Keeping The Faith

While in Central America earlier this year, I visited the Mayan ruins at Tazumal, El Salvador. Tazumal is one of the best preserved ruins in that country, and I learned from my guide, that it was a central religious site. Tazumal was a place where the ancients gathered to ceremonially soothe their cruel, bloodthirsty deities. If a severe drought struck the region, then the gods were angry; shed some blood. If the rainy season was monsoonal, the gods were perturbed; shed some blood. If the spring corn crop refused to grow, the gods were against the people; shed some blood. Sickness, plague, earthquakes, tidal waves, floods, or accidents; these all had the same explanation. The fickle and nefarious gods had to be appeased.

All ancient religions were built on a similar foundation: God is angry and humanity stands in constant danger, thus someone has to pay. Much of current religion is anchored to this mooring as well. Is it no wonder then, that the world is filled with hate, bloodshed, panic, and terror when religious people, the vast majority of the world’s population, expect the same from their gods? Regrettably, faith has failed to mature or evolve beyond its most elementary and primitive beginnings; and when Christianity succumbs to this type of fear-driven hysteria, it is especially disconcerting. That God is an unpredictable executioner with an itchy, twitchy trigger finger that must somehow be pacified is a gross misrepresentation of our faith, because it is a gross misrepresentation of Jesus Christ, his person, and his mission.

We who are Christian believe that Jesus “is the visible image of the invisible God,” as the Apostle Paul wrote. Paul continued, “And through Christ, God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth.” Put simply, the Advent of Jesus, his coming into the world that we celebrate during this season, was not to save us from God, but to show us what and who God is really like. And what is he like? He is at peace with us. He has reconciled all things. There is no anger to placate and no blood to shed, only his love to receive, explore, and share.

God loves us, not because we are good; not because we are loveable; not because of what we can do for him or for others; and not because of the way we make him feel. He loves us because he is actually, truly, really that good. And what we and our world need more than anything – a world up to its collective ears in fear and bloodshed – is that kind of real, unconditional, healing love.

I enjoy how Father Richard Rohr explains this. He tells a story about eating dinner with a family from his parish. They had a wonderful meal and the whole time the toddler in the family, who had just learned to walk, was running about everywhere. The little guy could really move, but he had a problem stopping. He ran to the top of a set of stairs but could not find his “brakes” in time to stop. He toppled, over the edge, banging and careening his way downward. No one at the table moved; they all held their breath in dread. Four, five, six, seconds passed. The father finally jumped up and ran to the stairwell. There the youngster was at the bottom of the steps, only bruised a bit, but lying in shock, his eyes bugged out over what had just happened to him. Only when his dad got to him and picked him up did he start crying.

Father Rohr made this appropriate observation: “We can never acknowledge our pain and let the healing begin, until we are taken up in the arms of love. Love allows the crying and the mending to begin.” God wants to take up the hurt and injured into his arms to love and mend, not destroy. So let the mending begin in each us, and we might discover that the mending will begin in our world.

Rev. Joseph P. Monahan offered this prayer after the violence at Virginia Tech several years ago. I offer it here again, this time, in wake of the senseless shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Lord, we don’t have words for what we’ve seen. There are no words. There are only tears…

God of love, heal us.

… tears for young lives lost, for promising lives cut off, for loved ones whom we can hold no more.

God of love, heal us.

A place we cherish, a quiet place of study, a place filled with memories of friendships and laughter and learning, has been torn apart by gunshots and screams.

God of love, heal us.

We heard, but we did not believe. We tried to comprehend, but we could not. And now we ache…

God of love, heal us.

… we ache with sorrow for eyes that witnessed what no human eye should ever witness, for dinner tables with empty chairs, for lives that took years to grow but only seconds to extinguish.

God of love, heal us.

We ache with fear for our own children, for the knowledge that a decision to kill, a decision made in an instant, can never be taken back, can never be undone.

God of love, heal us.

And we ache with the emptiness that reverberates around the school, through every corner of campus, because we hear the voices of our brothers and sisters no more.

God of love, heal us.

God of love, God of blessing, God of life eternal, God of life all-powerful, God of life beyond all words, beyond all hurts, beyond all pain…

God of love, heal us. Amen.

One of the world leading talents today is a young man named David Garrett. He is youthful, handsome to the point of absurdity, and rich. If you have ever seen him, you are accurate to conclude that he has spent a good part of his short but successful career as a model. He can be seen wearing Armani and in the pages of Vogue magazine. He continues to model, from time to time, but posing for the camera is not his first love. Garret spends most of his waking hours practicing the violin.

David Garrett, who has been called the David Beckham of classical music, was playing with the London Philharmonic before he was ten years old. And wanting nothing more than to play music, he ran away from home to study at the Juilliard School of music in New York. This was against the wishes of his European parents. So modeling, which he had the face for, was his way of paying his own way as he went. I guess if you’ve got it, use it.

At Christmas time a couple of years ago, Garrett played for a packed house at London’s Barbican Hall. Having made up with his parents, seeing that this music gig had worked out pretty well, he hurried out the back door after the performance to meet his family for dinner.

Coming up the concert hall stairwell, he slipped at the top of the flight and fell backwards, tumbling down the stairs. He was bruised and battered, but worse than that, he fell on the case carrying his concert violin, landing on it with every bounce down the stairs. This was no ordinary violin, however. When you are world-class musician, you carry a world-class instrument. Garret’s instrument was a 230-year-old Italian masterpiece crafted by G. B. Guadagnini.

Garrett said he bought the violin in 2003 for 510,000 Euros; at the time, a cool one million American dollars. And after his fall, the instrument was smashed into almost a million not so cool pieces. But Garret was not all down in the dumps over what had happened. First, he realized that the violin and case had probably saved him from serious injury, if not saved his life. He was fortunate to have only a few bumps and bruises. Second, his last recordings where he used the now crushed violin sky-rocketed in value.

CDs that had been selling for twenty bucks, suddenly began selling for more than a thousand. Third, the violin was insured, and his policy should pay off. But the best news of all: David Garrett was playing music again in just a couple of weeks having been given a replacement instrument: A Stradivarius worth three times Garrett’s original instrument. Not a bad stumble after all?

Like David Garrett, we are all going to slip and fall, sometimes, very hard. We are all going to tumble, end over end, in a crash of our own making. It’s inevitable. It’s human nature. It’s beyond doubt. What will we do in the aftermath? – That is the more pertinent question.

Will we lie in the stairwell, mourning our losses, nursing our broken bones, crying over the crushed pieces that cannot be replaced, repaired, or undone; or will we get up, still bruised, but learn from the process and start playing music, better music again?

My friend Landon Saunders may sum it up best with a little tale from the Wild West. A cowboy was sentenced to be hanged for his crimes. They took him out to the gallows and asked him, “Do you have any last words?” He said, “Yes, I do. This is really going to teach me a lesson.”

That’s probably a bit late in the game to learn. So, maybe you can get to it a tad quicker than that. Maybe you can embrace what God wants to do with your failures. He wants them to be a new beginning. Where you fall, and a part of you breaks, that is where he brings new life – life like you never thought possible.