Seventh Lent: Writing Love from Ashes

Seventh Lent: Writing Love from Ashes

I wasn’t raised in a faith tradition that celebrated or followed the liturgical calendar save Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. It wasn’t until I attended seminary in my early twenties that I met followers of Jesus that practiced this thing called Lent, rung in by this day they call Ash Wednesday. Here it is again, the day that is a doorway into a foreign spiritual practice that I have organically stretched and grown into like a child pulling on an adult’s sweater. 

I’m still not very mindful of following the church calendar throughout the year, so Lent sneaked up on me again. A Presbyterian friend who is a fellow minister and blogger posted last week about Lent. I groaned, not because his post was lacking but because it was convicting. My mindless wandering through the time-faith continuum always leaves me with less than adequate preparation. It’s always the week or days before that I begin asking myself what I will do to enter the desert with Christ this year, to walk with him on the path to the cross, to prepare myself for the wonder of his resurrection. This is not an easy question to answer – I really need to give myself more space and time to consider this fully.

How will I enter the desert with Christ this year, follow him toward the cross, fully know the sacrifice of his death so that I can wholly celebrate his resurrection?

For life-long Lenters, these forty days are often about fasting, sacrifice, giving-up, repentance. As a Lenten adolescent, I want to live into the practice, rather than follow a set of rules or expectations. In many ways, practicing Lent has become a work of imagination. Rather than being about soul-stripping deprivation, I like to approach Lent with curiosity, looking for what I can learn about life from one (Jesus) who has experienced the fullness of the life-cycle – birth, death, resurrection and life eternal. I approach Lent wanting to open myself to more of God as I empty myself of self-obsession, to have my spirit expanded not crushed or shriveled, to see and feel God create and grow love for the world in me. 

Lent is less about what I do than who I’m becoming. Lent is an opportunity not a rule. Lent is a creative and imaginative act of my freewill not a mindless religious obligation. I practice because I believe it is a tool available to me to build up my faith in God.

This year I reach Ash Wednesday already in a season of deprivation. When I considered how to practice Lent this year, I rejected a lot of ideas. I thought about subtracting bread from my diet and each day reading passages that teach how God sustains us. Out of kindness for my weary soul, I shelved that idea for another year. Finally, this morning, in the eleventh hour – inspiration.

What do I know to be true about God, even in times of deprivation? I know that God is the source of life. God created each of us; he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. God nurtures us like a breast-feeding mother and we grow content. At the center of God’s character, actions, message – in my interpretation – is love. If I do any good thing or believe any good thing but do not have love, what good am I? To grow more like Christ, I must grow in my capacity to know and give love.

For the next forty days I will read and meditate on passages about God’s love and each day I will write one love letter. I’ll care little about length, style or the delivery method of these letters but focus my attention on expressing love for the recipient. I’m sure I’ll write to family members, dear friends, even to myself. On Sundays I will write my love letter to God. Some of these letters will be easy, my thankfulness for the recipients overflowing onto paper. Others will be excruciatingly difficult, like the letter to my sister-in-law whose deception and abandonment have caused our family so much pain. I’ve started hundreds of letters to her in my heart. I have known and loved her half of my life but now my love is so mixed with pain, anger, betrayal and confusion that words don’t seem to be the right tool to express all that is in me. Smudging ash across a white page seems the most fitting. Regardless, this letter has been burning within me for years. It’s time to write it out. I imagine it will be the most difficult letter of my life. 

I may not send every letter. I may not know how to finish some of them or even where to send them. But I will do my best to learn from and borrow the love of Christ and spread that love along every curve and point in my script.

Learning love. Borrowing love. Spreading love. It’s shaping into a fruitful forty days.

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.

The Sixth Lent: Musical Abstinence

I’m still a novice at Lent; this is just my 6th season out of 32 years of life.   My first year I gave up sarcasm and exaggeration and learned an important (and humorous) lesson in growing into, rather than jumping into, a new spiritual practice.  Last year, when I prepared for my forty day fast, I dabbled with the idea of giving up music.  I first thought to give it up entirely, but then my body started twitching and my eyes began to sting and, in a gasping moment of reality when my tongue when numb, I realized that giving up music cold turkey might be a bit extreme.

Abstaining from music for four weeks would be a radically ascetic experiment for this melomane.  (That’s French for “music lover” and said with the caressing accent it gives you a sense of my love affair with music.)  Living without music for 960 hours, or 57,600 minutes, or 345,6000 seconds?  That’s like the 4th of July without the block parties, fruit-flag desserts, crepe-papered bicycles and chest-thumping fireworks.  Last year I wimped out and gave up added sugars, which was challenging, but nothing close to giving up my precious music.

2011 was a difficult year because of a sense of vocational stuntedness and a family loss.  2012 hasn’t yet loosened the grip its neighbor held on my heart.  For me, listening to music and singing along is often as cathartic as sipping a cool cup of water in the scorching Phoenix heat or shattering a glass against the hard stones of a fireplace.  But sometimes I abuse music.  I abuse it, and myself, when I use music to tune out the voice of my inner life.  I suspect that in the past year, music has been more of a muffle than a balm.  So, as much as I love music, as much as it gives me joy and energy and a certain dancing-in-my-soul verve, I decided to set it aside for a time.

I don’t want to become a person who claims that God has abandoned me in hard times.  Maybe I’m not hearing God’s voice because it’s hard to hear a whisper through a cotton ball.  Maybe God is offering me sweet melodies of truth and consolation that would bind together the ragged linings of my soul but I’m not listening well.  Maybe I’ve turned music into noise, a distraction, just an excuse not to courageously face the somewhat barren landscape of my life and follow my Savior Jesus as he ventured, alone, without supplies, into the desert.  Maybe the key to hearing God in the desert is clearing away all the distraction and stepping into aloneness with God.

Conviction tells me it’s time to clean out my ears, so I’ve instituted a silent commute for Lent.  For the two, thirty minute trips to and from work each day, there’s no top 40, no cds, no talk radio.  There’s just the sound of my breathing, the rev of my car’s engine, the squeak of breaks and the hum of tires rubbing against the pavement.  Yesterday at an intersection, the service truck next to me was blaring “Low Rider” and before I knew it I was bobbing my head in time and smiling at the driver.  I miss the music that got me merrily home but in the silence I’ve discovered a jam of thoughts and prayers waiting for their right of way.  In just two weeks, I’ve run into a lot of unanswered questions, discovered wounds that need healing, and prayed that God would grant me the senses to see, hear and feel hope for my future.  I’ve realized how self-centered I am and found forgiveness.  And it seems that with each turn of my tires I chant the name Sara – the one who left our family for other happiness.  But mostly, I sit in silence and listen to the sounds of my commute, the beeps, rubbing, the rattles, which remind me that though I am sitting still, I am going somewhere.

This morning in the silence an old chorus popped into my head – “Thou O Lord, art a shield about me; you’re my glory; you’re the lifter of my head.”  I believe those words are true, but I’m not able to feel their truth now.  As I hummed the chorus throughout the day, I stumbled across a thought – maybe it’s not my song to sing; it’s God’s song for me.   I the Lord, art a shield about you, I’m your glory, I’m the lifter of your head.  Okay Lord, I’m listening.  Thanks to the silence.

 

 

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.