A Holy Week

On Palm Sunday I preached the good news about God’s unexpected salvation – salvation from sin, salvation for all, and salvation from circumstances. I said this –

If God’s power can conquer sin and death, then he can certainly free us from everything that enslaves us. He can remove every roadblock and work miracles through our limitations. But often God doesn’t intercede the way we expect…

Friends, too often we make ourselves prisoners of hope, looking for salvation from circumstances to come in a particular package or follow a particular pattern. As greatly as God loves you, he wants to set you free! But are you coming to God with clenched fists, holding tightly to your expected outcomes? What if God knows that there is something better, something you need more than what you are asking for?

My last blog post was a raw expulsion of feeling. I compared myself to an unraveling sweater. I had reached a breaking point emotionally, spiritually and physically. I could not think of another month of job searching without crying.

What a difference a week makes.

Within days of writing Unraveling Sweater, good news rolled into my life like a 4th of July parade. My father, who was laid off a year ago, received a wonderful job offer. Beginning May 1st he will raise money for a non-profit that serves some of the poorest children in Phoenix. God heard our prayers and came to save.

A few days later I received a job offer of my own. From June thru December I will be serving as a chaplain at the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii. I will lead chapels for students from Kindergarten through 5th grade and offer pastoral care and counseling to students and their families. Though I love spending time with children and prize my role as aunt as much as I do my role as pastor, I’ve never imagined myself working with kids. Clearly God had other ideas. He heard my cries and he came to save.

After 4 years relentlessly pursuing a full-time job, this new opportunity feels like a Jubilee, a real trumpet-blast of liberation. I will have a new challenge to feed my brain and an island getaway free from job-searching to feed my soul. I’m embracing my own lesson. God has given me unexpected salvation, a gift in an unusual package, but I’m welcoming it with joy and anticipation.

The desert has been a significant metaphor for my inner life and experiences the past four years that I’ve lived in Phoenix. It’s not lost on me that I’m moving from the desert to what many people consider paradise on earth. Most people only dream of places like Hawaii and only a privileged few vacation there. I will soon live and work there. I will leave behind the dry, dusty, marrow-sucking heat of the desert for the lush greens, fragrant blooms and warm breezes of a tropical island. I can’t find adequate words to describe my sense of gratitude to God and the renewal of hope that is happening in my spirit.

And in the middle of all of this good news, pain and loss continue to shade my life. A friend is experiencing the miscarriage of her first baby. Another is newly devastated by infidelity. Two others have said their final goodbyes, one to a mother, the other to a sister. A homebound widow begs for a visit and prayers – her roommate returned to a life of addiction and is now hospitalized after attempting suicide. People I love are hurting and so even as I rejoice, I shout – Hosanna! Save, now! Save, I pray!

This has been a holy week. A week of contrasts inhabiting the same moment. I rejoice in my circumstances even as I weep with others. Hope sprouts with new dreams for my future while circumstances crush the spirit of those around me. Joy mixes with sorrow and makes its own kind of liturgy.

As a Christian, Holy Week is the strangest week we live. We do our best to step into time with Jesus, to participate in the iconic moments of his last days. On Sunday we celebrate his arrival as king. He’s come to do his most sacred work, to redeem God’s people and take the throne. We dazzle and sometimes disturb visitors to our churches with waving palm branches, cute children’s plays and shouts of hosanna. By Friday everything has changed. We have lost our joy. We are full of confusion, pain and fear. We turn down the volume and the lights and soak in the fact that our savior has been betrayed, arrested, tortured, humiliated and nailed to a cross. On Saturday we weep. Some give up and walk away. In all of us there is an inner stillness; we’re waiting for something, but we don’t know what. And then it’s Sunday again and we experience the deepest possible joy as Jesus appears before us alive and victorious!

It’s a week full of contrasts that inhabit the same moment. Light and darkness. Life and death. Waiting, seeking and finding. Unprecedented despair followed by unparalleled rejoicing. Holy Week is the pattern of life, at least for now. And it’s only the knowledge that painful things lead to unexpectedly good things, that keeps me living.

morning, the first day

Study of Women Mourning by Michanelangelo Buonarroti

Study of Women Mourning by Michelangelo Buonarroti

 

 

dirt and ash adorn my head,
a dark covering of filth gritty on my scalp.
thick, tangled hairs scratch my cheek like coarse threads,
strangely comforting.

hands hang guiltily at my sides.
soiled, broken nails like swords
left streaks of red down my arms
as I rent the clothe of my tunic.
tight fists like clubs that beat purple, black and green onto my chest.
iron fingers that ripped clumps of hair from roots set deep in my skull.

eyes, swollen from the blow of wind and grief,
see little but tan ground or grey sky;
everything out of focus and unremarkable.

my body is parched:
muscles shriveled and limp,
skin cracked like the wadis that line every valley.
even the marrow seems sucked out of my cavernous bones.

i think i should waste away but the gushing never stops;
(perhaps another of his miracles).

tears tear a wide rift down the plains of my face,
a mark of my homeland etched into a thousand layers of skin.
some slide into my mouth creating a paste with the dust that always coats my tongue,
today made thick and repugnant by the yeast of bitterness.

lips posed like the spout of a clay jar,
a feature delicate but useful,
tremulously pouring forth watery wails birthed deep in my bowels.

my voice joins the chorus of anguish made by the many women of this illegitimate tribe:
a babe in the arms of her grandmother, neither able to be pacified,
a wife and a prostitute standing as sisters,
an adulteress supporting the weight of one already weakened by years of bleeding,
a samaritan’s tears soaking a galilean’s breast,
one who was possessed by demons now doubled by a stronger affliction,
some rich, many poor —
all unpaid mourners weeping a sweet harmony of sorrow.

a single flute accompanies our morning song;
its high pitch slices through the humid air,
giving tragedy a proper dissonance.

the mingled cries produce a slow rhythm;
our bodies sway to its haunting pulse.
feet drag slowly forward in steps so heavy
they could cause Jerusalem to go the way of Jericho.

we follow the dusty wake of the bier,
a simple pallet that bears the dead form of our master,
torn from a cross.
some of our brothers carry him, an excruciating weight.

many in our procession grow faint.
some stumble to their knees,
tripped by grief or fatigue.
hands reach down to drag the fallen to aching, splintered feet.
we must reach the tomb.

the carnivorous sun,
unrelenting even when death is done,
waits to consume his flesh.

we will give him shade in death;
we could not provide as much in life.

the room is sealed but we hunker just beyond the slab.
every limb, feature, voice twisted and marred in the expression of woe.
our bleating continues;
perhaps it will never cease for suffering was never so dark as now,
today,
just the first of innumerable days of mourning.

This Battleground: A Holy Week Reflection

On recent Sunday mornings we’ve been singing “Never Once” by Matt Redman. Take a minute to review the lyrics…

Standing on this mountaintop
Looking just how far we’ve come
Knowing that for every step You were with us

Kneeling on this battleground
Seeing just how much You’ve done
Knowing every victory
Was Your power in us

Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say

Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful

Now pause and look back at the two lines that are bold. How many of you could easily make two columns and file your life experiences under either the header “Mountaintop” or “Battleground?”  Both are common metaphors we use to speak about our spiritual journey.

The mountaintop is a prevalent faith metaphor for those sublime times in which we acknowledge that life with God is good. A mountaintop vista means we can clearly see what we have climbed over. Here we can fill our lungs to tingling, release clenched fists and to stand tall. The end of an uphill trudge is certainly to be celebrated!

The slowly-fading pain of the battleground is perhaps less euphoric than a mountaintop, but no less significant to our faith. Whether or not they are outwardly visible, many of us bear scars which remind us of earthly wars we wish we could have avoided — abuse, betrayal, deceit, broken relationships, [fill in the blank]. It’s fitting that Redman used the word kneeling with the battleground image. Truly victorious people are often weak-kneed with the knowledge that they were a hairs-breadth from death. Gratitude makes us kneel as we acknowledge that something (or someone) beyond our individual (or our battalion’s) capabilities stood in the infinitesimal gap between our necks and the edge of the sword.

Why do I bring this up? What does this have to do with Holy Week? This week is an opportune time to reflect on these metaphors, perhaps in a new way.

The longer I sit at the feet of Jesus, the more uncomfortable I grow with the dichotomy we draw between the mountaintop and battleground. Too often I’ve heard fellow believers judge the faith of another who is in the midst of a battle.

She’s always saying how hard her life is. Why has it been so long since she’s been happy like me? What is wrong with her? Where is her faith?

It’s as though the mountaintop is the only trustworthy thermometer of a vital spiritual life. But what if we learned to see the mountaintop and the battleground not as contrasting but interchangeable spiritual planes?

What would happen in our spirits if we understood the battleground as the mountaintop?

Jesus has a lot to say about spiritual warfare. As a Holy Week spiritual discipline, I encourage you to read John 15:18-16:33 each day. Listen deeply to Jesus teaching in the days and hours before his arrest. Notice how frankly he speaks to his disciples about the battles ahead. Grief, suffering, shunning, ridicule, hatred, persecution, death – these are the coming realities for his followers. (Just as they were for Jesus himself.) Jesus is not harsh or indelicate; he pulls away the film of naïveté from his disciples’ vision so they could understand that a God-honoring life is lived on the treacherous planes of a spiritual battlefield.

Despite these chilling facts, Jesus is still the good news bearer we met in earlier chapters. He didn’t leave his followers low in depression or despair. Hear both his motivation and encouragement in John 16:33, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!”  

This is not a trite response given to trembling followers. “Have overcome” is literally “conquered” or “carried off the victory”. Jesus is using battle imagery! He’s foreshadowing events that will come soon, events that will culminate in the ultimate spiritual battle – the fight for the redemption of humanity and all creation. Where was this battle fought? On a cross – a place of humiliation and torture.

A torture device as a battlefield? Yes.

Suffering and death as a battle strategy? Yes.

And this leads to a victory? Yes!

Through his sacrificial death and his miraculous resurrection, Jesus defeated the power of sin and death. His actions may not have been logical, but they were victorious. This is why we should see our battles as mountaintop experiences – because God can accomplish the greatest victories even when we are at our weakest. Tribulations can be times of praise because victory is owned by the power of God.

Jesus told his followers to rejoice and be glad when they are persecuted (Matthew 5:11-12). It’s a crazy request…unless you understand that the battleground is the mountaintop. We can rejoice despite the battle because Jesus did not leave his disciples defenseless. He armed us with supernatural weaponry –

·         Jesus’ continual presence through the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-15)

·         Protection by the power of God’s name (17:11)

·         Jesus’ joy (17:13)

·         God’s word (17:14)

·         God’s glory which enables unity (17:22-23)

The first point is the battle cry of the Christian life. God sent the Holy Spirit to be our “Advocate” on the battlefields of life (16:7). The title Advocate is a legal term. It describes one who pleads a case before a judge, acting as an intercessor for the accused. (Forgive the shift in metaphor, but the battlefield and the courtroom do complement each other.)

Our lives will have tribulation.We will often feel like defendants being falsely accused by people we once thought friends. Rather than feel defeated, fearful or inadequate by a spiritual battle, we can see our trouble as a sign of spiritual vitality. Our confidence is in the Holy Spirit, in whom we have the best legal counsel possible. The Spirit defends the truth of our testimony and, like the savviest lawyer, turns the tables on our accusers. Our Advocate has the power to get our charges thrown out, saving us from both sure conviction and the death penalty!

Think about the many spiritual metaphors we use to describe the spiritual life – the battlefield, the storm, desert wanderings, and famine. Each of these experiences is also a mountaintop because we are infused with the presence and almighty power of Holy Spirit. This is the hope we cling to in shadow of the cross.

Head of Christ by Nikolai Ge

Head of Christ by Nikolai Ge

Death and Dawning – Holy Saturday

It’s late in the evening of Holy Saturday, 2012.  I’ve been a follower of Jesus for most of my life, so this day, though holy, is often just a blip between the utter desolation of Jesus’ death and ecstatic joy of his resurrection.  I surely miss out on this significant day because I know what’s coming.  I’ve already celebrated the end of the Easter story and danced in the redemption of the coming days.  But my dear friend and fellow blogger Stacey Gleddiesmith, as she reflects on the wisdom of Joan Chittister, reminds me that Holy Saturday is important because it is the day when all our dreams have died, but a day when we can grow in hope.  (Read her fabulous post at http://thinkingworship.com)  Challenged by Stacey and Joan, I let my imagination unfurl into a different time and place…

It’s year 33 and I am a young disciple of the newest Messiah figure, this one called Jesus, who is just a few years into what looks like a campaign for king.  I have been wandering around the hot desert for months with a carpenter-turned-rabbi who, though he speaks with an authority I had never heard in the synagogue, makes some wildly outrageous (and provocative) claims about the kingdom of God.  A kingdom he could almost literally conjure before my eyes through his riveting stories.  (It’s like he’s actually been to this wondrous places before.  I can almost smell the feast he describes floating on the back of the Galilean wind.)  Jesus’ teaching stirs parts of my soul that have laid as fallow as my father’s field during the sabbath year.  I left my family, my village, my security, to follow this man on a path toward an elusive hope, the hope that life might actually be more than the drudgery I’ve lived.  When I left, my friends called me a fool, my mother wept and my father roughly turned his back.

As I followed Jesus, I discovered a man with a passionate spirit who both perplexes and comforts me with his daily teaching on a kingdom that has no end.  A gentle radical who constructs images of a Godly kingdom (and I’ve lived the opposite) where children are praised for their faith and women are welcomed into the master’s circle.  A kingdom where I can lay down the burden of my shame (and believe me, my soul’s more spotted than the cheapest bird you could by in the Temple courts) and instead take up a yoke so different from this law that I can never fulfill.  Jesus tells me not to worry, because he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets, and when he says this, something in me…releases.  My new master tells me that I will know the truth and it will free me.  God, how I’ve hungered for truth, for freedom!

Throughout the months I was with him, Jesus talked a lot about his father, one so different from my own, a king who rushes to embrace the returning children who abandoned him to chase their own pleasures.  Jesus proclaimed himself the light of the world, the bread of life, the way, the truth, the resurrection and the life.  Even though I didn’t understand everything he said – his stories, his power to heal, his vision for a new kingdom of peace and love and justice, his shalom-filled welcome of the outcasts among us – these things slowly unwound the tight knots of pain and fear in my gut.

Something new was born in me as I followed my dusty rabbi.  It’s hard to describe, but deep in me, where I used to feel shame burning holes in my soul, there was a mending.  A burgeoning courage to live a new way.  And the closest I’ve ever come assurance.  By the end I was a believer in this new kingdom, a devotee of its good, loving king, and an avid disciple of Jesus, this prince among men.

But then Jesus was arrested.  Convicted.  Whipped.  Crucified.  Stripped.  Punctured.  Ridiculed.  Abandoned.

I did that.  Well, not all of it, just the last part.  I abandoned Jesus, but to me that single crime is just as bad as all the rest put together.  I didn’t stay to see the end, or even much of the middle.  (What I know about Jesus’ death, I learned from passersby.)  For all my new hope, the courage that was beginning to shine within me, the wisdom I’d learned at Jesus’ feet, I ran away shortly after I saw blood.  And now I lay here in the dirt, in the exact spot where I collapsed last night, exhausted after my flight from Golgotha.  I’m so endlessly tired from crying.  Wrecked from the confusion about what happened.  This crater of loss sucks me inside out.  What kind of disciple was I to run away when things got hot?

But what kind of rabbi – what kind of prince – what kind of Messiah dies like that?

I lay under a withered fig tree along the side of a road that leads nowhere.  This mouth that Jesus once filled with bread and fish and cool water is now gritty and putrified with dirt and shame.  Jesus made me feel such hope.  Following him made me feel so…vital, like I was living for the first time.  Now I lay here an empty shell.  This is worse than all those years of drudgery back home.  This is nothingness.

I laid in the dirt for hours.  Silent.  Sullen.  Hollow.  Despondent.  Fearful.  It was so dark but I didn’t care if the sun never rose again.  But then somewhere, deep in that pit that held me captive, I heard a whisper.

“I am the light of the world.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

“Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

Between each whisper I feel the thump of my heart, tacky and faint, but there.  I’m still alive.  I want to live, I realize.  I want to live the life that Jesus sketched in the sand of my country.  He said he was the resurrection.  I never understood that.  But, what if?  Slowly, I push myself up on my elbows.  With my hands gripping clumps of dirt, I look toward the horizon.  I wait, wondering.

Where is the light of the world?

Where is the resurrection and the life?

As light slowly hems the eastern hills, a morsel of warmth dawns within me and begins to spread.  Curious, I push to my feet.  The sun is rising and I have this uncanny feeling that today will bring…I don’t know quite what.  But something, something more than this roadside grave I’ve made for myself.  Hoping he is who he said he is, I turn back to Jerusalem, and begin to run.

I Thirst

The following is a homily I delivered tonight as part of a Good Friday tenebrae service. 

“Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I thirst.'”  (John 19:28)

It was early summer in 1999 when I spent a month studying and traveling through Israel.  I was taking a course on the religions, history and archeology of the Holy Land and spent hours each day hiking through ancient ruins.  Having grown up in Ohio and lived in costal California, I wasn’t used to the intense heat and wilting sunshine of the desert.  I remember one day where temperatures soared over 120 degrees and no matter how much water I drank, I remained incredibly thirsty.

When I chose these words of Jesus for my homily, my first instinct was to attribute his thirst to Israel’s oppressive heat.  But then last week I spent an afternoon slowly reading the Gospel of John aloud, doing my best to pause and place myself in each scene as an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry.  That exercise led me to a very different conclusion about Jesus’s statement, “I thirst.”

Just a few moments into John’s story, I found myself a guest at a wedding feast where Jesus, informed that the wine was running low, turned six vats of water into the finest quality wine.  His very first miracle was to quench people’s thirst!

Missing Jesus’ involvement and the miraculous transformation, the master of the banquet says to the bridegroom, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”  I don’t think the master of the banquet realized he was speaking symbolically about Jesus.

A few months later I watch as Jesus, weary from a long journey by foot, stops to rest outside Samaria, a city of people scorned by Jews.  There’s a woman sitting alone at the well.  She’s an outcast among outcasts; she’s had a suspicious number of husbands and now lives with a man who is not her husband.  From this unclean woman Jesus asks for a drink.  They have a provocative conversation, during which Jesus tells the woman that he can offer her “living” water that will “spring up into eternal life.”  He claims that if she drinks his living water she will never thirst again.  It’s obvious he’s not talking about physical thirst or literal water.

Flash forward to the Feast of Tabernacles when Jesus tells the crowds gathered in Jerusalem’s temple courts, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

Eventually I reach this point in the story – the crucifixion.  By now, Jesus has been betrayed, arrested, questioned, falsely accused and handed over to Pilate.  He’s been slapped in the face, whipped, mocked and ridiculed.  Finally, he is stripped naked and nailed to a cross.

He’s been hanging there for hours.  He’s exposed and exhausted and I’m not surprised when Jesus says he is thirsty.  His thirst is certainly a result of his weakened state, the abuse he’s suffered and exposure to the heat and sun.  But now, when I hear the words, “I thirst,” I think back over the three years of Jesus’ ministry.  I remember the wedding feast when Jesus turned water into wine.  I think of when he offered the lowliest of people living water, eternal life.  And I remember his words from the day he preached on a mountainside, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Jesus says he is thirsty and I watch as a nearby solider soaks a sponge in wine and lifts it up for Jesus to drink.  Except, this is not fine wine fit for a king.  It’s the vinegar extracts of a cheap wine too bitter to drink.

The contrasts are clear between what Jesus offered and what he received:

Jesus gathered disciples, loved them and taught them the way of truth; they betrayed, denied and deserted him.

Jesus treated people like honored guests at his Father’s banquet; they rejected and crucified him as a criminal.

Jesus gave the people the finest wine to drink; they gave him bitter vinegar.

Jesus offered to forever quench the spiritual thirst of undeserving sinners; they nailed him to two slabs of wood and left him to die, thirsty.

Physically thirsty – yes – but more than that.  I think that Jesus, in his very last moments, is still desperately thirsty for the spiritually parched people witnessing his death, to believe that he is the Son of God able to give them the living water of eternal life.