Lenten Reflection 2014: Sometimes It’s Not That Complicated

“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

I seem to forget that Jesus said that. Quite frequently, in fact. Sometimes all I can hear is the call to follow, to take up my cross and get going, to get out there and bring good news to everybody.

And it’s true that Jesus said these things, but I forget that he also said, in his very last days on Earth, “Abide in me.”

The One who had no place to lay his head told us he would be our place. The One who calls us to take up our cross and follow him said he would make our yoke easy and our burden light.

This Lent, Jesus called me to go back to my first love. To find joy and peace just in being with him, like how good friends can sit together, saying nothing, doing nothing, just enjoying each other’s presence.

During Holy Week, I read Psalm 131, which really brought it all home for me.

My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.

Psalm 131 1-2

God welcomes me when I’m tired, when I feel overwhelmed, when I feel broken. God invites me to bring this to our times together and lay it down, so I can be calm and quiet, like a tiny child leaning on my mother’s shoulder.

Notice that it’s specifically a weaned child. The weaned child is not restless with hunger, fussing and wanting milk. The weaned child can be content just leaning on its mother, enjoying the deeper-than-words bond they share.

I’ve also been reading the book of John a lot lately, the one where Jesus says “I am” a lot. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the good shepherd. I am the way, the truth, and the life.

Sometimes these statements don’t sound very humble. But the more I read them, the more I hear Jesus humbly offering to take care of all our needs. “I will feed you, lead you, light up your life. I will take care of you and satisfy your needs in a way no human person can. Just come rest in me.”

I make my faith about so many other things sometimes. I worry about getting to church on time, about reading the Bible “enough,” about doing the right things for the right reasons. And we should care what we do; we should want to grow and change for the better.

But the real insight of this Lent, for me, was that I can’t do any of those good things, not for long, unless I abide in Jesus. Like I can’t do a good day’s work if I haven’t gotten any rest.

I need to listen to that call to rest. When I try to pour myself out for others, I quickly feel like I have only the dregs left. But when I let God fill me first, that’s when my cup spills over.

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Time for Some New Yeast

“If this is the day Jesus rose again, why don’t they call it Yeaster?”

You can thank my dad for that one. He told it to me a few years ago, and I groaned, of course. But then I thought, funny, we always talk about yeast on Easter. We always read this traditional Easter passage:

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Makes me think about how Easter is a season, no less than Lent. Sometimes, with all the buildup of Holy Week and the frenzied celebration of the holiday, after Easter Sunday you can feel like it’s all over, and now you’re back to your ordinary life. No more fasting. No more giving things up. Back to normal.

But isn’t part of the point of Lent to show us when normal isn’t good? The fasting and the giving-up cleansed us, made us ready for other things… but what things? What yeast will now infect what we do now that the old stuff is gone?

I pray that it will be the yeast of Jesus – that the risen Lord will rush in to fill any emptiness from what we gave up for Lent, like the tiny little speak of leaven making a great batch of dough come alive.

My Heart Is Sick of Being in Chains

Photo Credit: Paul Domenick

Photo Credit: Paul Domenick

I don’t need to listen to the song to hear it; it’s all there within me, intensely vivid as only a song you loved at fourteen can be.

Why do we crucify ourselves, every day?

Crucify myself

Nothing I do is good enough for you…

Strange to remember how little it meant to me at the time, that word “crucify.” My teenage brain skipped over the image as someone in a hurry might skip a step. I went right to what I felt was the heart of the song, put it on like a magic cloak under which I could safely travel the land of my own suffering.

Every day I crucify myself

And my heart is sick of being in chains

I felt those chains. Constantly I felt other people’s eyes on me, measuring me, judging me, weighing me and finding me wanting. I was a slave to other people’s opinions of me. The tiniest words of praise or blame sent my spirit soaring or plummeting.

Part of me wanted off the rollercoaster. I knew it was making me sick. But like any addict, I was apt to forget the inevitable lows when enticed with the prospect of another high.

I didn’t want to admit all this was out of my control. I didn’t want to ask for help – and yet, deep down, I did want help.

I’ve been looking for a savior on these dirty streets

Looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets…

Please be

Save me, I cry

This struggle is still a part of me – to some extent, it probably always will be. But at least now I know where to go for help. This song is a dark mirror to the hope I’ve found. Maybe, strangely enough, it even helped me find that hope. Maybe mouthing the lyrics was for me a rough and inchoate prayer, the Spirit’s groanings.

I’ve been raising up my hands

Drive another nail in

Just what God needs

One more victim

So what the Cross mean to me now, when it’s not an abstract symbol in a song but my saving hope? What can I possibly see in the Cross other than stupid suffering?

What does taking up my cross and following Jesus mean? Does it mean hatred toward myself, salvation through violence? Does it mean the guilt and burdens and chains that Tori sings about?

No. The Cross means freedom from all those things. The Cross means I can get off the rollercoaster and start living an abundant life.

Here’s the thing: Jesus did not come to condemn the world – he came to save it. He emptied himself to take on our burdens. He became sin for us so we no longer have to be slaves to sin.

But isn’t what some people call “sin” what makes life worth living? Isn’t it exciting and beautiful? Isn’t it another word for what makes us human, our ultimately lovable imperfections?

I used to think this, used to clutch my sins to my chest because I thought they were what made me myself. But then I realized my sin is not me. It’s part of me, but not the heart of me. In fact, it wars against all that is good in me.

Who can’t relate to what St. Paul said?I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

So often, I open my mouth and say the opposite of what I really feel, the opposite of what I would choose to say if I was actually thinking. So often, all my willpower can’t stop my destructive urges.

So what’s the way out?I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does.” Everything Jesus said and did was aimed toward setting the world free – most of all his death on the Cross.

Jesus died on the Cross so I could die too – not my beautiful, unique, God-created self, but my false self, my ego. The destructive part of me, the parasite that eats away at my healthy, authentic self. The one who keeps putting those chains back on. My false self has to die so I can be more myself than ever, like a plant that gets cuts back to bear more flowers and fruit.

Of course, the Cross accomplished so much more than my personal freedom. Jesus came to set the entire world free, to break the chains we all make for ourselves, not just individuals but socieities and cultures and yes, even religions. And yet I can’t help but give thanks for the chance I’ve been given to crucify myself every day so I can truly begin to live.

Lord Jesus, save me. I want to be free. Help me draw strength from your Cross today.

Crucify my apathy to make room for your love.

Crucify my cynicism to make room for your joy.

Crucify my anxiety to make room for your peace.

Crucify my entitlement to make room for your patience.

Crucify my pettiness to make room for your generosity.

Crucify my anger to make room for your kindness.

Crucify my hypocrisy to make room for your faithfulness.

Crucify my pride to make room for your gentleness.

Crucify my selfishness to make room for your self-control.

I have faith that your love can break my chains and lead me into abundant life. Thank you for everything.

My Not-So-Brilliant Career as a Footwasher

So Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Is that as gross and awkward as it sounds to our modern ears?

The answer is yes. Possibly even more so.

Imagine washing the feet of someone who gets around primarily by walking and who wears sandals all the time. And there are no cars yet, so the streets are pretty much covered in animal muck.

Foot washing was a necessary task in Jesus’ time, and it was one of the most important gestures of hospitality. It was also considered so disgusting and demeaning that a master was not allowed to order his Jewish slave to do it.

Now imagine Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, putting on a towel and stooping down to do this chore even some slaves wouldn’t do. No wonder Peter’s response was something like horror: “You will never wash my feet!”

Jesus did, and then he washed eleven other pairs of feet. Then he asked his disciples if they understood why.

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,'” he said, “and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master…”

I’ve been thinking about footwashing this Lent, trying to figure out what the equivalent is in my own life. Now that we have showers and close-toed shoes and cars, what is it I’m supposed to be doing?

I believe it was Shane Claiborne who likened washing feet to scrubbing toilets. Seems like a good analogy to me. I think of that often when I’m cleaning my own house, when I don’t want to bend my knees and get down in the muck and mess.

Reflecting on this is good for me. My mother was not a great housekeeper, and neither am I. Mostly I just don’t want to take the time to do chores – not when there are so many other, better, things I could be doing. More noble. More important. More uplifting.

But Jesus says, Get in there. Wipe away that grime. Don’t let your pride get in the way. I don’t care who you are. I’ve set you an example.

But even more than housework, this applies to my job. I’ve mentioned before that my job is boring, stressful, undesirable. I certainly never wanted to work customer service. As much as I’ve learned from my job over the years, it’s also true that most of the time I feel like it’s a waste. I have a fancy degree. I’d rather be doing so many other things, and I’ve spent a lot of time daydreaming about that when I should be working.

This Lent I gave up surfing the Internet at work. It was my guilty pleasure: when I was on hold, or when I felt like there was nothing else to do, I’d look at a blog, a window on someone else’s life, and escape my own life for a minute.

It felt like a tiny vice, something everyone did from time to time. But I realized the more I did it, the less I wanted to serve. I felt annoyed at customers for interrupting my reading. I felt annoyed at the universe that I was stuck in the land of gray cubicles. I felt annoyed at God for not showing me a way out of this dead-end job.

So this Lent, I’ve focused on just serving – and trying to do it joyfully, as worship. Trying to see our customers as Jesus, as loved by Jesus. Trying to do my job, a job many would say only the desperate would take, generously and freely, just as Jesus did.

I have a lot to learn about the Lord’s gentleness and humility. My instinct in many situations is still to say, “That’s not my job!” or “They don’t pay me enough to care.” or “Clean up your own mess!”

This Holy Thursday, I pray for a different kind of attitude, a gentle and quiet spirit, an emptying of myself, a willingness to be a student of my Teacher.

Lenten Love Stories #7: Miracles and Mistakes

It’s weird that I’ve spent so much of my life afraid of making mistakes. After all, in a certain sense my life itself was a mistake.

I remember the day my dad first told me. I was about twelve. He sat across from me in the red dust of our backyard, smoking, and told me the story of my unlikely birth. He didn’t say it angrily or meanly, just factually: that he and my mom never really intended to have kids, that my mom’s pregnancy was a total shock to them both and they weren’t really sure what to do.

In my dad’s version of the story, my life was saved by A Course in Miracles, this little blue book he and Mom were reading together at the time. The Course book says everything that happens to you is the result of a subconscious choice you made, an experience through which God teaches you. So Mom and Dad, informed by these ideas, said, “What the heck. Maybe this was meant to happen.”

I ran into the house and slammed the door behind me. My dad yelled after me how glad he was they had chosen to have me, how they had never regretted it, but in that moment, all I heard was that I was unwanted. I wanted to have been loved and welcomed from moment one, my existence eagerly hoped for and anticipated.

Maybe I somehow knew before he said it. Maybe he told me this story because I asked; I don’t remember how the subject came up in the first place. Maybe it explains a lot about me. How early on did I make it my mission to please people? Is this why I couldn’t handle losing games or making less-than-perfect grades? Why I was convinced new acquaintances wouldn’t like me, which quickly became a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I don’t blame my parents. I don’t blame my dad for telling me the story. The burden of self-justification is by no means unique to my life. Sooner or later, we all seem to learn the lie that we will never be loved for who we are.

The truth was in that little blue book: I am a miracle. My parents were surprised when I flickered into existence, but not God. I was loved and wanted and hoped for, even before that moment. In all my frailty, God chose me and keeps on choosing me.

I know now that God wants me to live free from my fear of making mistakes. Properly understood, my mistakes are nothing more and nothing less than reminders that I need grace. And I can have a lifetime supply of grace, its costly price already paid, if I’ll claim the prize. That’s the hard part. No one wants to have to accept charity – but here’s the thing: charity is just another word for love.

Love, the thing we’ll never deserve. Love, the thing we’ll always want. Love, the thing that could fill us completely, if we’d empty our shells of ego and make enough room.

May it be so. Amen.

Lenten Love Stories #6: Home Away from Home

February 1st, 2009

For years after my conversion I didn’t go to church. Oh, sure, I attended the odd service, particularly at college, where the Chapel offered up a different style of worship every week. And I church shopped in town a good bit, too, trying to find something that felt right. I went to Mass and Taizé services and I raised my hands to worship bands and I broke big fat communion loaves in a circle of chairs, all of that from time to time. But I did not go to church with any regularity. I tried a bit of this and a bit of that, rarely staying long enough to be recognized or remembered, certainly not enough to be vulnerable.

Even after my dramatic (for me) call back to the Church body, I didn’t visit church buildings too much. I was still weighing my options, trying a bite of this and that but never feeling nourished.

Then I walked into a small, dilapidated-looking Catholic church in my neighborhood, something I’d seen out of a bus window on a trip downtown. Maybe I should try that one, I thought idly as it flowed by.

I tried it that Sunday and quickly saw past the crumbling building to the vibrant life inside. I think I may have finally found a church I want to keep going to, I wrote in my journal that night. I was immediately impressed by everyone’s sincere friendliness and the care which they took to welcome me. I also thought the music was beautiful and powerful, and the church itself is more subtle than some but very beautiful, with a carved wooden crucifix which displays Christ not sad and suffering, but triumphant, clearly the Resurrected Christ, with his arms open and a very welcoming feeling.

I felt very at home there theologically, too. There is a great emphasis on service in this community; they use their meeting hall to feed the homeless six days of the week (in fact, the post-Mass coffee and donuts sort of merges with serving lunch, a seamlessness I was impressed with). The sermon was a call to social justice, but also firmly grounded in Scripture… Seems like a place to acquire some wisdom and good influence.

I’m still going to that same church. Ironic that after all the different churches I sampled, I’d wind up at one walking distance from my house. And as I went regularly, I realized I needed to be there. I realized that taking part in a church week after week, sharing joys and sorrows, growing and encouraging others to grow, enriched me in a way church shopping never had and never could. There were completely new joys involved, like the first Sunday I realized I could hug people during the sharing of the peace because these strangers had become my friends.

Sometimes, I’ll admit, I still get the urge to shop. I’ve been at this church long enough to know that it’s far from perfect. Sometimes I wish for something that suited me a little better, that understood me a little better. But the wiser part of me knows there’s no place for consumerism anymore in my experience of the Church. Every congregation is human and broken. No part of the Church is perfect; only Jesus is. So I’ll strive to stay faithful to my little corner of the church, which has indeed molded and shaped my life in major ways, has fed my hungry soul with the Bread of Life.

I sit in the back and marvel that I’m even there, that I settled down and stayed. Truly, it’s one miracle that happens every Sunday.

This Lent, I Want to Stop Cheating

On God, that is.

In the last few weeks I happened to read the memoirs of two women whose marriages were destroyed by adultery. Both women described being cast aside by their husband for other people as the single most painful experience of their lives. They loved their husbands deeply, and they tried to save their marriages through counseling and compromise when they found out about initial affairs, but their husbands resolutely chose another path, a path that no longer had room for them. These strong, beautiful women nearly drowned in their sorrow as they watched promises they’d based their lives on be trampled, then broken.

Then I happened to read Ezekiel 16, and I realized we do the same thing to God.

We, the puny little humans, breaking God’s heart. Incredible but true. God feels anger and heartbreak when we turn away from pure Love and accept a cheap substitute. God knows our idols don’t love us back. We hoard money like we could eat it. We scramble for security like we’re ignorant it can crumble in a moment. We do this ridiculous tap dance of approval seeking and blame dodging like other people define who we are. God knows this is, in every sense of the word, vanity, that only the Divine can make us truly happy.

This Lent I realized I haven’t been letting God into many parts of my life. There are things I’ve been trying to hide out of sight of our relationship: bitter feelings about my humble job, anger about lack of healing in friends and family, fear that others will criticize or reject me. I must feel, at some level, that Jesus wouldn’t care or wouldn’t help if I brought these things to him in prayer. So instead of communicating, I stuff my feelings inside and I seek out other loves: ego stroking, shiny purchases, aggrieved complaining, excessive busyness, passive daydreaming. I’ve been on this roller coaster ride of hypocrisy and self-justification, caring more about looking like a nice person than changing my heart.

I need to get off that ride and back into the arms of the One who loves me, loves me for life and beyond. I want to receive that love, I want to return that love. I want to honor the promises made in that love. Even on the days when my eyes feel like straying, I want to lift my eyes to God, the true source of my help.