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.

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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.

Wearing White for Easter

They invited us to show up at the church an hour before sunrise, wearing “baptismal white.”

Morning has broken

(Photo credit: Sint-Katelijne-Waver)

Now, I don’t own a lot of white things. When I was a child, my mom would never have bought me white clothing, because she knew life would happen and pure white would become dingy gray. I thought this was one of my mother’s more sensible pieces of advice, along with “Don’t wear high heels; they’ll wreck your back.” We were that kind of family, never striving for picture perfect, knowing that spills and falls would happen and mess us up.

So I borrowed white clothing, and I put it on before leaving for church in the dark. But I won’t lie: on the inside, I felt dingy gray. My Holy Saturday involved some crankiness, quite a bit of asking forgiveness and then doing the same thing again. One likes to go from Holy Week to Easter feeling morally pure and super in touch with Jesus, and instead, I felt tired and discouraged.

We lit the Easter candle with new fire, singing, “Christ alive! Thanks be to God!” We sat in chairs around the baptismal font decked with lilies. We listened to stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, part of the history of God moving in the world, and some of us shared our own stories of how we’d felt God in our lives on Holy Week.

Well, others shared. I listened, squirming in my white, feeling less than spiritual.

We were invited to line up by the font of holy water, cross ourselves with it and repeat our promise to follow Christ. I went to the back of the line, wishing I felt more emotional and excited, like last Easter when I woke with the dawn out of sheer happiness. Instead, I felt something like trepidation as the line crept toward the font. I was baptized the first time at nine, without knowing what I was getting into, mostly because my mom wanted me to. And did I understand this, even now? Could I really promise to follow, knowing how often I tend to get lost?

And the thought came to me, unbidden: Of course you won’t get there all at once. This is a journey, and all you’re doing is promising you’ll set out in the right direction and keep checking your compass.

Of course you’re not ready for this. It’s outrageous. What you’re doing is giving God permission to start a good work in you, and God will not give up on you until that work is finished. God will glue you back together, little clay pot, and not allow you to be smashed forever.

So take that step in the right direction. Surrender to the mustard plant, the wild yeast taking you over, slowly, little by little. Cling to Christ, and let him wash your feet and make you clean again.

Sunrise streamed through the stained glass window and I splashed water on head, heart, and shoulders from left to right, forming the cross on my very body. I felt so far from picture perfect, so sure I would stain the whiteness I wore. And yet I also felt hope creep in, slow and certain as the dawn, as the water that can make anything clean, wear down rock and expose the true heart of the Earth.

“No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes are in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present to us: it is the very sign of his presence.”

C.S. Lewis

Holy Saturday World

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will immediately be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will easily inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will effortlessly be filled.

Yeah, add those to the list of things Jesus never said.

It’s Holy Saturday. Two days ago on Holy Thursday, my church community met together to tell the Passover story and wash each other’s feet. Yesterday we met to read the Passion story and deck the Cross with daffodils. Tomorrow will be a huge celebration, with flowers and dancing and feasting, of his victory over death. But today? Nothing is happening.

That’s exactly how the disciples must have felt on Holy Saturday. They were in the denial stage of grief: I can’t believe he’s gone! I can’t believe he’s not really the Messiah! He didn’t lead us to victory after all! He did so many miracles, he set our hearts on fire, and now he’s gone, and we feel so empty.

I am stuck in Holy Saturday mode on a daily basis way more than I’d like. Even though I know, as the disciples didn’t, that Jesus actually did lead us to victory, from day to day he seems, if not absent, at least sometimes distant. I’m faced with another day which doesn’t seem to bring any changes. I’m staring at the same old temptations at work, the same old relationships often fraught with tension, the same old childhood issues haunting me, the same shadows of war and famine and disaster haunting planet Earth, and it all feels dark and empty.

But – thank God! – my feelings are not a reliable measure of reality. That’s what it means to live in faith: we cling to hope when every sign points to despair. We affirm our relationship with God even when it doesn’t feel exciting or fruitful that day. We wait in patience for the coming celebration, which we know is right around the corner, inevitable as another Easter Sunday.

Our world is full of so many yet-unfulfilled hopes. We still mourn. We still feel humiliated in our meekness. We are still hungry and thirsty for justice. And yet we hope in the promises Jesus made… even though he didn’t promise they’d happen this Saturday.

The Table: A Story Retold

Simon Ushakov's icon of the Mystical Supper.

Icon by Simon Ushakov.

From the humble room came soft sounds of celebration: voices raised in familiar song, prayer, murmured questions and answers, even broken by tender silence. These men were, so very literally, close to Jesus. They had walked the same road; the dust he washed from their feet had brushed his own as well. They called him Teacher; he called them friends. One leaned on him as they reclined at table, close enough to hear a heartbeat. Their hands received broken bread from his still-whole hands. Their fingers mingled in the bowl.

He looked around the room and he loved them, noticed in each individual face the details that have faded from collective memory. He knew what he had seen in them when he called them, and he knew what they would do to him in the next few days. His heart held it all: how they’d slip into sleep while his tears fell like blood, deny knowing him in the flickering light of a pre-sunrise fire, say hello and goodbye with a horrific kiss. And still he loved them.

Their fingers dipped bread into the bowl together. He shared the earthiest of foods with them. He begged them to remain with him. He refused to be anything less than a man, to shield himself from a broken heart. Knowing what fools they were, he trusted these fools. Yes, he called them his friends.

The room was small enough for thirteen and big enough for millions. Whenever I do this – eat, serve, share – I must think of these sinners shoulder to shoulder, invited to share a meal they didn’t deserve. It was so much more than bread and wine. It was forever fullness, unreserved forgiveness, the love in his eyes meeting theirs across the table.

To Jerusalem

So here we are in Holy Week, the time when God put his money where his mouth was, so to speak. How much does God really love us? Enough to accept unjust accusations without a word? Enough to suffer great physical pain, humiliation, and death? Enough to watch his loved ones desert him and forgive his persecutors in the thick of his pain? Enough to absorb all the sins of history in one fragile human body? Enough to fight death to the death so that we might live to the full?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

I imagine myself at the bottom of that hill to Jerusalem and I cannot fathom climbing up. To walk so knowingly into my own doom, utter desertion and devastation, would take so much more courage than I was born with. And yet this is the journey we all face, a one-way ticket in our hands to death and whatever lies beyond. We can do it with eyes open, or we can drag our feet, half hoping to find an escape route or at least a distraction along the way so we can ignore what lies at the top of the hill.

God, please give me eyes to see and ears to hear what is really important in this short life.

God, please give me the courage to look at my fears straight on and tell my sense of self-preservation, “Out of my way, enemy!”

God, please give me the ability to do what is right in the face of great pain.

God, before I lose my life, give me the grace to give it away so that I may fully live.

Thank you for helping me realize, finally, that I’m not walking up this hill alone.

Holy Week

Hello, everyone. Just wanted to say that since it’s Holy Week, I’m posting extra on the Triduum. In addition to tomorrow’s regularly scheduled post, I’ll have some meditations on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Thanks as always, for reading, whether you are here to celebrate together or just to bless me with respectful listening.