I stood out in the middle of our nearly empty street, watching as a black car occasionally passed me by. When I saw what I thought was our car, I grabbed a bag and we jumped in. Three blocks later, we found out that we were in the wrong car. Half an hour later, we were in a car headed for Brooklyn. For the next week, we lived on the floor of a small apartment… just outside of the one bathroom; but, after coming from our apartment (with the stench of rotten food, garbage piling up—no trash pick up—cats, etc.), it was a reprieve, and we were eternally thankful to be out of Hoboken! After nearly a week, we went and stayed on the floor of another friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. I don’t remember the timeline exactly, but later on we were able to go back to Hoboken—however, it would be a long while until the town would be the same, and an even longer time until we would be the same.

After the storm, we found out that the trains in Hoboken would be inoperable for about three months, and this came during the winter. My commute to three different schools in three different cities became a thousand times more difficult. Remember, I did not have a car. A couple weeks after the storm, we got snow, and it made things that much more difficult for those affect even worse by the storm—the poor people in coastal Brooklyn and Staten Island with homes that were utterly destroyed were now scraping through the wind, water and snow.

But the stress of the storm, and the months to follow propelled a lot of change in our lives. Rebecca went to hell and back with her declining health (multiple ER visits, medical bills, and an emergency surgery on Easter morning), and we had many unexpected financial difficulties (that came in the months after my bank replenished the money lost by fraud). As a result of the storm, and the after effects, NYC/NJ area colleges lost a lot of students—enrollment plummeted, which meant jobs became scarce. This got worse the following semester. We also felt a deep discontent with the leadership and community at our church. This, and other considerations, led to our need to move, or at least we started to talk about it. Due to a whole handful of reasons, we were unable to move until I got offered a job in GA in late May. But it finally happened the way it was supposed to happen.

Looking back on the storm, and the challenges of the last 7-8 months we lived in Hoboken, it would have been easy to lose faith along the way… to question God’s will, or even doubt. I won’t lie, there were times, months after the hurricane when we were sitting in the hospital with bills piling up (from issues with barely-any-coverage insurance) where I asked—what are we doing wrong? However, we never doubted God and his plan for us, and that is probably what helped us keep our sanity and kept us closer than ever—because, besides a few good friends and family, it was not the people around us. Still, we didn’t handle it perfectly, but we stayed connected to God and each other, and we tried our best to look for the best in the world. There were things we learned after the storm: 1) God strengthens us, even if it comes as a result of pain; 2) we need a spiritual community of genuine, enthusiastic believers; 3) love only lasts when it is shared between a couple and the Infinite; 3) service is living faith and living faith is service (“faith without works is dead”!).

During this time, we came to the conclusion (thought it was pretty obvious) that our former faith community did not follow these crucial tenets, and that we could not grow in God by being a part of a group (or at least the majority of a group) that did not live out their faith. We craved a deeper, more personal connection, and enthusiastic community of believers. Though it didn’t happen suddenly, we began to talk about finding a church that was closer to the Word and the Way; a church that treated faith like a verb. By the end of the spring, with our prospects dwindling and our souls darkened, we decided that we needed a change of pace, and after much prayer and meditation, we came to the conclusion that our home was in Georgia. We did what is so hard to do—we faced change head on, prepared as much as we could, and took the leap of faith.  It was the most difficult, but exhilarating leap we’ve ever taken.

Looking back on the past year with all of its physical, mental and spiritual hurt, I can say that we were drawn closer to Christ, and each other, than ever before. We were transformed. It didn’t happen all at once, and in fact most of the transformation was not felt until we had been in Georgia for a month or so, but the suffering was salvific. The external challenge highlighted internal strife…at least I felt it within me. The storm acted as the catalyst for spiritual transformation.

Through all of my shortcomings and selfishness, I have grown stronger for confronting the areas where I was blocking out God (my spiritual weaknesses), and I was more willing to eliminate areas of emptiness and sin. Instead of reaching out for something better, we shed everything comfortable in order to open ourselves up for the great Grace of a gracious God. Not only did God save us from the storm, and from the challenges we experienced and still experience, but He showed us a more genuine faith and link to Grace that, at least for me, was worth all of the confusion and pain of the temporal suffering. We have found a true Home. From change came growth. From suffering, came a deeper perspective and a true belief and happiness in words: I don’t know, and I am not in control. Show me the way, and I will be okay.

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The Power of Forgiveness

If you are human, you have something called an ego. If you are like me, an imperfect human, your ego gets the best of you, swelling from anger, self-righteousness and arrogance. If you have lived long enough, or at least through a typical childhood, you have experience people who enjoy showcasing their anger; it fills them with adrenaline, and for some it can be addictive. Others, such as myself, avoid showing anger as much as possible; we avoid it like the plague. Those who demonstrate anger are not necessarily bolder, and those who avoid it are not meek; we are all equal in that we feel and experience anger. We learn.

Why do we get angry? Big question to answer! I’m so presumptuous as to speak for you, but I get angry when I don’t get what I want—i.e., I don’t get the grade, I don’t get the job, I don’t get the girl, I don’t get the raise, I don’t get to spend time with a loved one who passes, I don’t get the type of attention I want or have come to expect from a group of people, etc. What’s common about all of these examples? The word “I.”  

While there are many ways to look at the origins of anger, I believe it is rooted in pride, and pride in selfishness. Anger is a selfish reaction to someone or something that has poked my swollen, inflamed ego. When I hurt, my reflex is to hurt others, so I don’t have to sit in the hurt and question myself… so I don’t have to change because change hurts even more.

Now, I wish I was like most folks—get angry, show the anger by putting it out there, and then let it go, and that’s that. However, I am one who attempts to bottle up my anger by thinking through it, justifying it in order to avoid a cosmic blowup. But emotions cannot, and should not, be intellectualized. They should be felt, processed, and accepted. And I ask—do WE (all of us) really, truly get rid of the anger after showing it? Is whatever we think of as letting go really, truly a genuine disconnect from the problem? Are we that powerful?

Over the past couple of years, I grew angry with somebody very close to me, and I (notice the repetition of ‘I’) thought it was justified. I was in a situation where I did not like the way that loved one had acted toward a person who was, at the time, very close to me on an intimate, romantic level. For the purposes of this sermon, I will call these two Loved One ‘A’ and Loved One ‘B.’ In this case, I perceived that ‘A’ had blatantly and consistently treated ‘B’ in such a way that was unacceptable—it hurt ‘B’ deeply, and confused and embarrassed me. As a result, this severely strained my relationship with ‘B.’ Consequently, I became coldly estranged from ‘A,’ a person with whom I had always been extremely close my entire life.

For years, I kept the anger under wraps, trying to justify and keep the peace. The only person with whom I shared this anger was the “victim,”  ‘B,’ which bred more anger and resentment…justified by what I felt was self-righteousness. In time, I hit a snapping point, and I couldn’t take it any longer; I had to defend the honor of ‘B,’ and I had to confront this mistreatment (intentional or not) and say that it would not longer be tolerated. It was not as easy as some might assume. After much consideration, I charted out a logical plan for confronting this person and setting healthy boundaries, and so I gathered the courage and followed this path. One would think that after taking time to confront and establish boundaries, that everything would be fine with me—forget, accept, and forgive? Oh, no. Not yet. I executed that plan over three years ago…

When I followed my best plan, my human plan, I started down the road of forgiveness. As time went on, I started to be numb to the rawness; the anger faded, albeit slowly. I was civil and cordial with ‘A,’ but that was the extent of it. If you were to rate my level of forgiveness (1 being the lowest, and 10 the highest), I was a 7 or 8, on a good day. In time, ‘B’ and I split ways, and so I was left with the remnants of this resentment. There was no one to confide in to build self-justification. I found myself all alone, sitting in my still-fizzling anger, and I wanted out, but I could not figure out how to relinquish it…

Letter of Paul to the Colossians states that, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth…” (Colossians 3:1-4).  What I had always failed to realize was that I had tried all human ways of dealing with resentment, and I still came up short. I had not turned to God. How silly was I to believe that I could completely cure my problems, especially considering that I, an imperfect human, was the one who had created the problems in the first place! I had reached a limit of mortality, and it was frustrating to accept my mortal limitations.

Sure, I had done a decent job at getting myself to the point of forgetting, and believing I had forgiven. While I understood the concept of ‘forgetting,’ it was impossible to completely forgive without the help of a power greater than myself. Anger, pride, and self-centeredness are states that block me, and keep me disconnected from God and God’s loving Grace. Therefore, these states are sinful. Sins are human-made, and humans cannot overcome them by intellect alone. They can be recognized, and quelled, certainly, but not alleviated. A little later in the Colossians, the author mentions that:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. (Colossians 3:12-15)

In intellectualizing my resentment, and trying to work through it, I was focused only on myself. In my self-centered pride, there was no room for others… no room for God… no humility. How could I have humility when I was not exhibiting kindness and patience? I was stuck. What I failed to realize, and what was eventually shown through prayer and meditation, was that the problem was not the other— the problem was, and is usually always, me.

Over the period of these past few months of being “re-born” in the love and Grace of Christ, I have been forced to confront my Self— warts and all. My soul burned within me, and asked the tough questions, such as: what sins am I coveting…and in what areas of my life am I keeping myself distanced from God? (keeping myself distanced from God inhibits me from sharing his love and Grace with others in order to build and maintain healthy, happy relationships free of selfishness and pride)

After “being raised with Christ,” and committing myself to “set [my] minds on things that are above” (what Tillich calls, “Infinite Concerns”), my perspective on human relationships drastically changed. As a result, the Spirit filled me with a love I was incapable of understanding, as well as compassion; and, as a result, I re-established my love for Loved One ‘A.’ The release and relief I felt from the relinquishing of human resentment, which came months after being “re-born” and first getting right with God, was like nothing I have ever felt… like nothing I could have ever done my own. I got myself closer to ultimate relief, but it was God, and God alone, who showed me Ultimate Relief… showed me how to better love myself and others. While I don’t do live perfectly, and never will, I know that I am no longer alone in grappling with anger (an example of self-imprisonment)… I only have to turn to God who constantly teaches about real love, compassion, and forgiveness—He is my Compass in the chaos.

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