Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
-Lenten Journey: The Resurrected Life
A few days before Palm Sunday, I went with my daughter to pick up my granddaughter at school. They had an unusually efficient pickup system (compared to others I recall that traveled at the speed of a slug), so it wasn’t long before our six-year-old ball of energy came bouncing into the van overflowing with chatter about the class Easter egg hunt. Her paper basket was filled with candy that she was eager to dig into – but not before telling her Golden Easter Egg story.
Turns out that other kids had found the special golden eggs but she had not. Since that’s the sort of thing that can momentarily crush a kindergartner, I fully expected a pout, but my granddaughter delighted both her mama and me by saying how glad she was for the few classmates who had found golden eggs, even to the point of comforting a sobbing friend who also had come up empty-handed.
Self-effacement by a six-year-old is a great way for Grandpa to start thinking about Easter, the meaning of which all too easily gets lost amid the bunnies and baskets, spring savings events and just plain busyness that can push the holy occasion into the background. But, truth is, I can have a hard time settling into Holy Week, especially when I was younger. And since so much of who we are as adults has roots in childhood, perhaps that’s the place to find at least a partial explanation.
I grew up in the Catholic Church. Dutiful participation was expected of me and my three brothers, so we accompanied our mother to Mass most every Sunday (unless we could fake our way out of it) and also attended religious instruction classes. In time, all four of us drifted away from the Church. I can’t speak for my brothers, but my defection produced great relief. I was glad to have escaped the religious gloom that had begun taking root like some dark flower in my adolescent heart. No longer must I face the shrouded plaster Jesus hanging high above the altar during the week before Easter, head askew, painted blood running from his pierced heart (even though it was covered, I still knew it was there). No longer must I fear committing even the most venial of sins within reach of the Catholic Church (never mind mortal ones) – or ever again having to encounter our parish’s two creepy priests.
Now fast forward slightly more than a generation. Most of a life and four kids later, I was compelled to return to church because, (a) I had received more than a few Divine promptings in my business and personal life, (b) my children needed to make their own spiritual decisions, and (c) up to that time I had set a pretty poor example. We began attending a small mainline Protestant church, attracted to the congregation by a friend and his family. The folks there were welcoming but not pushy, and over some years, the darkness that marked my early religious experience gradually got replaced with light.
The denomination we chose is steeped in Easter. It’s the church known far and wide for its glorious Easter Sunrise services. But first comes Holy Week, during which believers are compelled to grapple with the idea of self-sacrifice, what our pastor calls the resurrected life and the world calls folly. During that time, we walk the path with Jesus as he follows his Father’s will toward crucifixion, from the triumphant expectations of Palm Sunday to the hollowness of Easter Saturday.
We don’t hear much about Easter Saturday, even in the Easter church. If Good Friday is anguish, Easter Saturday is terror. The prophesied Savior has been executed and buried, and his most ardent followers have fled. Their bewilderment and anguish must have been devastating. Even we, who know the happy outcome, can hardly comprehend the clash between lingering hope and the bleak reality of Easter Saturday with Christ’s linen-swaddled body lying cold in the grave. Some bible experts claim he descended into hell during that time, as suggested by the Apostle’s Creed, and that the whole of man’s sin came crashing down on him there. Others say not. Theologian R. C. Sproul notes that wherever it was that Jesus found himself on Easter Saturday, he had been forsaken by the Father and suffered the ultimate punishment, that of a scapegoat driven outside the city “into utter darkness, where the light of God’s face did not show.” Imagine what it would have been like to be abandoned by someone who is more a part of you than yourself – even if you know (and always have known) that this moment must come. We are exhausted at the very thought of it and may find it challenging to plumb the depths of Holy Week without calling on the Lord himself to deepen our understanding!
There is this, however: what a local pastor once called the “unmatched joy of Resurrection,” a time and place where our old lives are put to death with Christ and new life rises in its place. It is no idle tale that Jesus has fled the tomb. The truth is revealed with Easter’s first light: The Lord has risen. The Lord has risen indeed!
It is in this Light that we find our hope, our purpose and our rest.
Lenten Journey: God’s Clay
“Can the pot say of the potter,
"He knows nothing"? (Is 29:16)
It’s not hard to think of ourselves as clay to be formed and shaped in the hands of God, to be made into something beautiful, even useful. The idea of working in clay is appealing, whether hand building a pot or using a wheel. Clay is smooth and pleasing to the touch.
Before the verse above, where Isaiah describes being shaped by God the potter, the prophet talks about things being turned upside down for those who hide from the Lord and take their own counsel: the pot shaping itself. Then, in the following chapter, he warns us about the illusion of “smooth things”, turning aside from God’s way to go one's own way.
All too often, life is a struggle between our plan and God’s plan. We can spend an entire lifetime fighting against God’s way because we believe our own way is best. We play both potter and pot in our personal drama and work like mad to shape ourselves according to our own vision and authority. Are we not great and skilled craftsmen, perfectly capable of shaping ourselves into whatever we think best (and perfectly content in our ignorance or arrogance)? Are not we taught by the world to be the kings and queens of our own destinies? Are not our lives our own to fashion? Seen in this worldly light, the American ideal becomes an allegory of our own stumbling lives as we navigate through the wilderness (call it Adam Land). When things don’t work out, we tend to our wounds, smooth out our clothes and get on with our next chapter.
But there’s got to be another way!
There is a way, but not where many of us look in our rush to create the Kingdom of Me, a way so shot through with potential that it’s difficult for one person to describe to another this side of heaven. And yet, we are not fully human until we have walked this path, have allowed ourselves to be shaped in the way of Christ. But we refuse to submit, driven by blind courage and dumb luck -- whether non-believer or believer (these days, it can be hard to tell the difference). Either we don’t know about God’s plan or we don’t perceive its the benefits. Or we understand all too well that God’s way could take us way out of our comfort zone and could even be painful!
But it is deep within God’s refining fire that some of his best work is done, where he only turn swords into plowshares but transform shapeless and aimless lives into ones ripe with meaning and filled with passion. This is the radical message of Jesus Christ! That by losing one life we find another. That hope can be reclaimed from the ashes.
And what a trade that is!
These things may not happen immediately, or at all, in this life, but our new life in Christ does become charged with fresh (even radical) possibility when the old life is handed over to God -- lock, stock and setbacks, through acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and the acknowledgement of him as Lord over our lives.
When we refuse God his rightful prerogative to shape us anew, we become a lot like Israel, which often refused to submit itself to the will of God and thus, in that sense, is still waiting for the elusive Messiah. Humanity is so full of pride that the only way God’s kingdom could be established, for Israel and for us, is for God to show us how it is done. Jesus, the Christ, had the power of the universe in his hands, which he could have used at the snap of a finger to show the world a display of self confidence such as had never been seen. Yet, he humbled himself before God. Christ’s hand lay softly in the Father’s hand, demonstrating willing obedience to accept his coming sacrifice and death. Even though he was afraid.
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:35-36)
In a few short hours it was done.
God, in his omniscient and loving way, sometimes thrusts us into a sacrificial fire -- either that or we have placed ourselves there through our choices. Either way, he ends up with raw material he can work with, and in time, we end up something new that's more like what we were meant to be in the first place had we not gone wandering off in Adam Land. Our Lord does not promise to save believers from calamities, although he does promise to see us through them, and if our world has already flown apart when we arrive at the foot of his cross, he helps us pick up the pieces and learn to live with, and perhaps even accept, the consequences of our actions. Being “saved” does not change us from a rusty old heap to a shiny new car in the blink of an eye. We might look like that same old junker with torn upholstery and a leak around the windshield that drips rainwater on our feet, but we have entered into an improvement process called sanctification.
Believers have no claim on perfection. We remain sinners while in this life, as certain as the sun comes up in the morning and goes down at night. However, we also are Holy works in progress, full of imperfections -- even doubts. By the Grace of God, we are redeemed and become willing (as best we can) to be divinely reshaped into a life that looks more like Christ’s and less like the one we have now, a life filled with doubt, anger, bitterness, bad blood, and an overabundance of self-confidence. We may continue to labor up the hill bearing our personal crosses, but our burden has been lightened. There’s hope in the air, despite the times when we lose sight of that hope and are forced to fall on our knees when the load seems too heavy, our life too broken, and cry out for mercy.
In bequeathing our lives to God, we acknowledge our blindness and imperfection and trust in Christ's truth and grace. We acknowledge, as well, that we won’t always know the way but will have his lamp to guide us. Despite the sacrifice of giving up control, despite the frequent bewilderment of it all and the pain of not knowing, we trust that the Refiner’s fire will not consume us but will save us.
Because we are no longer our own, but belong to Christ.
The Lenten Journey:
Then he said to (his disciples): “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? Luke 9:23-25
It’s not easy to hand your life over to God, to deny yourself and take up your cross the way Luke describes. Truth is, such an idea cuts across the grain of our culture. We Americans value our independence above almost all else; the American way is to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and make it on our own. Which, of course, makes it unlikely that we’d ever consider ceding control of our destiny to a God we hardly know (especially when a vocal portion of our society denies his presence and denigrates his followers). That is, until something happens to bring us up short: an illness or some other painful life's circumstance that seems to go on and on.
But that’s where we find God waiting. Not at the end of the rainbow but at the end of ourselves. That’s where we find the Christ of the Cross beckoning:
For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. - John 3:16 -
These words can totally transform our lives. Because hidden within the good news of Christ is the promise of redemption, no matter how lost or worthless or off-course our lives may seem. Because through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, hope has been reborn … hope that offers new life to a world loaded down with sin and dashed dreams.
During Lent, we are invited afresh to enter through Christ’s open door into the transformed life, but the transaction doesn’t come cheap. We are asked, as Jesus was asked, to give our all – even to accept the possibility of additional seasons of suffering! Suffering was Christ’s cross. He chose to deny his divinity and suffer fully and completely as a human being, so much so that he experienced despair deep enough to make him sweat blood while praying in the garden at Gethsemane.
Suffering hurts. Sometimes it hurts like crazy, whether mental or physical. Sickness, injury, just plain meanness or even confusion about which way to turn next can dash our hopes for a fulfilled life. It can overwhelm to the point of distraction, so much so that we sometimes feel left by the roadside while everybody else zooms by in their shiny new cars on their way to whatever happens next in their clearly perfect lives.
Sometimes, it almost seems as if God has abandoned us, like so much spit in the sea -- no matter how much we think about him, pray to him or do things for him and his Church. We can say we believe that God will rescue us from adversity and, at the same time, despair that he doesn’t.
Here’s a story.
It’s about a young woman named Agnes. Early on, Agnes knew that God had a unique mission for her here on this Earth, and in time, she was gratified that things seemed to be going exactly that way. She was led to a place to serve and set about doing what she believed God would have her do there.
Agnes was a schoolteacher at first, then was called to work among the poor -- a “call” in the sense that she had a clear command from God to leave one thing and do another. And “do” she did, exemplifying in her work what it means to know, love and serve God in this world. But then she began to suffer through what Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul, which, for Agnes, lasted the greater part of her ministry. Even so, she and others who shared her God-given vision brought both physical relief and the light of Christ to thousands of impoverished people born into a society that considered them little more than human refuse -- junk people.
Despite a hollowness of spirit that stemmed from feeling that she had been forsaken by God, the Catholic nun the world came to revere as Mother Teresa persevered in her mission among the poor of Calcutta. It’s hard to imagine the spiritual assault she suffered, the pain she endured.
Mother Mary Teresa died a thousand little deaths -- perhaps many times more -- in her private agony. Yet, in God’s mercy, she at long last began to see her pain as “a small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.” Her epiphany was the realization that she had been given the “deep joy” of sharing Christ’s suffering, including the anguish of what seemed like daily separation from her Beloved. She shared her Lord’s Passion, climbed the slopes of Golgotha with him every day. She helped shoulder his cross time after time after time and still was able to bless “the least of these” through her pain. Day after day, this Saint of the Gutters acknowledged the certainty of God’s Grace and the certainty of his presence in her life, even though she couldn’t feel it.
We all have our private pains, our deep, enduring disappointments -- not to mention those little discouragements that nibble away at the edges of our lives. We may despair loss of what society proclaims as “the good life” and instead suffer a bewildering blizzard of bills, health issues and relationship problems. We are overcome by lack of opportunity, lack of fulfillment, lack of love. Or we may have “the good life” and wonder if that’s all there is!
When we’re children (especially teens), we often feel inadequate, as if we’re the only person in the world who feels this way. Then, as young adults, we sometimes think we know it all and can do no wrong! We reassess as we grow older, of course, but our inadequacies can remain, lurking in the background -- as if to mock our abilities and accomplishments. Suddenly, we’re astonished to see an old person looking back at us in the mirror! Time is running out. Our lives seem to have vanished with the morning fog. We wonder where God is in all of this, because so much of what we had hoped for doesn’t seem to be happening.
“Where are you?!” we shout to the sky.
We know God is there, yet there are moments, common to us all, when his presence fades. Agnes didn’t see the Lord’s face for many years but she persisted in her work, knowing that he was there. “Though he slays me, yet shall I trust him …” is Job's retort to three friends who thought he’d be better off dead than continuing to suffer.
So here we are in the midst of Lent, those weeks on the Church calendar when we are privileged to participate with Christ in his passion, to walk with him … often stumbling … on our own path to the cross. We retrace the final steps of a man singular in history, a man wholly human and wholly God who is about to become wholly consumed in the fire of self-sacrifice. Thus, it is in the immolation of the Christ that we find our own hope. It is from the ashes of despair and hopelessness that new life is born in our lives, as the lilies once again show their faces to the warming sun.
Sometimes a backyard workshop or auto body shop will have lots of extra bits of metal left over -- the ends of steel rods, odd angle irons, pieces of fenders, hole-riven mufflers and other seemingly useless stuff, things that have been hammered and bent and worn and abandoned. Ideally, it all gets melted down, poured into a mold and made into something useful. So it is that your new pocket knife or bed frame could once have been a bumper on somebody’s ’57 Chevy!
The smelting process reduces scrap to its basic elements. The dross rises to the top of the cauldron where it is skimmed off and thrown away. The more this firing and skimming is repeated, the purer the product -- the way gold is refined. The metal doesn’t get used up (or left out in the rain to rust). It’s transformed into something else.
When Christ was crucified, it looked like he was used up. But he rose from the grave. His old life, the old order, had passed. That’s the way God works with us. We are his raw material. In our willing sacrifice -- in effect nailing our selves to the cross with Christ, we suffer the death of our wants and desires, hopes and dreams and start becoming what God would have us be and do. We hand over our difficulties and discouragements, too, even though we may be reluctant to submit, fearful to confess, afraid of repentance, uncertain about embracing trust. Not to mention that it's all too human to think that we are innocent of grievous offense in the first place, so we why we should offer ourselves up at all?
The answer, of course, is that we all are guilty; we are born into it. There was only One true innocent, One who -- despite his own perfection -- submitted himself to a gruesome and agonizing death to absolve each of us of our sins. As a single Lamb led to slaughter, God, in the person of his Son, burns away our guilt and leaves redemption in its place. It happened in the blink of an eye to one of the thieves on the cross. It happens to us in our time -- no more, no less a sinner than that criminal, a man who did not whine piteously of his innocence but acknowledged his guilt … and spoke of the Innocent hanging beside him. With one simple act, he stepped forward in faith, as Mother Teresa had to do in living out her Truth every day. In order to truly live, we, too, must give ourselves up to Christ on the cross, knowing that we will not be burned up, but reborn. Because Easter is coming, with a Light brilliant enough to penetrate and illuminate the ages.
"Our Lamb has conquered. Let us follow him!"
The Lenten Journey:
A compelling news image caught my eye yesterday: a woman, hugging a young girl after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. At first, you only see the pathos, but as the TV camera zooms into the image, a cross-shaped smudge of ash on the woman’s forehead becomes visible, applied at an Ash Wednesday service only hours before.
The fear in that picture seems like it’s been snatched out of the very air we breathe and distilled into a single image. There is so much darkness these days, even apart from events like this latest school tragedy. Our nation acts more and more like two sharply polarized, verbally armed camps than one country with myriad experiences, outlooks and aspirations but a single heart.
The hope of Easter seems so far away.
Ash Wednesday was born in the early church at a time of great hope. Jesus, the long-awaited Christ and Savior of the Jews, was about to enter Jerusalem. The waiting crowd was buoyed by expectations of a triumphant, conquering King, a hope that would soon fade into hopelessness, like the smudge of ash that stays on the forehead until it, too, fades away.
All can seem dark and desperate as Lent stretches out in the distance and we grapple with the fearful, unfinished parts of our lives that never seem to get resolved -- no matter how much we worry over them. Too often, we close off or compartmentalize these hurts, hold them away from God. We fool ourselves into thinking that he either doesn't care about us (and our issues) or can't see through our heart’s locked doors. But here comes Lent, a season of humility and self-sacrifice when we are asked to open ourselves to the Lord, make room at our table for hope and present him with an inestimable gift: nothing less than ourselves -- whole, complete, unfinished and unconditional. Dreams, warts and all. Our gift is leavening from which Holy Bread is made. And the light glimmering in the far distance is Easter.
One intriguing way of traveling the Lenten road that a friend suggested several years ago involves writing all the things that make you weep in the night on a scrap of paper and then burning them. Are you haunted by lost love or dashed opportunity? By an illness that digs deeper instead of getting better? Does loneliness consume you? Do you mourn the death of a loved one, like those lost so tragically yesterday? Write them down, light a match and watch the smoke take your worries toward heaven. You will not be lifting your concerns to God thinking they will vanish overnight. You are placing them on Christ’s shoulders … just as he asks … to carry along with him as he undertakes his journey to the cross, where hope first will be dashed and then be reborn when Easter’s glorious light at last spills into the morning and warms our hearts.
In the meantime, please pray for the families who are hurting today in Florida and for people experiencing the sudden loss of loved ones all over the world.
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Mt. 11: 28-30