Monday, July 18, 2016

Flags at Half Staff

"Long Winding Road"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday as I drove past the “City Hall” of our local desert community I realized that the flags out in front of the building were flying at half staff and I was struck with the realization that they had been flying that way for a long time now – maybe months.  In fact, I was ashamed to admit that I wasn’t quite sure who those half-staff flags were remembering? Was it the police killed in Baton Rouge or maybe Dallas or was it the victims of terrorism in Nice France? Those flags had become an all too-familiar sight and I had become so used to them that they hardly even raise my consciousness anymore when I see them.

As I drove past those familiar flags of mourning, I called to mind the story of the “exodus” found in the Hebrew Bible, the well-known story about the Jewish People who had been freed from slavery in the land of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land; but before they could reach this new land they had to travel through an endless and uncharted desert wilderness, a journey that lasted forty years.  This journey was not easy, the terrain was dry and rocky, the sun was hot, there were no clearly marked roads and the only way they could possibly reach their destination was to trust God for guidance and to take good care of one another along the way.

While people nowadays may be acquainted with this rather well-known story, there is one very important part of this tale that is often overlooked.

According to the exodus account, there were a whole bunch of the freed Hebrew slaves who decided that the journey in the wilderness was just too much of an adventure, the travel was too rough, the way ahead was too ambiguous, there were way too many questions and not enough answers and so many decided to pack up their families and go back to the servitude of slavery in Egypt.

Oddly enough they decided to return to their place of suffering, they went back and allowed the humiliating yoke of slavery to once again be placed upon them because at least they knew where their next meal was coming from and this was familiar territory.

Like all stories in the scriptures, the tale of freed slaves returning to “familiar suffering” may well be a story about our common human condition, a story about how we may prefer to cling to our suffering rather than walk a path of freedom.

This reminds me of something the Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote:

People have a hard time letting go of their suffering.
Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.

I thought about all this yesterday when I drove past those half-staff flags that have become such a familiar sight, so commonplace over the past months. Flags at half-staff remind me every day of racial violence, mass shootings and terrorism and maybe I am just willing to live with these reminders rather than to become more sensitive to the pain of others or to change my life to make this world a more compassionate place?

The story of freed slaves going back to back to embrace lives of familiar suffering may actually be a story about getting used to flags always flying at half staff.

I am reminded again of one my favorite teachings from priest and author, Anthony DeMello, who puts it this way:

As we walk a spiritual path it’s not that we fear the unknown.
What we really fear is the loss of the known.
Many people don’t want to wake up, they don’t want to be happy
because they are afraid of happiness.

It seems to me that this might be a good time for any one of us to ask ourselves that “wilderness question:” Are willing to adventurously walk into unfamiliar territory of new and abundant life or will we rather choose to cling to the pain and stay in the safe territory of slavery and bondage?

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