What’s So Good About This Friday?

Michelangelo-pietaA good reminder not just for Good Friday, but for every Friday.

The first moment I had a clue what the Cross was for, I was in my usual spot in Mrs. Weaver’s English classroom at Cochise Community College: one row back, two spaces from the left. It was Irish Literature class, and we were talking about the gods of Irish mythology, and Mrs. Weaver, knowing my nerdy interest in Ancient Greece, had just called on me to back her up on a scene from Homer’s Iliad.

“Now, Rachel, in the Iliad, the gods don’t concern themselves much with the fate of human beings, do they?”

“No,” I responded immediately. “In fact, at one point, Zeus is feeling sad because he knows his son is about to die in battle, but Hera talks him out of it. She says mortals are doomed to die anyway and he’s better off not getting emotionally involved with them.”

“Right,” she said with satisfaction, turning back to the class. “So you see, this myth is similar in that…”

The discussion went on, but I remember staring at the floor to the left of my desk, daydreaming as I often did in class at seventeen. Huh. Interesting that in both these cultures, there’s a story about why the gods don’t care about us humans. Actually, why would you ever naturally believe a god cared about you? What could a god, who is immortal and can’t feel pain, know about your life? Why would they ever want to know?

And then it hit me. I’d never understood about Jesus. Growing up in the Church, saying all the creeds, listening to the Gospel over and over, my religious education classes, none of it had made the death of Jesus make any sense. God loved me? Sure, okay. Jesus, both divine and human, came to us to reveal how to live? That sounded like a fine plan. But every year when Easter came around, I would wonder, Why did he have to die like that? Why couldn’t he just have gone back to be with God, or even died like a normal person? Why the beatings, the blood, the torturous thirst, the getting nailed to things?

I didn’t get it. And now, somehow, I did get it a little bit: if you believed that Jesus was God (which was still to me just hypothetical), then you could no longer say, ever, that God didn’t care about or understand your suffering. Surely crucifixion was not only one of the most horrifically painful deaths ever, but also one of the most humiliating and dehumanizing. And if God was Jesus, and Jesus went through all that, it proved once and for all that God knew all about suffering. Surely God had empathy for your pain, compassion even for the most horrible experience you would ever go through.  Surely, if you believed that, it would give you a powerful sense that God was with you in your darkest moments.

Now, this is not how the impact of Jesus’ death is usually explained. I’ve discovered many more dimensions of it since then, and no doubt I will discover many more. But that was the thing that grabbed me first, stunned me and spun me around and made me get it after all my years of half-sleeping through sermons. I almost got choked up thinking about it: a god would do that for me? So that I could know I wasn’t alone? So I could know the Creator of the world was not hostile, or even neutral, but loved me enough to get down on my level, wade through all that blood and mud and grime, suffer all those filthy looks and jeers and whispers, to prove it wasn’t the end of the world? I pictured Jesus like a big brother, jumping before me into a lake that looked freezing, murky, teeming with perils, his head rising again to the surface to say, “Come on in. I’ll be in here with you.”

It wasn’t the day I decided to follow Jesus, not even close. I filed out of class somewhat pleased that I’d had an interesting thought. I’d always wanted to understand why people made such a big deal out of the Cross.

I thought that was it. But now I know that’s one of the things that makes Good Friday good. Jesus took what was until that time a horrific symbol of torture and death, a tool to make an example of criminals, and he took it on to show us how much he loves us, how intimately he wants to know us, that he would drink from the very same cup of pain. And also, of course, to show that no matter how horrible that pain, it won’t have the last word.

I’ll always remember that day as the day Jesus got his hooks into me. He must have waited years for it. He got me good.

Newsflash: Fruit Doesn’t Come from the Supermarket

Image credit: Graela, flickr

Image credit: Graela, flickr

Jesus spent a lot of time breaking stuff down. Making it comprehensible to the rest of us. His parables and metaphors about the Kingdom of God drew on the world that surrounded him and his listeners: wheat, sheep, trees, clouds. Sometimes I wonder what he’d come up with to fit my urban, modern landscape. Instead of a treasure hidden in a field, maybe a thrift store couch stuffed with cash?

After sheep and shepherds of course, I would say Jesus’s metaphor of choice was fruit. The seed planted in good soil that grows up to produce bountiful fruit (Matthew 13:22). The barren fig tree that earns his curse: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:14). Other fruitless trees that get chopped down down and thrown into the fire (Luke 3:9). Branches that can’t bear fruit unless they remain connected to the vine (John 15:4).

I’ve been thinking lately about this metaphor. I’m pretty sure I don’t understand it in the same way the original disciples did. When I want fruit, I usually go to the supermarket. There it lies in huge shining mounds, sweet and beautiful and often cheap. Often, it’s so ripe I can buy it and immediately bite into it. It’s one of the easiest foods to enjoy, often requiring no cooking or preparation of any kind.

But Jesus’s original listeners were not office workers like me. Many of them were farmers, as we can tell from his many metaphors related to fields and crops. My main contact with plants is a few houseplants huddled on my kitchen windowsill, which I often forget to water. They tended crops whose success meant food and life. They invested so much in the growth of these plants: their resources, their hard work, and most of all, their time.

Time is such an important ingredient for fruit. It’s easy for me to forget that, since I can go to the store and buy it whenever. I forget that the fruit is the final product of a long chain of events, preceded by seed and shoot and flower. Even after fruit appears, you have to wait for it to get ripe and sweet. I chow down without a second thought on sugars that took seasons to mature. If time is money, even fruit that didn’t cost me much is pretty expensive.

I’ve never thought this much about fruit before, which is sad, because clearly it was so important to Jesus. Not in itself – he didn’t curse that fig tree because he was feeling peckish – but because of what it represents. Fruit is a metaphor for the sweet end result of something. Genesis commanded humanity to be fruitful and multiply, bearing many children who would flood the world with life; the New Testament speaks of spiritual fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

I look at that list of fruits of the spirit sometimes and I feel so discouraged, feeling like a barren tree. Why haven’t I collected them all already? I believe in God and all that good stuff, so why am I not Mother Teresa? In my mind, I think spiritual fruits should be easy to get, like swinging by the supermarket for ripe, perfect strawberries. In real life, all fruits take plenty of time and attention, especially when they’re getting started.

Not that spiritual fruits are due to our effort alone. Far from it! I can try to be good soil, clear my soul of the rocks and weeds that might strangle out my spiritual seedlings, but what plant could grow without the God-given blessings of sun and rain? Even the most hard-working farmer can’t control those! Jesus told this parable about a growing seed to highlight the fact that true growth is something we don’t fully understand:

And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Mark 4:26-29

Like good farmers, our role as disciples is to make sure the conditions are the best possible, then watch and wait as the mystery unfolds. But I have to remember there will be a lot of watching and waiting, a lot of time before fruit appears. Jesus expected I would know this, would have thought about how the natural world works, so I can know how it reflects the spiritual world.

This metaphor is certainly giving me a lot of food for thought. (Sorry. Had to.) I love trying to think about things the way that Jesus did, diving deeper into the stories I’ve heard so many times before. Next up: maybe sheep? Maybe.

How to Eat a Book

THE START

(Photo credit: whologwhy)

I was hungry for bread, but my mouth was full of wheat stalks and wild yeast.

That’s what it felt like when I tried to read the Bible all the way through the first time. I was home from college on vacation, with a view of miles of desert that invisibly morphed into Mexico. Perhaps that’s why I decided to read it Lone Ranger style: no rules, just me and my paperback NIV in my room. I started on page one with Genesis, those familiar Sunday-school favorites igniting my hope that I’d finally learn the whole story.

I made it as far as the book of Judges.

I couldn’t muddle on anymore through the darkness, the violence, the lists of names. I couldn’t see a big-picture Story in this; it seemed like a bunch of disconnected episodes for which I’d never figure out the context. The Jesus story I felt I understood (mostly), but what was all this about animal sacrifice and marriage taboos and census numbers? What did the one thing have to do with the other? Why were they part of the same Book?

I was hungry, and it wasn’t feeding me. So I gave up on it for years. I did enough reading for class, I reasoned. It wasn’t until 2010 that I started reading it regularly for the first time, finishing the entire text a year later. Since then I’ve reread it three times in full and just started again. I’ve found that each time, it gets better and more satisfying.

The problem was that trying to read the Bible alone, with no guidance or vision, was like trying to choke down wheat berries and yeast and call it a loaf of bread. All the nourishment I sought was there, but I couldn’t take it in until the text was properly “cooked.” For those whose reading experiences have been similarly unsatisfying, I have this hard-won advice to offer.

First, don’t go it alone. One thing that really helped me during my first read-through in 2010 was my partner’s unexpected and kind commitment to read along with me. Without her encouragement, I might never have made it through. We’d read out loud to each other sometimes, and each of us would remember connections the other forgot. Reading in a group, especially a faith community, is great if you can manage it. Don’t forget to lean on the scholarly community as well – a good study Bible has often been my best friend when figuring out context and narrative structure. And finally, when you feel like you just can’t make it through another genealogy, asking for understanding from God (as you understand God) can be truly invaluable.

Second, make it bite-size. As with any big goal, reading the entire Bible is easier for many of us if it’s broken down into relatively easy steps. Luckily, there are many plans out there that have done the work for you, breaking down the number of chapters you need to read daily to finish in a certain amount of time (most commonly a year or two years). Some, like those through Discipleship Journal, even factor in extra days so you can catch up if needed. Bible reading plans also make it easy to give yourself variety if you don’t want to go straight from beginning to end – some plans will give you a variety of readings from different parts of the Bible each day, while others have you read from a different “genre” of book each day of the week. Just in case you feel, as I did, like you’ll be stuck in Judges forever.

Third, keep the big picture in mind. Many folks find the New Testament far easier to read than the Old Testament. We Christians often don’t know what to do with the Hebrew Scriptures – what do they have to do with us, we ask ourselves, and when will we get to the good part? The fact is, the New Testament is intimately related to the Old. Both Jesus and Paul reference the Hebrew Scriptures constantly; the love story between the Israelites and God is their native tongue. So especially if you’re reading from beginning to end, keep your eye out for Old Testament symbols and promises that will form the backbone of the New Testament. One great resource that’s helped me practice seeing the big picture of Scripture is The Jesus Storybook Bible (written for children, but beloved by many adults).

Finally, don’t forget to savor and enjoy! Choose a translation that speaks to you, or even a modern paraphrase like The Message or The Voice. Create rituals for your Bible time that help you focus and enjoy, like reading outside on sunny days or curling up in your favorite chair with a cup of tea on rainy ones. Mark passages you love, things to which you want to return, words that spark questions in your heart, words that satisfy your hunger. Read out loud. Slow down, lectio divina style. Sing Psalms, dance prayers, retell the stories in your own words, feast your eyes on great religious art. Let it make you laugh, cry, hope, and dream.

As for me, I’m still chewing on this book. On my plate today is a few chapters of Exodus with a side of Proverbs. After a few complete read-throughs, while some parts have always gone down like candy, others have become acquired tastes for me, like arugula or olives. Often, it’s only after reading something for the third or fourth time that I’ve been able to see the beauty of it and exclaim, “This was holy ground all along!” I’m so glad I stopped trying to jam the text down my throat to fill my hunger and learned to savor it, properly cooked, as the feast it is.

Reposted from July 2013 to celebrate my fourth complete read-through of the Bible. It really does get better every time!

Love Thy Annoying Next-Door Neighbor

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Or how about not. How about some nice Matthew 5:45 instead? Photo credit: Kirk Kittell (flickr)

I remember donating my allowance to PETA back in eighth grade. I remember the first time I gave blood back in college, dizzy with excitement that I’d dared to do it. I remember walking out of a bakery one time in Greece with two loaves of bread in my bag and handing one to the beggar at the door. I tried to act cool as I walked away, but his smile burned into me for blocks.

Yes, giving is a rush sometimes. And rightly so, I think. Acts records the words of Jesus: “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” I think we get joy from giving because God made us that way. Science has now discovered the “Helper’s High,” feel-good chemicals our brain releases when we do something charitable. We are wired to like it.

But if I’m going to be honest, I have to say one thing: sometimes it feels easier and better to help strangers than people who are much closer to me.

Weird, since Jesus said “love your neighbor,” that sometimes I find my neighbors hardest to love – especially the ones who make too much noise upstairs or set the fire alarm off again. Strangers are still a mystery, their annoying habits as yet unknown, often more likely to win a smile from me than someone who sits near me at work with whom I’m acquainted all too well.

This reveals something else about humans: we naturally feel good when we give, but we’re also naturally reluctant to do it – especially when we suspect the recipient might not deserve or appreciate our gifts. And sometimes the more we see someone, the easier it is to suspect this. And gradually, our relationship shifts from open-handed to close-hearted.

There’s so much evidence of this in my life, geologic layers of it. Piles of never-answered emails in my inbox. Dozens of lackluster, barely conscious exchanges each day (“How are you?” “Good…”). So many mundane tasks performed grudgingly instead of lovingly. So many offers of help and opportunities for listening left unexplored out of fear of seeming awkward, fate worse than death.

I can’t help but bring this back to Jesus. In love, no one could beat him for endurance. Behold his disciples bugging him, not getting it, and generally acting like morons on every page of the Gospels, and then abandoning him in his hour of need, falling asleep when he needed them emotionally and denying they ever knew him at the first sign of trouble.

Did Jesus let himself grow cold toward these people? Did he gradually trust them less? Did he ever seem to feel it wasn’t worth it? Sure, he got frustrated with them, sometimes exploded in anger, but stop loving them? Never. After he suffered and died a lonely death and come back to life again, he cooked them breakfast and hung out with them on the beach.

That’s the thing, I guess, about believing that you and everyone you know will live forever. There’s no reason not to be loving. There’s no reason not to start flexing your muscles now for life in Heaven, where we will live shoulder to shoulder with all these other imperfect, messed up people with whom we once felt mutual annoyance and, God help us, we’ll all enjoy ourselves. Or it won’t be Heaven.

I need to pray for the ability to love with endurance. Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always endures.” Always. Not just when it feels good. Not just when it comes with a tax write-off or a sticker that says “Be Nice to Me” – or even just when it comes with gratitude. I need to pray for the ability to love like God loves, like God’s rain falling down on all the thirsty people, those who praise him and those who don’t.

Because a good feeling is not enough of a reason to love. The only real reason to love is because he loved me first, because I deserve it least of all, because I lived in the desert and now I’m dancing in the rain.