The Word in Peace, Third Sunday of Lent: For what do I thirst?

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)

In a post on the CTA 20/30 site last week, Justin Sengstock, a blogger-colleague (blogleague?) of mine, reflected on Lent in high school days of yore, when he treated the penitential season as a “competitive sport.” He told of going without food between meals every day, complete with pounding headaches and an ill-placed sense of accomplishment.

Justin is not alone. I’ve tried various innovations of Lenten piety. One year, fresh off of three earned Middle Eastern history credits, I did a Ramadan-esque fast of waiting until sundown to eat (at which point I ended up making up for lost time). Even as recently as this past Ash Wednesday, I elected to limit myself to bread and water for the day. It turns out that it’s hard to adequately perform a high-stress teaching job when my own body is yelling at me to stop starving myself.

I kind of missed the point. And that’s why the readings this week appear during the season of Lent, because a lot of us miss the point. Mortification of the body for mortification’s sake is not really fasting. It becomes either an obsessive-compulsive Christianity that frets over a self-imposed process or the hypocritical “look at me!” Christianity that Jesus warns us about in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:16-18).

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Racism is still with us; it just has a different look

The city of Sanford, Fla. had already contributed a paragraph to the narrative of race relations in America decades before Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman were born. Jackie Robinson, in the midst of his long and difficult path to breaking baseball’s color barrier, was booted from the ballpark in Sanford for the offense of being a black man in a white stadium. As a local historian puts it:

“While playing in Sanford, Florida, Robinson singled, stole second base, then scored a hit run only to find the Sheriff waiting on him in the dugout with handcuffs. He was removed from the game.”

jackie-robinson

Jackie Robinson (LOOK Magazine)

67 years later, Sanford is a much different place. Formerly a steamboat port dependent on the citrus trade, it is now a cosmopolitan bedroom community for Orlando, which sits 20 miles to the south. Sanford is not quite the Southern hamlet it once was, as U.S. 17/92 now bypasses the quaint downtown area to get tourists to the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens or to the southern terminus of Amtrak’s Auto Train. Interstate 4 carries thousands of daily commuters within a half-mile of the Twin Lakes gated community where the Martin shooting took place.

I do not know whether or not George Zimmerman suspected, accosted and shot Trayvon Martin because he was black. The words that pundits have spoken, written and yelled before, during and after the trial have been based on speculation. Zimmerman himself is the only one alive who really knows what happened. Those who were convinced of his guilt before the trial are angry that he was acquitted. Those who were convinced of his innocence before the trial feel vindicated.

Regardless of Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, the trial has exposed what blacks in America have known all this time: racism is alive and well in this country. We cannot dance around the issue any more.

Americans make the mistake of identifying racism as a personality trait, creating an imaginary dichotomy between those who are “racist” and those who are “not racist.” Being called a racist angers people because they take it mean that they are being lumped together with Nazis, Klan members and other undesirables. However, identifying racism as a trait not only creates labels (which is kind of how we got to racism in the first place), but it also misses the point. Missing from the racism debate is the very Christian notion that it is not “racists” who are bad, but racist thoughts and actions.

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Embarking on a New Journey of Consciousness

Mayan CalendarAs the year 2012 concluded, much noise and media attention was paid to a curiosity found within the Mayan calendar.

The ancient Maya were a Mesoamerican civilization in which all aspects of conventional society revolved around the study of astrology. Their calendar was based entirely on predictions and insights that could be gained by studying the stars and planetary movements that take place in our galaxy. This system was so meticulously accurate that modern-day scientists have been able to chart and identify astronomical events that have occurred in coordination with projections detailed in the calendar.

A sudden panic took hold of many, across the globe, when a discovery was made. The calendar, which chronicled time from hundreds of thousands of years ago to our own present day in age, seemed to inexplicably end on December 21, 2012. Given the calendar’s weighty reputation for being precise in its astronomical forecasts, many around the world began to fear that this date would bring about the end of our planet.

Although such a response may have seemed rational, something else must be taken into consideration.

In the Mayan paradigm, time was viewed not as being simply a linear progression, but rather, cyclical in nature. Their calendar was arranged by various “ages” or periods, in which the gods had attempted to enact harmony and order within the human race and throughout the world.

The most recent age on the calendar which we had been living out was initiated in 3114 BCE. The beginning of this age marked a movement of humanity out of the Neolithic period (where a sparse existence of hunter-gathering had been the norm for our homo sapien ancestors) towards the advent of civilization — when an era was inaugurated in which our species pursued advanced techniques of agricultural development, the establishment of cities and metropolitan complexes, and where a greater sense of collaboration and discovery was sought amongst the entire human race.

The end of this temporal cycle on December 21, 2012 was to commemorate a dual reality. First, it would mark a rare celestial event that only occurs once every 26,000 years. Driven by the gravitational pull of the earth’s axis, the sun crossed a point in the Milky Way galaxy which is known as the galactic equator (For a much more thorough and accurate explanation of this phenomenon than I could ever hope to give here please consider consulting a respected astronomical/scientific source for pertinent information). Secondly, to the Maya, this cosmic rarity marked the end of the current mode of consciousness. In short, the end of the calendar on this date proclaims not an end of our world, but a new beginning, a renewed opportunity of transformation, joy, and light for all humanity.

When all of the successes and triumphs of the past centuries are analyzed in this spirit, it could be legitimately argued that the human race is progressing towards a point of definitive enlightenment on its evolutionary journey.

Although they have not been eradicated by any means, racial disparities that once divided societies are gradually crumbling in the face of a heightened sense of exposure and empirical awareness.

Even though gender inequality is still a very real problem worldwide (the infamous case of a woman’s recent gang-rape in India underscores this), women have burst through the glass ceilings of nearly all of societies highest echelons — a woman leads the most prosperous economic power in Europe, one of America’s most beloved television personalities and entrepreneurs has attained a position as one of the world’s most successful and recognizable faces, and there are rampant rumors that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton will take one more chance at breaking the ultimate glass ceiling of being the first female occupant of the White House.

My own state, along with others throughout the nation, as well as an increasing number of countries throughout the world, continues to affirm that legally, nothing distinguishes the love and commitment that two persons of the same-sex share with one another from couples who are of the opposite gender. In recent years, the United Nations has passed resolutions declaring LGBT persons as a discernible minority within society who are deserving of certain rights that guarantee their protection in light of this reality; in addition to guarding these individuals from extrajudicial executions seeking to target them outside of the scope of the law because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

A final heartening observation is that human beings throughout the world are now more connected than ever before. In a matter of seconds, information can be disseminated or exchanges conducted through a plethora of technological and social media tools — the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, email, and smart phones are all instruments that facilitate today’s highly charged atmosphere of interaction.

Despite these monumental breakthroughs in human achievement, a moral deficit remains in terms of how far we as a species must progress in order to eradicate numerous conditions and circumstances that unfortunately exist in all areas of the world.

For example, our church is a spiritual entity that offers a tremendous amount of good to global society. Countless emissaries of the Catholic Church — whether they be members of religious orders, social workers, or lay faithful — work to live out the promises of the Gospel in the lives of the least among us. Charities, immigration centers, and hospitals are just a few of the indispensable humanitarian services that people of within the church have courageously provided for centuries.  Yet, as an institution centered around the all-male hierarchy of bishops, headed by the pope, Catholicism has failed to read the signs of the times that so desperately need to be addressed in the twenty-first century. The inherent equal dignity of women is denied when the Vatican refuses to entertain the possibility of ordaining women, hiding behind archaic arguments that attempt to present the gender of Jesus of Nazareth as a defense for theological chauvinism. The humanity of LGBT persons is scorned when the Roman Magisterium classifies their orientation as a “disorder” and financially supports efforts to keep in place measures that condone legally sanctioned discrimination in the areas of marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. As recently as last month, Pope Benedict XVI responded to the latest initiatives to recognize civil marriages between gay couples by stating that, “…policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.” If various agents within the Catholic Church consciously endorse sentiments that marginalize and subjugate women and LGBT persons within their own spiritual frame of reference, doesn’t this mean that they are in league — albeit indirectly — with forces throughout the world that are constantly acting to suppress these groups?

Poverty, income inequality, widespread famine and disease continue to plague our world. In a gross display of irony, these afflictions often are more pronounced in countries that are wealthy and economically developed. Nations such as our own, China, and especially India would be found in this category. While they possess the resources and the means to reduce this phenomenon, lip-service is all that is ever paid to this problem. An emphasis on the goodwill of charities and churches to reduce the effects of poverty is usually highlighted, while no meaningful solutions are compiled to confront the systemic and social causes that perpetuate its grip on humanity.

The benefits of technological innovations to human society were mentioned above. However, these advances have become so hi-tech and personalized that they ultimately might be having a more detrimental effect on us than we could ever realize. iPhones and the social networking tools that go along with them are wonderfully convenient. Yet, one can become so tethered to the comfort and ease of speaking to a person behind a screen that this type of interaction with another becomes normal. Focusing all visual and mental stimulations solely on a virtual plane, as opposed to a physical one, could desensitize many of us to the wonder and vibrancy of making a human connection. In a sense, it seems that our culture has moved in this direction. To say hello to a stranger on the street is viewed as abnormal. Stepping out of our own comfort zones in hope of empathizing with another’s life experience is a lost art form. This radical form of individualism on steroids is having a highly corrosive effect on our society as a whole. The truth may be that today’s world is the most interconnected network of persons that has ever existed on our planet, but it could also be a fact that on a personal basis, human being-to-human being, our species has reached the most isolated point in its evolutionary journey of self-discovery.

Recent days have shown us that a pervasive disregard for human life is now the status quo of everyday life. What else motivated the heinous shootings in Aurora, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut, Oak Creek, Wisconsin, or Tuscon, Arizona? The list of locations, dates, and names of the individuals who lost their lives in such horrific tragedies extends back years into America’s psyche. The ‘powers-that-be’ in Washington who have allowed inertia to prevail in the wake of these senseless acts are just as responsible for them as those who initiated them. These same powers are also complicit in multiple conflicts throughout the world in which no just resolution is in sight. President Barack Obama has made vast improvement upon many of the issues with which the United States was confronted when he took office. However, he continues to exercise enormous harm in one alarming area. Barack Obama has continued the Bush administration’s practice of drone strikes to eliminate individuals the United States government views as “threats to national security.” Such suspects are targeted without the parameters of due process and international law. How can the leader of the free world hope to achieve success on the avenues of peace in the Middle East, or elsewhere, when he can simply sign off on the termination of an unquestioned subject’s life with the stroke of a pen?

Such instances are a collective failure of humanity to live up to the fullest extent of its, divinely intended, potential. However, there is no need for these statistics to continue. Each one of us has the capacity to put a stop to these stains on the universal human conscience. We can foster a new mode of being, simply by using our thoughts, words, or actions on behalf of the virtues of positivity, inclusion, and temperance.

The ancient Mayans felt that the attitude with which humanity confronted each new cosmic era would determine its fate for the near future. If we choose to enter this new era of positive consciousness, accepting the profound reality it embodies, we may expect peace and tranquility to be ours to enjoy in the future. Yet, if we ignore the inner shift in consciousness that the end of the calendar signals, cataclysmic events of negativity and discord will continue to be the new normal that the world awakens to each day.

Will we remain static, in the very depths of our human capabilities, lodged in the state of the “old self,” as the apostle Paul would characterize it. Or will we realize our divine calling, and rise to the fullness of our inherent potential? Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians would later depict as the “New Adam” through the eyes of faith, saw as His mission the task of bringing glad tidings to the poor, proclaiming release to those in bondage, recovering sight for the blind, and liberating those who are oppressed in any way (Luke 4:18). Each, and every member of the human race has been anointed for this same path of reconciliation and transformation. The choice is ours for the taking.

Mother Teresa’s Footsteps

During my senior year at Santa Clara University, I worked a job in one of the campus’ most beautiful buildings.  The walls of the bright, naturally-lit interior were lined with a collection of black and white photographs depicting influential peacemakers from around the world.  All of them are striking portraits, capturing men and women with strong postures and warms smiles.  Only two photographs are exceptions.  In addition to a headshot of the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, there are two other photographs of her–one of her old, maternal hands; the other, of her tiny deformed feet.

I always found myself standing in front of those feet. I have not seen a pair of feet like them anywhere else–so worn and, honesty, quite ugly.  I was drawn to them nevertheless because, while I could have never imagined feet like those, when I stood before them I always thought to myself, “Yes, these are exactly what the feet of Mother Teresa would look like.” That is, like feet contorted by her ceaseless labor, her walking back and forth along the streets of Calcutta where she cared for the poorest.  The sores of her feet were a tangible manifestation of the difficult work that she embraced with such love and altruism.

Most of us don’t have feet like those–feet that reflect the streets we choose to walk.  We protect our feet with socks and shoes, and hide the few imperfections they bear.  As this year comes to a close, however, I have been wondering what my feet would like like if they did, actually, reflect where I have been.  Where did I choose to place my footsteps this year?  Where have I been?  And how were this year’s footsteps different from those of the last few years? Continue reading