Walking with Jesus Through Holy Week

This past Saturday I visited the zoo with my husband and another couple. I know, right? Cute. As we were walking along looking at the monkeys and birds, a rabbit hopped by on the path in front of us. A tiny little blonde girl with pigtails walking near us looked up at her parents and excitedly exclaimed, “maybe it’s the Easter bunny!”

I can’t remember if I ever actually believed in the Easter bunny, but I do remember that Easter has never been my favorite holiday, and actually, if I’m honest, holidays in general really don’t do that much for me. I like my normal life a lot, so why disrupt it? I’ve felt that Easter, like any other holiday, is a passing remembrance of history and is really just a day like any other. I was raised in a culture where we might take a holiday off work, but then spend it checking overdue items off our to-do list or taking an extra long nap. Really reflecting on the symbolism of holiday, sacrificing our time, letting it interrupt our life, is not something we are used to.

The meaning of holidays, a day to be holy, special, different, is almost foreign to the space-minded person like me, to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells. Unlike me, the Bible senses the diversified character of time; it teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year (see Rabbi Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man). Easter is a monumental journey along the path of the Christian year. I’m catching a vision from friends and teachers at my church that are telling me, “hey, this matters.” There are days that are supposed to interrupt our lives. While God is with us all the time, there are times that cause us to pause, recognize significance, and give thanks.

In order to understand the significance of Easter in the Christian year, we must understand the Jewish liturgical year as well. The celebration of Passover took place just before the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and the two holidays have been intertwined ever since. The word Pasch, originally meaning Passover, came to mean Easter as well. On Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus sat down with his disciples and had “the last supper,” a Passover meal. The Passover meal is a time to celebrate and remember God’s rescue of the Hebrew people from slavery. While in bondage in Egypt, the people were instructed to slaughter a lamb and smear its blood on their doorposts, so that they could be saved from impending death. How appropriate that the day after that meal, Jesus would shed his blood so that all could be free.

Yesterday while at the gym, I saw a “Happy Passover” commercial that ended with the words declared at the beginning of the Haggadah (Passover seder), All who are hungry, come and eat; all who are needy come and celebrate Passover. What Jesus did that weekend made it possible for all to come and celebrate.

We thus live in the mystery of Holy Week, that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24).

Jesus’ dying, resurrection, and ascension become our dying and rising, our death to new life. Our Lord teaches us that life comes from death, that we can find meaning in suffering, that there is light in darkness. Death, indeed, does not have the last word.

*Note – I borrowed many of these ideas from the Rev. Dr. Timothy Smith, who wrote a lenten devotional called “Blessed – Daily Retreats With Jesus for the Season of Lent 2013.” It is available from http://www.waterfromrock.org

Broken Bones, Sacred Hymns: The Vulnerability of Sharing Grief

When I say that I recently learned how ironic and self-defensive I can be, I am also saying this: last week, I watched as the eerie magic of an overseas phone call transformed my friend, in the space of two minutes, from a typical expat with a fat itinerary of sights to see into a young woman without a mother.

I was the only other person there for this conversation, and even though it was short, there was a sense of heavy infinity about it . . . and I also remember the slight shock of realizing that, even after witnessing the most painful moment of another’s life, I could still think of my own self.

A few moments later, she said, “Do you promise me. . . will you please promise me that you really believe we have a purpose for being here? And do you really believe–do you promise that you believe–that we will see the people we love again?”

Yes, yes, yes. I do believe it, all of it. But . . .

Thoughtlessness is not usually a positive term associated with grief, but self-forgetfulness should be. Still, I hesitated to spread out the contents of my soul as the situation required. It wasn’t that I questioned my beliefs. It was that I questioned the danger of speaking them out so earnestly, in that moment of naked honesty between two friends who were, still, almost strangers.

I’ve always felt sincerity was simple; my pale, flushing complexion billboards my emotions on a constant basis, so there’s no point in even trying to hide. However, in this most urgent and necessary moment, I still felt the urge to make qualifications for my own sincerity. I wanted to speak with a protective hedge of irony, or to act as if my beliefs were contained within me, rather than making that bold and sweeping hymn to the glorious reality of redemption.

A grieving person might not have the luxury of his or her most intimate companion’s presence; in this particular story, the most trusted friend was, with terrible clarity, also the mother who had died. But if I am to love someone with that wide, encompassing depth that transcends personal knowledge, and if I want to offer the kind of love that the first plunge into grief demands, then I must hold out at least a mustard seed of grace: offering self-forgetfulness with both hands, and summon the bravery to tell as much felt experience as I can muster.

After that first step, perhaps a wobbling one, I can leave these efforts to God, who will expand the meager flour and oil into food that can offer comfort. But for me to do this, I cannot self-protect; I cannot hedge my spirit in veils, or speak with the gentle, self-deprecation that, at many other times, makes the passion of my beliefs tolerable in the world of work and casual friendships.

By laying out our wounds, or our most tender experiences before a mourning friend, we can participate in that promise of the Psalms: the bones He has broken will rejoice; there’s a hum of hymns in the shared poverty of spirit. The sutures and scars of our past, or the ill-set bones that still ache when it rains–in the community of sharing grief, moments of sincerity, whether stories of pain or earnest, unironic belief, will glitter like gems for the newly-impoverished.

Sharing scars and promises will not compound emptiness. In the face of suffering, vulnerability does not pare away the self; rather, it suggests hope’s final incarnation: when Christ wipes all tears from our eyes, and all eternity proves redemption.

Woven Together

This past weekend I had the opportunity to share a story with my church family on our annual retreat. I thought I’d share it here as well.

Our church has recently been emphasizing evangelism, specifically by individual church members in daily life as opposed to large church outreaches. At the forefront of this movement is the idea of “discovery groups,” organized by church members around a common activity or hobby to which they can invite non-church members. The main idea is to connect with the community in a non-threatening way. It gets non-Christians connected to Christians and gives Christians a chance to talk to them about Jesus while making friendships over, say, basketball or cooking or origami.

Great idea, right? But when I was handed a sheaf of paper full of details, logistics, and bullet points about this plan, I felt only resentment and frustration. For one, I was just sick and tired of how complicated and intimidating the church kept making these things. Can’t we talk about stuff in simple, straightforward ways that make sense to everybody? I mean, we don’t all have seminary degrees.

I also felt alienated by the nature of the plan in general. For a goal that the church was emphasizing as its primary vision for the future, it was very much geared toward extroverted people who were good at leadership and organization. Like people who were already pastors.

It made me angry. It was too complicated. It was too exclusive. Mostly, though, it hit me in a place that was already feeling sore about the church and my belonging in it.

Where was I supposed to fit? I’m an introverted bibliophile who chooses the paperwork jobs instead of the at-the-front-door-greeting-people roles. I sit in the back with my eyes closed instead of standing in the aisle with my hands raised. I pray for friends before bed or over coffee with them, not in the middle of a group of people at the altar after service.

It’s not that I’m ashamed of my faith. It’s the most important part of my life, my purpose, my joy and my hope. And I want everyone else to feel as loved by God as I do. I’m just not that person. I’m quiet. I’m shy. I’m in the background. I’m a perfect churchy version of a wallflower.

When it comes down to it, I just don’t really like people. I do fine at loving them in small numbers. But they’re scary, and sometimes hurtful, and always exhausting. I was just doing my best with the small group of close friends and acquaintances I could manage.

Was I doing something wrong? Did I need to change myself? Jesus talked about the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, and the blessings due to the meek. He often went off to pray by himself and tried to escape the crowds. He had only twelve close disciples and three trusted friends. Right?

I felt guilty. Just looking at the packet gave me an anxious stomachache.

I mean, I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer anyway. I didn’t have enough non-Christian friends to create a group. And nobody cared about my weird hobbies and interests. Everyone would just laugh and make fun of the girl who thought people would come to a social group all about the birth of the modern novel or the economic world of Charles Dickens.

So when I was urged to create a discovery group, my heart gave a resounding, injured no.

But my extroverted friends, Isabel and Heather, were super excited about the idea. They already had lists of people they knew they’d like to invite, tons of non-Christian friends who they couldn’t get to come to church but who would come to a discovery group. They just couldn’t come up with an idea for a group to invite them to.

Their devious solution: make me start a free crocheting class. They had the people. I had the skills.

I only agreed on the condition that this would not be a discovery group. It would just be me teaching crocheting to Isabel and Heather and their friends in a local coffee shop every other Saturday. Girls showed up, I taught them how to crochet, we talked about life and frustrations and relationships and religion.

Then I was asked by the pastors to talk about “my discovery group” as an example for the rest of the church at the annual retreat. And grudgingly, I finally had to admit that I had done exactly what that annoying, complicated guide was meant to encourage the congregation to do all along.

Yes, their method of communicating their goal might have been wrong. But I was wrong too for thinking that I had nothing to offer in forwarding that goal.

Yes, their wording excluded the introverted, the meek, the ones who aren’t good at networking. But it was selfish of me to think of my hobbies and activities as just mine, as something no one else might be interested in but me, as something God couldn’t use.

I realized I had matured enough to recognize that God made me the way I am, but not enough to realize that I could be used for evangelism as well as anyone else. Like Moses, I fell back on excuses provided by my weaknesses instead of asking God how He wanted to use those “weaknesses” He gave me.

I also made the mistake of thinking about evangelism as something I had to do on my own. I didn’t look around and see all the people who were good at what I wasn’t, the people who could fill in the gaps.

And the more I stepped back, the more I saw the metaphor right in my own hands. The church was a blanket.

In my crochet projects, it’s really boring to use only one color. But with a combination of contrasting colors, a project becomes uniquely beautiful and complex. It’s also a fact that each row is woven into those before it. If you try to rip out one color, the whole thing falls apart. Every row, every half inch, is created in inseparable connection to the last.

Progress is slow. The work tedious. Sometimes it feels like hours of work haven’t gotten you anywhere at all. But if you don’t give up, in the end you have a beautiful, useful final product.

I thought I had to be the only color, a boring, unlikeable tone. I didn’t see my place in the pattern. But working together, woven together, different colors made something beautiful. I didn’t have to be everything, just something. I didn’t have to knit everything together myself. Rather, I submitted myself to the Master Craftsman who made me just the way I am so I could represent a specific hue in the spectrum of his artistry.

We are each in fact what we’re meant to be, woven together to make something beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that we can’t even imagine the end result. So don’t be afraid. Open your eyes to the work going on around you, and like me, you will find your place in the beauty He makes.