In Love in Holy Week

As you can probably tell from my lack of posts, this Lenten season has not been a particularly devout one for me. The week before Lent was a blur after Molly’s surgery and Ash Wednesday coincided with her re-admittance to the hospital. The day made no impression on me until late that evening when a hospital chaplain stopped by and offered to pray with us and offer us ashes. Tim and I accepted gratefully, but when Molly indicated she wanted them, I almost knocked the bowl from the chaplain’s hands. Something deep inside me was repulsed by the thought of marking the body of my suffering child with a sign of her mortality. It seemed morbid and inappropriate, but I let it pass and it did Molly no harm. Still, it wasn’t an auspicious beginning to the season.

The next day, however, something my former pastor Nancy Corran preached to our community came back to me. She said, “If your life is a Lent this year, if you are suffering in a desert already – physically, mentally, emotionally, financially – whatever it is, don’t feel like you have to pile more on. Let your life be your Lent and let God Love you through it.” Those were some of the most profound and compassionate words I had ever heard a priest say, but the privilege of my life had always precluded me from taking her up on her offer. This year, however, I decided it was time. My life was Lent enough.

But Holy Week is here and Molly is back at school. She hardly needs any medication and can manage most things on her own. If you weren’t watching closely, you’d never know she was six weeks out from surgery. And so I began to wonder what I had learned during my “life as Lent” experiment. Jesus’ forty days in the desert showed us that a Lenten practice isn’t about a transaction to be completed, but a transformation to be undergone. He went in to the desert a newly baptized man, but emerged a man on a mission. What about me?

While there were no great changes of heart, my sense of mission has deepened this Lent. More than ever, Love is the ground from which I want to ”live and move and have my being.”

Last night, I read the Passion account from the Gospel of Mark and I was struck by the fact that the word “Love” is never mentioned. 1 John 16 may remind us that “God so Loved the world…” but in the eye witness accounts, Love fades away. Instead, fear, betrayal, pain, cruelty, guilt, and abandonment each take their starring turn. Love may be the motivation for Jesus’ actions, but it’s never explicitly stated and if there is one thing I have learned from all my years of study, it’s that we can’t see what we aren’t told to look for and through it all, Love is what we should be looking for. Any time I see a story about Jesus where Love is not mentioned, I know it’s not the whole story and I have to look again. God is Love and so for Jesus to be unloving, or unmotivated by Love was not possible.

Love is what sent Jesus out of the desert ready to serve humanity: Love of God, Love of self, Love of neighbor. They were all one in his heart and mind and it is that Love, that deep internal knowing of perfect relationship that allowed him to walk through the desperate time we call Holy Week. Jesus’ Love is what makes it holy, because he was wholly committed to Loving us and showing us what Divine Love looks like.

This week, it’s so easy to fall into the pattern of worshipping Jesus, for who he was and what he did. But he didn’t ask us to worship him; he asked us to follow him. He didn’t want admirers; he wanted disciples, women and men who were willing to do what he did, however imperfectly, (because that’s the only way we do can anything). Perfection is the enemy of the good and that was never something Jesus wanted to get in our way. We just have to read the post-Resurrection accounts to see that’s true.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t tell the painful and tragic story of Jesus’ death on the cross. I’m not saying we shouldn’t acknowledge our own culpability in his death and ask for forgiveness. I am saying that maybe we could use this Holy Week to try to Love as Jesus did.

On Holy Thursday, how can we humble ourselves before our friends and family as a sign of our Love for them?

On Good Friday, how can we allow ourselves to not need to be right, or defend our positions and reputations?

On Holy Saturday, how can we rest and just let things be as they imperfectly are, instead of rushing to make everything all right already?

On Easter Sunday and every day after, how can we celebrate the truth that death is not the end of the story and that Love conquers all?

Today, I’ll be washing feet. Tomorrow, I’ll be shutting up. Saturday, I’ll be unproductive and Sunday, I will be smiling and singing Alleluia. I hope you’ll join me.

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Here are some of the other posts I’ve written about Lent and Holy Week in year’s past.

“So Long Sad Lent”

“Rethinking Lent”

“The Day Before the Bad Day” 

“It’s Holy Week in Belgium” 

 

Lent 2016: Forget the Fasts

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My Catholic readers know that tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. For my non-Catholic readers, which is most of you, Lent is the 40 day period before Easter, the pivotal moment of our Christian faith when we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. During Lent, Catholics (and some other denominations) try to focus their energy on preparing themselves to celebrate the Easter season. Technically, this is done through fasting, prayer and almsgiving, but mostly, people focus on the fasting. If you ask a Catholic, or even a non-Catholic, what Lent is about, they will probably say it’s about giving something up – a favorite food, or drink, indulgence, or bad habit. I was raised to think that way and it’s taken me a very long time to move beyond emphasizing that one practice.

Looking back at my childhood, I’m trying to remember the theology behind the fasting – why we were asked to sacrifice something. I don’t think the priests actually said this, but in my mind, I thought it was for one of two reasons.

#1 – Jesus gave up his life for me, so the least I could do is give up candy (it was always candy growing up!) for him during Lent. You know, tit for tat. Fair is fair after all.

Or #2 – You aren’t worthy for Jesus to have died for you – so your candy sacrifice is your way of becoming more worthy of Jesus’ death.

As if that were possible, as if anything we could do in a lifetime, much less forty days, could make us worthy of Jesus’ life.

I knew there was something about those theological constructs didn’t sound quite right, but I couldn’t quite move past those child-like assumptions for a really long time. But of course, as I grew and matured, my Lenten practices did as well. And so what I ‘gave up’ changed, but I was still doing it for the same reason – to somehow become more worthy of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice.

The fasting habit fell apart for me a couple years ago, which you can read about here, and it came about as most failures do, through a confluence of good intentions and misguided execution. Of course, it was my husband, who had the words to help me see the light. After suffering through a Lent that left me feeling deeply saddened and discouraged, Tim gently called me out. He reminded me that he loves me “as is,” and that God does too.

God always loves us ‘as is,’ not ‘when,’ not ‘whether,’ not ‘if,” we get our act together during Lent, or at any time. If God is the Abba that Jesus taught us about, then we are loved beyond measure already and it is knowing and experiencing that Divine Love that inspires any changes we make. It is never, “First you are worthy and then you are loved.” Contrary to most of our cultural conditioning and human reasoning, with God, you are always loved first and that Love makes you worthy. What you do with that Love is up to you, but personally, I have never once in my life been loved unconditionally and taken it for granted. True Love has never turned me against myself, or another person. Being Loved deeply has always inspired me to become a better version of myself, a truer reflection of the woman God created me to be.

Through that conversation, I finally got it: Lent is never a question of worthiness; Lent is a question of mindfulness, of bringing to our minds the Mind of Christ, which is compassionate, loving, and tender to all human beings and absolutely faithful to the Love of God, which he experienced first hand in the Trinity.

At the end of our talk, Tim reminded me of this bit of wisdom from my own teacher, Richard Rohr, who often says, “Don’t try to engineer your own death; it will be done unto you!” The scriptures are full of this imagery about the death of our ego, the part of ourselves that we keep separate from God and each other. We read over and over again that we must die to ourselves. I know the truth that unless a grain of wheat dies, it remains alone, a simple grain of wheat; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. But the point I had missed in my Lenten fervor was the fact that life itself will take care of death, both literally and metaphorically. Life is already full of losses – of the people we love, of seasons and situations we cherish, of dreams, hopes, plans, and health. And we don’t have to manufacture those losses on purpose; they happen as an inevitable course of our lives, but what we can do, during Lent, and every day of our lives, is prepare ourselves to face them.

And that is what I plan to focus on this Lenten season. Last year, I committed to just keep practicing my practice and that is what I plan to do this Lent as well and what I’ve tried to do almost every day in between.

I’m going to meditate and walk, read and write.

I’m going to hug my family members whenever they get within arm’s length.

I’m going to smile at friends and strangers alike.

I’m going to find Love and pass it on whenever and however I can.

Whatever I am already doing that opens me up to God’s Loving presence in the world, I’m going to keep doing. Whatever shuts me down, I’m going to forgive and move on.

I may hold a different intention, or pick up alternate readings to begin my meditation. I may find a special focus for my journal, but I will not fool myself into thinking I need to be different than I am to celebrate the new life that is constantly before me.

In my last post on “Seasons,” I wrote:

Death is inevitable, but so too is resurrection as long as we have a deep commitment to Love and Faith and Life. Only in that soil is there an invitation and a space for the Divine to work in us. Life and Love will win if we want them to and if we release our preconceived notions of what that life looks like!

We are all moving through a season. Some are observing Lent; others are experiencing the transition from winter to spring, in nature, or in their own lives. Though we are in different parts of the cycle, we are all participating in the eternal movement from death to new life. As gardeners of our own soul, the only thing we can do is prepare the soil and trust that God will do the rest.

We can aerate our egos, poking holes in the outer shells that protect us from each other. We can soften the hardness of our hearts with the holy water of tears (you too guys!). We can let the things that have died over the past year become fertilizer for the new life to come. I cannot think of a more difficult practice for Lent, or any time of year.

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The Day Before “the Bad Day”

It’s Holy Thursday, a day I’ve always loved. Holy Thursday was the day before “the bad day,” the day we captured and killed Jesus, the day before the whipping and crucifying and dying. When I was young, I used to get a migraine every Good Friday. Our mom would pull us in – from twelve to three in the afternoon, the hours Jesus hung on the cross – no TV, radio, or friends, just quiet playtime or reading, in solidarity with Jesus. It was like our own mini, pint-sized crucifixion. I used to dread that time. As the inevitable call to come home crept closer, I could feel the headache coming on. Later, there would be a church service, a dark, somber affair, with great drama, a reenactment of Jesus’ suffering and death, a time for compunction and weeping for all that we had done to put him there, followed by a simple meal at home. I don’t remember those evenings after church. I imagine they weren’t joyful, lighthearted, or boisterous, our usual routine. I imagine we slipped off to bed, each to our own quiet reverie, overwhelmed by all that we had seen and experienced.

I am grateful, however, that Good Friday was the only day of the year where the image of Jesus’ death, and our complicity in it, was emphasized. The substitutionary atonement theory existed, but not as a major theme in my life. We weren’t told daily that Jesus died to pay for our sins, that the difference between our guilt and God’s greatness could only be overcome by the blood of God’s own son. Though it was on full display once a year, it was quickly followed by beautiful, glorious Easter Sunday. Before dawn, we were up and dressed and eating candy. By 6 a.m. we were singing Alleluia en masse on the church lawn as the sun rose in the East, secure in the knowledge that death had lost its sting. The risen Jesus had gone to prepare a place for us in the dazzling glow of the glory of God.

For some readers, my Easter memories might sound similar to your own, while others might think my family sounded like religious nuts. Who exposes a child to a reenactment of an ancient death penalty and tells them (or allows them to be told) it’s at least partly their fault? It all seemed so normal at the time…

But what is normal now?

That’s the question I ask myself continually. What is the new normal? What is right for today? What have I taught my kids? What do they know, or believe? More importantly, what do their hearts tell them?

I have raised them in Church, with religious education and the Bible. They know most of the prayers, and have received the appropriate sacraments. I did these things as I felt called, honoring the tradition I was raised in, the very one that set me on my journey with God.

I pray their hearts tell them that Love is the answer, that connection and compassion are the keys to happiness, that authenticity is the only way to be a person of integrity in the world and to be authentic means that you need to know who you are. The only way to know who you are is to be still long enough to find out, to be willing to listen to the urgings of your heart, the still quiet voice inside you, and when you hear that voice, you have to be brave enough to act on it and be willing to fail, to know humbly that no one has all the answers, but that questioning the status quo, the way things are, is the only way to keep growing. If you aren’t growing, you are going backwards. And, oh yes, in case you forgot, Love is the answer.

And by Love I don’t mean that sickly, sweet, destructive emotion that is depicted in almost every TV show and movie produced in Hollywood. Love is the ability to keep your heart space open when everything in you wants to shut down and say, “No, not this.” Love is the ability to be brave when you want to run away, to do the right thing when the wrong thing or even no-thing is so much easier and safer. Love has the power to change the world, because it is the root of compassion, justice, equality, hope, humility, commitment, faithfulness, and tenderness.

Do my children know this? Probably not yet, not entirely, but I am sending them the message every chance I get, including tomorrow, Good Friday, “the bad day,” when I will ask them to attend a service with me. What I hope they see, when we commemorate the death of Jesus, is not a death that “had to happen” because we sinned. I reject that premise entirely. But rather the underlying truth of the universe it reveals:

Something has to die, so that something new can be reborn. It might be a dream, a relationship, a belief, a tradition, or even your very sense of self, but what follows can always be better than what came before if you Love. If you hold your heart space open, if you don’t shut down in bitterness, or fear, if you forgive reality for being what it is, Life will begin again. Love always wins.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called God, “Love energy.” Love is the Alpha and the Omega point, where we came from and where we are headed, but we will get there a lot faster if we participate in the process. By choosing Love ourselves, we can live an Easter miracle each and every day.

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P.S. If you remember my Holy Thursday tradition, it continued this year. I am so grateful that at their ages and stages, my children still participate in this ritual of tenderness and blessing. You can read more about our annual foot-washing here and here.

A Flash Mob Made Me Cry

If they are honest about it, most writers want to say really important things, to have each story, paragraph and line convey something deep and meaningful. To be honest, I am one of those writers and my desire for significance frequently tempts me to say nothing at all. This week was no exception; I wanted to say something holy and  grace-filled as Easter approached, but I found my heart silent, until I saw this…

Since the video is five minutes long, I will keep my commentary short.

After morning carpool, I watched this video in my driveway and tears began to stream down my face. I don’t know why they came, but I have learned that when tears come unbidden, we are in sacred space. Our hearts are hearing a divine whisper and our body is responding in kind, but all too often, we shut it down and wipe them away. We actually run from the holy.

Poet Mark Nepo wrote, “Our ear is only a petal that grows from the heart.” What my ear heard in those five minutes, my heart loved. What my eyes saw, my soul celebrated. And as the crescendo played out before me and the children danced, I imagined the joy of this coming Sunday morning and the Alleluia choruses that will be sung the world over. I heard Rob Bell speak at USC last night on his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, and strangely enough, he spoke of Nepo’s truth as well. Real seeing, he said, “happens when our eyes and our heart are looking at the same thing.” 

Whether we celebrate Easter or not, we are like the symphony in the square. We each have our own instrument to play, our own voice, talent and energy. My hope is that you will use yours this Sunday morning as you gather with your people – whoever and wherever they are – in Starbucks, in church, or in the middle of an Easter egg hunt. Let your ear be the petal of your heart. See the flash mob of joyful, exuberant love that surrounds you. Be brave and begin like the cello player, setting the process in motion. Be aware of the miracle of it all. And if the tears come, let them fall where they may. You are in sacred space.