Lent, Love, and the Rest of My Life

Photo Credit: MTSO Fan, flickr

Photo Credit: MTSO Fan, flickr

One of my pastors likes to say, “Lent is a time to do more joyfully what we should be doing all the time.” That challenges me, because I naturally want to think of Lent as some kind of crash diet, a time when you give something up that you really love and it’s a great test of your willpower. Then, when you’ve gotten to the end of the sprint, you can go back to living exactly like before. And that’s usually exactly what I do.

But Lent, a season of fasting, sheds light on the rest of my life. In my current circumstances, I lead a life of plenty. There’s no reason for me not to indulge, and in fact, I’m encouraged to treat myself all the time, like it’s a holiday every day. There’s a reason we call this a consumerist society.

And also, of course, I just love overindulging all the time. I’m still young and there are few consequences to my physical body. I love the feeling of being overfull, secure in my plenty. I love new delights on my tongue and familiar comforts slipping easily down my throat.

Fasting is a shock to my system in every way.

My body, my mind, my culture all tell me, You can’t go a whole day without eating anything. You have to eat.

But Lent asks, Do you really?

Can God alone be your bread today?

And it makes me wonder if I can ask myself that moment to moment. If I can live with less so others can have more.

I’ve given up all animal products for Lent, for more reasons than one, but mostly because I know my consumption of dairy contributes to global warming, which is devastating for God’s creation and the materially poor.

I know it makes sense to drastically reduce, if not completely eliminate, dairy as a part of my diet for the long term, not just forty days. But I also miss butter and cheese and ice cream so much already. Even as I think aloud about making sweeping changes, it’s often with a heavy heart and (I’ll admit it) a whiny tone of voice. I don’t wanna give up my favorite stuff.

I’m tempted to look forward to Easter as the time when my life will go back to normal.

But here’s the thing: maybe my normal and Jesus’s normal are two very different things.

The Bible says that Jesus “became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” I read that last night and I thought about how little I contemplate all that it meant for Jesus to become one of us.

Jesus was God, with all the power and glory that implies, but he became one of us. He humbled himself and became a being who existed in time, who was born and died. He endured every frustration in life that we do. He suffered sickness, exhaustion, and emotional pain. The closer he got to death, the more his suffering grew: betrayal, abandonment, misunderstanding, mockery, utter humiliation.

At times he wished there was another way to save us. But through it all, he wasn’t resentful. He was doing it for the love of poor people like us and through God’s love for him, and his loving heart shone through it all.

So that gives me a bit of perspective on my “sacrifices,” in and out of Lent. There’s nothing I can’t do with a loving heart, if I stay in the middle of Love and let it fill me.

I Can’t Believe It’s the Bible #1: The Syrophoenecian Woman

Image credit: Sarah Kolb-Williams (www.kolbwilliams.com/)

Image credit: Sarah Kolb-Williams (www.kolbwilliams.com/)

“That Time Jesus Called a Woman a Dog So Maybe She’d Go Away. Wait, What?”

At least that’s what the titles should read above Mark 7:24-30 (or, if you prefer, Matthew 15:21-28). Instead, it’s usually just titled “The Syrophoenecian Woman.” Really, it should come with a warning label. I consider it one of the strangest stories in all four Gospels, right up there with the infamous Fig Tree Incident.

Yes, believe it. This woman came to ask our Lord for help casting a demon out of her poor daughter. To which he said, and this is a direct quote from Mark, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Meaning, You’re a Gentile. I have to help my own people first.

To which she replies, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” Meaning, quite literally, Throw me a bone here.

And he says, “Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” Okay, you convinced me. It’s a deal.

It just seems so unlike the Jesus we think we know, the gentle shepherd, the good teacher. Refusing to heal someone? Name-calling? Really?

We tend to not like this passage, we Christians and other Jesus fans. We would like to pretend the passage doesn’t exist, or just skim our eyes over the page, or mutter something about how some dastardly person must have snuck it in there.

But most of us can’t do that, not forever. We are compulsive readers of these relatively few stories. We have to wrestle with the words so we can clearly understand the Word.

I’ve heard a lot of explanations from these wrestlers. Some people say Jesus was testing this woman and that he exulted at her snappiest of comebacks. Some even say he was joking with her, calling her a dog with a wink. Some say there was no irony involved and she straight up taught him a lesson about not being so mean to Gentiles.

Me? I’ve done my share of wrestling, and I know I’m far from done. But here’s the meaning that leaps out of the text and into my heart today.

For me, it’s a story about Jesus’s unique nature: 100% human, 100% divine, both at the same time. And it can be a story of comfort and hope for those of us who are just plain 100% human.

First, a little context. At the beginning of this story, it says Jesus has just arrived in a new place, the region of Tyre. The Mark version of this story says that despite his efforts to keep his healings secret, people keep completely mobbing him. There is seemingly no end to the people who need to be healed. Seems reasonable. There’s enough healing that needs to go on in my neighborhood to keep Jesus busy for weeks.

So at the beginning of this story, it’s the human side of Jesus we see. He is exhausted from a long day of healing. He’s trying to set limits on his ministry so he can come back to do it another day. Right now he inhabits a single human body, and he has to sleep like anyone else. He doesn’t have the time or the energy to do everything.

Who can’t identify with this – the aching feeling that our dreams for every twenty-four hours are bigger than what we can actually get done? What largehearted, well-intentioned person has not felt momentarily paralyzed in the face of so much more suffering than one person’s heart and intentions can handle?

So this woman comes begging, “Heal my daughter!” and I imagine it breaks Jesus’s heart to say no, but in that moment he feels like he can’t say yes. The line must be drawn somewhere.

When you think about it, who would want to choose between feeding their children and feeding the family dogs? What a horrible thing to have to decide. How it must have torn Jesus apart to realize even he couldn’t heal everyone, couldn’t feed the whole family.

In the same way, who wants to live in a world where children go hungry, die of preventable and treatable diseases, die of violence, die at all? Who wants to live in a world infected with all kinds of injustice? Yet don’t we all decide, at a certain point, that there’s more need than our time constraints, our energy levels, our pocketbooks can take? We are only human, after all.

But Jesus is more than human, and the Gentile woman confirms it, loudly, claiming the table scraps of grace God has surely set aside for her.

She says, in essence, One person can’t heal the world – but God can. And God will.

God and man flicker gloriously in the same person. He savors her answer, the cry that expresses her strong faith. She knows without a doubt that Abba can feed the whole family.

Jesus smiles and says to her, You’re right. It’s done. Go home. He doesn’t have to leave the house where he’s staying, go out in the open and get mobbed by more people, lose sleep. The healing can happen despite his exhaustion, despite his limits. God can make a way.

And God will make a way for us too. We are not perfect and limitless, but God can perfect us and fill us with holiness, giving us more than we can ask or imagine. There are no superheroes saving the world singlehandedly, but if we’re humble enough to accept God’s directions, we can find our part to play in the grand plan. We can’t do everything, but in and through God’s holy people, God can do anything.

I love this beautiful, hard story, showcasing the struggles of Jesus who was man and the soaring glory of Jesus who is God.

How do you interpret this Bible story? What questions does it leave you with? What other Bible stories do you wrestle with?

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.

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.

How Jesus Ate My Livejournal

Photo Credit: Amancay Maas (flickr)

Photo Credit: Amancay Maas (flickr)

Once upon a time, before this blog was born, I had a Livejournal. For those of you who don’t know, Livejournals are what those of us who compulsively overshare our lives used before Facebook and Twitter.

As a lonely teenager who hated making eye contact, Livejournal was a great way for me to make friends. Some of them I eventually met in “real life,” while others I knew only by their screennames. Many of them found me by discovering we had common interests. You could list all your interests on your Livejournal profile, up to 150 of them, beckoning people who shared them with you.

I maxed out my list, declared myself interested in 150 things.

This is so like me.

Looking back at the last version of this list, dating from my college days, I can see I definitely wasn’t equally interested in all of them. Some of them, like “Ancient Greek” and “books” and “baking” were bona fide obsessions which will never fade entirely from my life.

Others, like “linguistics and “Latin dance,” were more in the “I’m interested enough in these things to take a few classes in them” sort of category.

Still others (“gardening,” “sewing,” “rivers”) were more like, “Eh, I feel like I should be interested in these things, but the feeling isn’t strong enough to get any real experience with them.”

And some were just odd. “Fingerprints”? “Quixoticism”? The things you say in college to try and make yourself sound cool.

I’ve been interested in a lot of things in my life. I like the newness of learning something, not so much the discipline of staying with it until mastery. I’ve dabbled in ballet, modern dance, ballroom dance, swing, bellydance, and Argentine tango. I’ve studied Spanish, German, Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, and Latin. I just can’t seem to decide on one thing. Heck, I have trouble with menus.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is necessarily bad. It’s fun and healthy and uplifting to try new things. But I can’t be equally interested in everything, no matter how much I’d like to tell myself I can. My life is (gasp!) not infinite.

And some things are so much more worthy of my interest than others.

“Jesus” is on my Livejournal list of interests too, buried under 149 other things. And, yeah, I was interested in Jesus in college. But let’s face it, not that much.

My faith didn’t grow much in college. I was too busy sampling all kinds of new ideas and running from activity to activity to read my Bible, worship, or pray.

Now I am old and wise by comparison. Not really. I still try to do way too much. But I have learned one powerful thing: the more obsessed I am with Jesus, the better. He isn’t just one more thing on the list of things I’m vaguely interested in.

The more interested I am in Jesus, the more interesting everything else is too. And loving Jesus can be the unifying force that makes all my other seemingly random interests hang together.

With Jesus at the center of things, everywhere I travel becomes part of the Way. Every new idea I find is measured by the Truth. Everything I do becomes part of the Life. Sometimes hard, messy, frustrating? Sure. But also shot through with hope.

This is part of my Christian walk. This is part of learning faithfulness: putting all those random interests under the umbrella of the best One of all.

Solidarity for Sheep

Photo credit: Ambersky235 (flickr)

Photo credit: Ambersky235 (flickr)

That funny word solidarity has come up in my life a lot lately – in my current spiritual reading, a random bookstore find, even a recent episode of Welcome to Night Vale. God speaks through paranormal humor podcasts now? I should have known.

And of course, the s-word comes up a lot at church. In my church we use it a lot, but sometimes it seems like we use it so much I forget what it’s all about.

So what is solidarity? This isn’t the dictionary definition, but I would say it’s being moved to action by your compassion. It’s joining with others in a common cause. For those of us who live lives of relative luxury in this world, it often involves taking up a cause that appears to not be your own – declaring that you stand with others just because they are human and therefore their interests are your interests after all.

And, you guys, I am so bad at it. I am the queen of minding my own business and staying out of trouble. I’m certainly not naturally prone to getting into trouble for other people. Are you kidding me?

But isn’t that the epitome of what Jesus did for us? God could have stayed in the heavenly realm, remote from our world of pain and suffering, and judged us from afar. But God is not like that, and Jesus proved it. In Jesus, God entered the world and became our family, made clear that he would do anything to help us. He would become ultimately vulnerable, even die.

Last week at church we read the story of the good shepherd, and it struck me that Jesus used this story to show his solidarity with us. Among other things, he was saying, “I’m not some hired hand, some stranger who doesn’t care about the sheep and will abandon them at the first sign of trouble. I am the good shepherd, the one who will protect his sheep to the point of laying down his life for them. That’s how much I care about you.”

The thing about solidarity is that it can seem so overwhelming. So much is wrong with the world. So many people are suffering. Who knows where to begin? We can’t take on every cause as our own, right? I usually end up doing nothing rather than trying to decide on one thing.

So I like this way of thinking about it, the story of the shepherd and the sheep. The shepherd is close to his sheep and naturally loves them. He wants to protect them because he cares about them. So the question to ask myself is, Who am I growing to love more right now, and how does God want me to stand with them in solidarity? And if there’s no one I love so much I will take on a cause for them, why is that?

I know this is not something I can do alone. I need God to fill me with love by pouring the Spirit into me. Only in this way can I look at others with tenderness and compassion that moves me to help them as naturally as a devoted shepherd protecting his sheep.

 

Humility and Freedom

Epitaph on Nikos Kazantzakis' grave. I don't h...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know Lent is over, but this post from last year has been on my mind lately. I need to write much more about this. Stay tuned.

And please, do share what you need freedom from in the comments so I can pray and ponder with you.

In 2005, on a trip to the island of Crete, I visited the grave of the writer Nikos Kazantzakis. I remember his grave being hard to find, for such a famous landmark. Finally my friends and I drew close to it, the shadows growing long by now. Etched on the headstone in gracefully looping Greek were the words Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα. Δε φοβούμαι τίποτα. Είμαι λεύτερος. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.

Holy Week is fast approaching, and what I’ve learned this Lent is that I’m not yet as free as I want to be.

Maybe it’s actually the lesson of every Lent. Many of us give up something that seems minor and silly, chocolate perhaps, and we’re hit in the gut by how much we long for it. We go without food, a minor inconvenience for those of us who don’t have medical or psychological reasons to abstain, and we are shocked by how much our hunger pangs obsess us. More than that, we realize how numb we are to the things that matter more. We are brought to tears over our caffeine withdrawal, but not by footage of war on the news. We thirst for our tiny pleasures and think we can do without Love itself.

What I gave up this year was Facebook. Sounds like a tiny thing, right? Well, for me it’s a tiny symptom of a much bigger problem: online or off, I live to be liked. I have an approval addiction. If my actions don’t provoke praise, I immediately question their meaning. If I incur even the tiniest criticism, my stomach churns, my muscles involuntarily tense.

And here’s the upshot of all this: when I care so much about what people think, I ignore what God thinks. I thrill to hear a random fellow bus rider say I’m pretty; did I forget I am by definition “fearfully and wonderfully made“? I quickly grow impatient with trying to help someone if I’m not thanked or swiftly shown progress; is that my answer to “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up“?

I am filled with unreasonable hopes and unrealistic fears. There is a lot of “me” in the way of my freedom. And yet I have one hope I know I can count on: that there is a Higher Power than me, that I don’t have to fix my own brokenness. That Jesus will help me empty myself of my ego so I can be filled with love, like he did in his time here on Earth.

I’d like to close with a prayer for freedom for me and for all us approval addicts. Thank you, Cardinal Merry del Val.

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.
Deliver me from the desire to be esteemed,
From the desire to be loved,
From the desire to be extolled,
From the desire to be honored,
From the desire to be praised,
From the desire to be preferred to others,
From the desire to be consulted,
From the desire to be approved.

Deliver me from the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of being rebuked,
From the fear of being slandered,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected.

O Jesus, grant that I may desire that others may be more loved than I,
That others may be more esteemed than I,
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I decrease,
That others may be chosen and I be set aside,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others may become holier than I, provided that I, too, become as holy as I can.

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.

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.