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.

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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!

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.

Lenten Love Stories #2: The Mysterious Kiss

May 23rd, 2004

Just another Literary Guild meeting, I thought. I brought pumpkin bread to share. Officially I was Guild president, but that was just a title to put on my (now already accepted) college application. We were really a glorified book group, some nerdy friends who worked together at the community college’s Writing Lab.

We sat at the beautiful oak table in Pat’s dining room. My boss at the Writing Lab, Becky, sat to my right. She’d picked out the month’s reading, just one chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. Usually we tackled things like Homer’s Iliad, but the summer highs had already crept above a hundred degrees, so Becky had suggested something short, something light and summery by our standards: “The Grand Inquisitor.”

Three hours we sat there and talked about that chapter. It was nine-thirty by the time Becky drove me home, and I remember how the stars looked as we bounced down the dirt road. I was giddy with energy. I was newly in love.

The chapter (spoiler warning!) takes the form of a story told by one brother to another. Ivan is the skeptic, Alyosha the one with the childlike faith, and Ivan tells Alyosha a story about Jesus. Jesus coming back to earth during the Spanish Inquisition and meeting the Grand Inquisitor, the head of it all. Actually, the Inquisitor has Jesus thrown into prison.

Visiting the captured Jesus, the Grand Inquisitor stares at him and exclaims: “Is it Thou? Thou? … Don’t answer, be silent… Thou hast no right to add to anything thou said of old.” Jesus obeys, looking on in silence as the old man rants about how Jesus ruined everything during his encounter with Satan in the desert, when he denied the temptations of “miracle, mystery and authority.” Jesus refused to manipulate people into submission to him – he left them with their freedom to accept or reject him. The Inquisitor explains that people are too weak for this freedom, that they need control, that no one can live up to the standards Jesus taught, that the church is now controlling the masses and fixing these mistakes Jesus made.

He concludes his indictment of Jesus by saying that he will burn him at the stake as the worst of heretics, and the same people who worship him today will rush tomorrow to throw more kindling on the fire that consumes him.

Alyosha interrupts the story at this point, horrified, saying his brother is misrepresenting Christianity and that the Inquisitor clearly doesn’t believe in God. Ivan admits the old man’s atheism, but says it’s actually compassion for humanity that drives him forward, his sincere realization that the average person will never be able to carry the burden of morality Jesus has placed on his or her shoulders.

Around that oak table, we asked ourselves and each other, Is faith a sign of weakness or of strength? Is religion inevitably cruel and oppressive? Are people really too weak to follow the hard teachings of Jesus?

I took Ivan’s side in these questions. I couldn’t help but see the ugliness of religion, how it was so often used for cruelty, how the teachings of Jesus seemed often to burden people instead of setting them free. I was grateful for Ivan’s boldness in asking questions, his frankness in admitting he couldn’t believe in God.

But when we got to the end of Ivan’s story, something happened to me. I’d read through the thing quickly by myself, but discussing it with my friends around the table, the words jumped out at me as if for the first time.

Jesus looks at the old man in silence. The Inquisitor wishes he would say something, anything at all, no matter how terrible. But then Jesus silently comes forward and kisses the old man on his wrinkled lips. That’s the only answer he gives.

The old man shudders, opens the door to the cell, and lets him go. Ivan concludes the story, “The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.”

A kiss? That was Jesus’s idea of an answer to this torrent of words? The thought almost offended me, but at the same time touched me in a way I couldn’t explain. My own mind, so full of doubt and argument, bumped up against a love so great it didn’t have to explain itself.

The kiss glowed in my own heart as I came home under the stars. I didn’t yet understand what was happening to me. That night God called to me and I heard, a moment as mysterious and irresistible as suddenly falling in love.

Addiction and Living Water

My dad and I once talked about the moral implications of legalizing drugs as we waited in line at the post office. That probably tells you all you really need to know about our relationship.

Me: I just don’t think drugs are good for people.

Dad: Yeah, well, that bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream you have every night isn’t so great for you either.

Me: That’s different. I’m not addicted to eating ice cream.

Woman in line behind us: I am!

That conversation took place back when I was a teenager and knew everything. But the medical definition of addiction is “the persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be physically, psychologically, or socially harmful.” So, yeah, in that case, I am addicted to ice cream. And a lot of other things. Considering what I know about the harmful aspects of ice cream (the fat, the sugar, the non-fair trade ingredients, the mood swings and blood sugar crashes it causes), I should realize it’s potentially physically, psychologically, and socially harmful, but I love it and don’t want to give it up. So much for that argument.

The medical world also defines addiction as characterized by increasing tolerance, so whatever you’re addicted to, it leaves you wanting more. To me, that seems like the worst part of all, the fact that you’re always chasing some elusive horizon of enough, always seeking just a little more.

So much of my life is like that, if I’m honest. I’m addicted to so many things. They’re not illegal; most of them are even socially acceptable (my bouts of compulsive people pleasing come to mind). But I ignore the harm they do because they make me feel so good – I ignore their true nature because of their momentary appearance.

In a way, my addictive personality is perfectly natural, because I live in an addictive society. All around me, people overeat, overwork, overanalyze. We chase all kinds of things that, deep down, we know have nothing to do with true happiness. We spend our lives yearning to get rich quick, stay young forever, or some other impossible thing. Our society positively encourages addictions to money, power, violence. It’s hard to see another way, much less live it.

God does not want this for us. I love that that’s right there in Scripture. God does not want us to be endlessly, fruitlessly chasing something that doesn’t love us back.

God calls to us sadly through Isaiah: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?”

The book of Jeremiah echoes, “My people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”

These words jump off the page for me, because I have lived them. I keep on living them. I feed my soul with junk food and let life-giving water slip through my fingers. And the whole time, there is a source of true happiness out there. The Bread of Life, the Water of Life are there, if I’ll reach out my hand and take them.

Jesus once sat with a woman at a well. She was an ordinary woman, just like me. She was out to get water and schlep it back home, the same old chore she did day after day. And she’d been trapped in an addictive cycle her whole life – wanting another person to complete her, protect her, satisfy her – but none of her five husbands, nor the man she was living with, had really ever helped her longings and loneliness become less.

She heard Jesus say the words living water. Right away, she asked where she could get it. How to get something to combat this raging thirst for more, something she wouldn’t have to chase after, pure joy with no side of pain?

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

She said, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

And then, gently, he brought her addiction to light. As they talked, she realized that he could set her free, that he was the truth that would set her free. No more need to spend her life running after food that just made her hungrier and water that was never quite enough. She was so happy, she told everyone she knew that she had finally found the source of living water, joy welling up inside her and overflowing.

I want that kind of joy. I mean, who wouldn’t? But the question is, do I want it more than ice cream, or people’s praise, or a sense of accomplishment? Can I stand turning my darkest deeds over to the light of truth? Can I empty myself of ego so there’s room in there for the good stuff, the water of life, life to the full?

Perfect Love Casts Out Fear: First Thoughts on Therapy

So six months after realizing I want to be healed, I finally visited a therapist. I climbed the stairs to her office on the upper floor of an old blue house. I drank the tea she offered me and filled out paperwork. She asked me why I was there, and I admitted it: I don’t know how to live the simplest commandments. How can I love God and my neighbor when my ideas about love have flourished misshapen, like a tree cramped and dwarfed by structures around it? She nodded, asked for details, took notes unobtrusively, while I struggled to articulate the things that seem to be holding me back from loving with my whole heart.

I was afraid, climbing the stairs to that room, afraid of a lot of things. I was afraid the therapist I’d chosen wouldn’t understand my faith. I was afraid she would understand it and would judge me. I was afraid she would decide it was the root of my problems. Most of all, I was afraid this would be a waste of time, or worse, that it would somehow cause me to be less loving, that what was meant to heal me would only make me worse. I feared that therapy would encourage me to be selfish, that instead of learning to love others better, I would stop at loving myself. All these fears had held me back from this moment: I’d shopped for the “perfect” therapist for months, delayed making an appointment, convinced myself I didn’t have the time or money to do this after all. But I made it: I fought through that naysaying crowd to say, “I need help.”

It all boiled down to this: I was afraid when I walked into that office, Jesus wouldn’t come with me. But even after just a few visits, I know that’s not true. Although my therapist doesn’t share my faith, she’s already started to shine the light of truth on my life. And the truth is, it’s been really dark in there for a long, long time.

For instance, already I’m starting to ask myself where all these fears came from, anyway. Not from Jesus, who says over and over in the Gospel not to worry about anything. I can hear Paul’s voice booming, “It is for freedom that Christ set us free,” but I let myself be shackled and ruled by anything I think will keep me safe from judgment, criticism, ridicule, disrespect, abandonment. I soften my opinions, hide my true self, the self that is my gift from God, because I fear rejection. But Jesus didn’t do that; Jesus knew exactly who he was, spoke bold words with love and without fear.

Perfect love casts out fear, so the Bible says. I have to not get caught up in the word perfect. I can never make my love perfect, and neither can my therapist, no matter how many hours we spend in her homey little office. The only perfect love comes from God, and it’s only God who can perfect me, make me complete. But I believe God can use this therapy thing, and I believe I need to go forward with it, with all the bravery I can muster. Once and for all I want to break that yoke of fear I’ve been living under for so long, the one I convinced myself I didn’t really mind. God wants me to be light on my feet, ready to help carry another’s burden without being crushed by the weight of what I’m already dragging along.

What do you think is holding you back from being healed? What is helping you move toward healing?

Monastic Value of the Month: Shared Economics

This January I’m reflecting on the principle of shared economics (for those of you who are just joining us, check out my post on why I’m doing this Monastic Value of the Month Club). As Common Prayer says, shared economics means choosing to pursue “a vision of an economy different than the empire’s economy.” As the Church, we are called to “bear each other’s burdens, fulfilling the law of Christ.” A striking characteristic of the early Church was that there were no poor people in it. Those who were rich gave all they could to the community, even selling their greatest assets, so those who were poor could be cared for, uplifted, embraced.

What would that even be like in our own time? What would it be like to have a church that truly took care of people’s economic burdens and gave all it could to eliminate poverty? What if people could come to the Church and find a haven from the dog-eat-dog world of the American empire? What if we could lay down our addictions to work and shopping and entertainment because we were part of a community that would care for all our true needs?

The Church would be a lot more popular, I’m pretty sure, if those things were what we were known for.

Unfortunately, we pretty much suck at sharing these days. Although there are definitely parts of the Church that care for the poor and fight the systems that perpetuate poverty, most Christian individuals and communities have very little imagination when it comes to economic matters. We don’t know how to truly care for others. We don’t trust them enough. We’d rather hold the poor at arm’s length and show them charity than get involved in their lives and truly take up their burdens.

I am very much guilty of this. I know that compared to many, I’m rich. On the other hand, when I budget my money and my time, I tend to think of myself and my family first. My burdens, such as they are, feel heavy enough without picking up someone else’s. And the thought of surrendering more resources to the Church and trusting God to take care of me via my fellow Christians? I don’t know, it feels so risky.

The more I reflect on this, the more I conclude that the key word here is shared. In our individualistic society which praises self-sufficiency so much, it feels crazy to carry another person’s burdens. We don’t trust that it will be reciprocated. We fear burnout or bankruptcy. We need the support of community, a culture of shared burdens, to set us free from our programming. That’s one advantage the Church already has: we already share a part of our lives, and together we can grow to share more.

So let’s join together, young and old. Let’s dream dreams and see visions of a world in which poverty does not exist, a Church where people who are hungry can be fed and people who carry around too much stuff can lay it down. Let us pray and work for a world in which we can all feel safe laying our burdens down.

What dreams do you dream about shared economics? What would a Church and/or world without poverty be like, and what can we do today to help create it?

That Broken, Beautiful Jesse Tree

Georges DelatourWe light a candle, turn on the twinkle lights, and open up the Bible. This isn’t a usual thing at my house; I’m the one obsessed with the Word, inclined to spill all these words about it. But during Advent, it’s somehow different. We have this tradition of the Jesse tree, Jesus’s family tree. We read about prophets and patriarchs and promises and wayward Gentile women and other weird relatives of the coming King of Kings. We remember that the Christmas story is actually part of a much bigger story.

Sometimes she asks questions that just floor me, like why God didn’t send Jesus before the flood. If Jesus was around in the beginning, was always part of the master plan, why the waiting? Why not send him right away and save all those people and animals from drowning?

Like lots of people, she wonders about Abraham and Isaac. Why would God ask a man to sacrifice his only son? And what man would try to do it? What in the world is such a story trying to tell us?

But the story that really sticks in her craw is Rahab. What is she doing on this Jesse tree? It seems she saved her family but doomed her town by cooperating with the Israelites. How could she sleep at night?

We talk it over, around and around. I argue that Rahab was doing the best she could, that she was positive the Israelites were going to sack the city anyway, that she was not a powerful player, couldn’t escape the game being played by the men around her.

Across the table, in the candlelight, my loved one shakes her head. My words do nothing to quench the fire of anger in her, anger at all this needless violence. And I have to say I respect that in her, her utter intolerance for all this war surrounding the newborn Prince of Peace. She raves about it like a prophet. I wish injustice shook me up that much.

Maybe I find it easier to reconcile all this ugly stuff in the Jesse tree because it’s a lot like my own family tree. People I love, people who did unspeakable things, people who suffered unspeakable things: they’re the same people. Even my little nuclear family was full of genuine love and twisted love, love that helped and love that hurt. My parents tried their best, but they weren’t good for each other. I can’t say I regret they’ve parted ways, but how could I wish they’d never met? Out of that twistedness and brokenness and yes, real love, I was born.

I’m almost comforted by it, actually, the fact that Jesus wasn’t born into perfection. He was born into a war-torn world, a people and a family that did crazy things to keep themselves from getting torn apart.

But I can’t find anything to censure about Jesus in these pages. Not a single thing. And the grace Jesus gave extends backward too, back to all the dubious ancestors who helped bring him into the world.

We read the story of Joseph back in Genesis every year, and there’s one phrase that sums it all up for me. At the end of Joseph’s story, his brothers, who sold him as a slave and faked his death back at the beginning, are worried he’s going to take vengeance now that he’s in power and their father has died. They send him this nervous message, like Guess what? Before he died, Dad definitely said you should forgive us for all the stuff we did. Really.

Joseph starts crying when he hears this, which freaks them out even more. They throw themselves at his feet and beg for mercy. And then Joseph says this to them:

It’s okay. You tried to hurt me, but God meant it for good…

I’ve heard it said that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past. And I know, from what I’ve gone through with my own family, that you can get to this place. The place where you realize God can do anything with anything, can take the stupidest things you’ve ever done and the cruelest things people have ever done to you and work it all out for good. Just like with Jesus, out of the twisted stump of your past can sprout – of all things – a new life.

It takes a long time for the story to get there, of course. And I can’t explain why suddenly Jesus bursts on the scene after all that carnage and darkness, any more than I can tell you why one day I could call my mom after not speaking to her for over a year. But I need to wrestle with the why. I love when she asks me these questions, because I need to remember what the questions mean. When you can ask questions, it means you feel safe, you feel loved, you love enough to want to get to the bottom of things. Her questions remind me this is not some Sunday school story: it’s real and messy, just like mine.

So we keep reading in our tiny circle of light, unable to see the whole room, unable to see the whole story yet, our own or anyone else’s. But in the questions, in the long, dark shadows cast by the candle as it lights up our faces, there is beauty too.

When I Don’t Want to Be Saved

My friend Rob once saved me from a speeding bus. I was about to blithely step into the street and he said, “Look out, Rachel!” and shoved his arm in front of me so I couldn’t move. Only then did I see the bus, now passing inches from my face, going so fast I was caught in a whoosh of air as it departed.

What was my immediate reaction? Did I thank my friend for potentially saving my life? Did I burst into happy tears that I was still here and whole?

No. When the shock of the moment wore off, I turned to him and said crankily, “That wasn’t necessary, you know. I would have seen it coming and stopped.”

In a more private moment later that evening, tears did come, and they still weren’t tears of joy. I cried because I wasn’t sure I would have seen the bus coming and stopped. My tears were tears of anger at myself – I didn’t want to be the kind of person who could die in so stupid a way. I wanted to believe I was the kind of person who could take care of herself, who was too smart to walk in front of a moving bus, but deep down, I didn’t think I was.

I still struggle with not wanting to be saved. You would think I’d be happy about it, since we Christians love to proclaim we’ve been saved by Jesus. Central to my religion is the belief that salvation is a gift of God, not something you could ever earn, but pure breathtaking grace.

But the thing is, sometimes I still don’t want to be the kind of person who needs saving. I don’t want to have to depend on God so heavily. I want to be the kind of person who naturally does the right thing for the right reason, who is always getting wiser and better without having to ask for help.

But I’m not that person. I don’t have it all under control. My motives are mixed at best. I’m really selfish and really easily floored by suffering.

Sometimes this realization hits me anew like the proverbial speeding bus. For two years in a row now, I’ve been excited to start a new year on the right foot: make lots of goals, get my life on track, bring all my productivity and energy to the table. And for two years in a row, I’ve woken up sick. This year, I also strained my shoulder first thing in the morning. Was I doing aerobics? No, I was attempting to get out of bed.

Needless to say, I didn’t live my ideal day today. I wasn’t super productive. I didn’t get a lot of planning done. I took a lot of naps and popped a lot of ibuprofen. And I didn’t bear the pain well, either – I prayed for patience, but in the same breath, I also whined about having to spend a vacation day in bed.

I think Someone may be trying to tell me something, namely, that I am not a self-sufficient being. I can have all the ambition and great plans that I want, but ultimately, my life can easily be altered by forces outside my control. And that’s okay, because I am not my achievements. I can learn this now, or I can learn it when I start to get old and lose my ability to achieve in the conventional ways, along with my marbles and/or my mobility (if I make it that long without getting run over).

My job is not to be in control of everything. It’s okay to be small and weak and need saving. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who know how perennially messed up they are and suck at hiding it. Because when you realize that you don’t run the world, it frees you up to live in the Kingdom of God.

Oh, and Rob? If you’re reading this, I guess it’s time to finally say thank you.

This Is My Story

Reading list

(Photo credit: jakebouma)

Once I was reading Strega Nona to a five-year-old friend, and he expressed genuine anxiety about how it would turn out.

I was surprised. He really thought this book about a friendly witch and her magic pasta pot might end with the entire town being engulfed by pasta? He didn’t see the connection between this story and other stories he knew? I told him I knew it would be okay, and he let me keep reading to the end.

The more you read, the more you learn to make predictions about what may happen next in the narrative. It’s a necessary skill for a fluent reader and it’s a skill that can’t be taught. You just have to keep immersing yourself in the stories over and over until you learn what to expect.

This is why I dive into the Bible again and again. The more I read, the more connections I see between different parts of the story and between the story and my own life. Liturgy does this too; when I attend Mass, I rehearse how to truly live a life centered on Christ. When I recite creeds with other Christians, I’m narrating the common truths that enliven our individual existences. Together, we find the courage to affirm crazy things – that our story won’t end with our deaths, that the poor and those who mourn are blessed.

The culture I live in tells me a different kind of story – a story where death wins, where all suffering is frightening, where illness and imperfection are to be avoided at all costs. It’s this story that makes me wig out over my smallest failures or judge other people. I grew up in a world dominated by this narrative, and it disturbs me how quickly I forget any other. To truly believe in God, I have to insert myself into the great Story over and over again until I learn to see the patterns.

Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” My heart must beat with God’s story so the words that spill automatically from my mouth in times of stress will be words of peace. My heart must learn over and over again that my struggles in this life are momentary, are nothing compared to eternal glory. My heart must tell itself over and over to truly love God and neighbor. That’s the backbone of this story.

That’s my new year’s resolution in a nutshell. Read the story. Learn the story. Share the story. Remember that it’s a story about love.