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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Holy Week Readings... An Addendum

I wasn't planning on writing one more post, but after yesterday, I just had to add this.

Over the years I have come to love attending a Tenebrae service on Good Friday. I'm away on vacation this week, so my friend and I just did a little googling and found one being held here (details will be withheld, for reasons that will become evident momentarily). If you're not familiar with Tenebrae, it's is a distinctive worship service that retells the story of the trial, suffering and crucifixion of Christ. It employs some level of drama by gradually extinguishing candles while a series of readings and hymns are recited and sung. (The word tenebrae is Latin for "shadows" or "darkness"). By the end of the service, the sanctuary is dark and all depart silently in order to ponder the meaning and power of what was just told.

I have participated in putting on many Tenebrae services, and I will be honest, it can be a little stressful. Coordinating the candle snuffers, bell ringers and various readers, providing some pertinent sound effects, and turning off lights on cue (all the while juggling an indiscreet flashlight so you can see what you're doing) is a situation fraught with the potential for disaster. For example, one year I was poised to swing a hammer three distinct times (done with maximum volume, if I do say so myself) when all of a sudden a man I did not know came up behind me and said in a stage whisper, "I MUST ask you to stop this IMMEDIATELY." He went on to tell me that he was a retired fire marshal and that he believed we were in major violation by turning off lights, which could prevent people from exiting safely in case of fire. (May I add at this point that the bright green EXIT lights were still on, ruining whatever ambience we were trying to create?)

Imagine my situation: I'm having to follow a complex script which was going to require me to pound the hammer at just the right moment so that 600 people could jump out of their seats because they weren't expecting it, which was the complete point of the moment... and this agitated gentleman is insisting that I have to stop! I did a quick mental calculation: should I listen to the retired fire marshal, or face the consequences I was sure to endure if I missed my all-important cue? In a nanosecond I concluded, "Hmm, well... I DO have a hammer in my hand, so he can't really make me stop..." I mumbled something about getting permission ahead of time, and proceeded accordingly. And there was no fire, so we were all good. Not my best moment, to be sure.

But I digress. Back to this year's out-of-town service. The service was scheduled to start at 7pm. Since we were visitors, we opted to arrive about 5 minutes before it started in order to not stand out, right? As we pulled in, I counted 4 cars in the parking lot. I tried not to get nervous. Soon after a couple other cars pulled up, so we mustered up the courage to go in. (Sad to say that, but I'm just being honest.) People were very friendly, and the pastor walked around greeting everyone individually. This was a nice touch.

Let's not forget that the goal of Tenebrae is darkness (despite the fire marshal's protestations.) Thus another distinct challenge of putting on a Tenebrae service is shutting out ambient light. Given that church buildings are usually created, intentionally, with lots of windows to allow for natural light, this can be a problem. So I chuckled knowingly to myself as I walked in to the sanctuary and saw that Hefty trashbags had been split open and pieced together with clear packing tape in order to cover up the very tall and large windows in the sanctuary that look out onto the surrounding mountains. "Classy" was definitely not the first word that came to mind.

We found a seat and the service soon began. One of the most enjoyable things about Tenebrae is that it follows a liturgy, where various prayers are recited, and the congregation responds, following a program that was handed to us. Fortunately, this part was intact. As I mentioned, a sort of drama is enacted as the story is told. Piece by piece, the altar is slowly stripped of all elements, so that just the cross is left in front. As the program stated, "This liturgy is designed so that worshipers spend most of this time with eyes looking at the cross, symbol of Christ's most compelling sacrifice."

What followed from there was very, very... earnest. The pastor had recruited four people to assist him: a boy whom I estimated to be about 11 years old, a teenage girl that looked to be about 17, and an older couple who alternated in doing various things up front. Items were clunked and nearly dropped at various times, and at one point the older man went to move the rustic wooden cross that they were using for the service in order to place it front and center, and as he turned it it around it looked like he was going to take the head off of the teenage girl. Thankfully, disaster was averted. We were then directed to sing a few hymns and friends, I have to be honest: it was truly the worst music I have ever heard, bar none. The piano was way out of tune, there was no one to really lead the singing, and the songs were purposely slow and almost dirge-like in order to communicate the heaviness of the events being told. It was seriously bad. All of our voices were hesitant, off-key and sort of strained and reedy; given that the congregation was very small, it was all the more noticeable. I flinch again just thinking about it.

Regardless of all these foibles, I tried my darnedest to focus on why I was there. And you know what? All the little goofy stuff didn't matter once we started reading through and hearing the scriptures. From the Psalms and Isaiah passages that foretold Messiah's suffering to the incredibly poignant words from the Gospels, the raw power and tragedy of the last earthly days of Jesus' life were captured. In fact, by having such a clumsy service, the truth and beauty came through all the more forcefully, because there was nothing to distract from the words.

When the final part of the crucifixion story is told, I was still deeply moved by Christ's suffering and utter degradation:

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. (Matthew 27:27-31)

At one point in the service we each signed our names to our own sheet of paper that confessed the bald ugliness of our selfish behavior. We were invited to come forward and lay that sheet down, enacting our own desire to be freed of our past sin and hurtful actions. After this stunning passage from Matthew 27 was read, the older gentleman gathered up the sheets of paper (this was noisy and awkward, but in a good way) and laid them at the foot of the cross. THAT was powerful. Then we recited this prayer together:

Lord Jesus, my sin in great! I sin daily in thought, word, and deed. I sin in things I have done and in things I have left undone. Thank you for taking my sin and nailing it to the cross.

It wasn't miserable, manipulative and guilt-inducing to say those things. It was just... honest. I mean, it's true. I do stuff every day that I regret. Or pass up chances to do kind things because I'm self-absorbed or distracted. It was freeing and right to confess my deep need for the work of the cross. It also turned the soil of my heart over and prepared it for the celebration on Sunday. Such good news awaits!

Let us look forward to the great good message of resurrection and second chances. I am so grateful that I get a do-over, again and again. Praise Him.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Holy Week Readings, Day Five

Throughout this week I have been able to ponder various aspects of kingdom living: resurrection and renewal, true community, persistence over time, and prayer. By no means comprehensive, nevertheless this list points to the lifelong process of faith in God, where we are being shaped into selfless people, loving God and others more than self. In other words, I'm being drawn into a community and a sensitivity where life is not built around simply being convenient for me.

Rather than being fiercely independent or conversely, hopelessly enmeshed and enslaved by a need for approval (or some tangled combination of both!), we are being built for something entirely different. As Chittister describes it in Wisdom Distilled from the Daily,

We have to learn to be for one another so that the love of God is a shining certainty, even now, even here... And it is a far cry from the rugged individualism, the narcissism, and the brutal independence that has become the insulation in our neighborhoods and the hallmark of our culture.

Later she whittles it all down to a simple sentence:

It is easy to talk about the love of God; it is another thing to practice it.

Today, this Good Friday, I am thus reminded that Christ is not only our Redeemer (though that is more than enough), he is also our model, our standard, our exemplar, of life well-lived. As I sing O Sacred Now Wounded in worship during a Good Friday service, I want to pay special attention to the lyrics, which remind me of what it means to live a sacrificial, selfless life. And where, amazingly, purpose and meaning are finally found. As Jesus said in Luke 9:24-25, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?"

O sacred Head, now wounded,
With grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns, Thine only crown
How pale thou art with anguish,
with sore abuse and scorn!
How doth Thy visage languish
which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered,
T'was all for sinners' gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
'Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever,
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love for Thee.

(Here's a lovely version of the hymn by Fernando Ortega)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Holy Week Readings, Day Four

Thought-provoking insights from Wisdom Distilled from the Daily regarding reflective prayer:

Prayer is the filter through which we view our worlds. Prayer provokes us to see the life around us in fresh, new ways... Prayer is designed to enable people to realize that God is in the world around them... prayer is meant to call us back to a consciousness of God here and now, not to make God some kind of private getaway from life. 

It is so easy to come to believe that what we do is so much more important that what we are. It is so easy to simply get too busy to grow. 

To pray only when we feel like it is more to seek consolation than to risk conversion. To pray only when it suits us is to want God on our terms... The hard fact is that nobody finds time for prayer. The time must be taken. There will always be something more pressing to do, something more important to be about than the apparently fruitless, empty act of prayer. But when that attitude takes over, we have begun the last trip down a very short road because, without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down.

Benedictine prayer [rooted in the Psalms and the Scriptures] pries me out of myself and stretches me beyond myself so that I can come someday, perhaps, to be my best self... Benedictine prayer life, besides being scriptural and regular, is reflective. It is designed to make us take our own lives into account in the light of the gospel.

There is little for me to add to these remarkable words. For several years I was in a Tuesday morning prayer group where we learned and practiced the things described here. Rather than revolving our prayers reactively around our immediate circumstances, we learned to invite scripture and the Spirit to set the tone. In fits and starts, I have applied the wisdom gained from my experience in that group, and today's reading is a gut-punch reminder of those lessons.

So today I will reflect and read and pray through Psalm 86, the psalm that is assigned to my daily Bible reading. I will heed these discerning reflections from Wisdom as I pray through it:

Reflection on the Scriptures is basic to growth in prayer to growth as a person. Prayer is a process of coming to be something new. It is not simply a series of exercises.

Hear me, Lord, and answer me,
    for I am poor and needy.
Guard my life, for I am faithful to you;
    save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; have mercy on me, Lord,
    for I call to you all day long.
Bring joy to your servant, Lord,
    for I put my trust in you.
You, Lord, are forgiving and good,
    abounding in love to all who call to you.
Hear my prayer, Lord;
    listen to my cry for mercy.
When I am in distress, I call to you,
    because you answer me.
Among the gods there is none like you, Lord;
    no deeds can compare with yours.
All the nations you have made
    will come and worship before you, Lord;
    they will bring glory to your name.
10 For you are great and do marvelous deeds;
    you alone are God.
11 Teach me your way, Lord,
    that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
    that I may fear your name.
12 I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart;
    I will glorify your name forever.
13 For great is your love toward me;
    you have delivered me from the depths,
    from the realm of the dead.
14 Arrogant foes are attacking me, O God;
    ruthless people are trying to kill me—
    they have no regard for you.
15 But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God,
    slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
16 Turn to me and have mercy on me;
    show your strength in behalf of your servant;
save me, because I serve you
    just as my mother did.
17 Give me a sign of your goodness,
    that my enemies may see it and be put to shame,
    for you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Holy Week Readings, Day Three

Persistence. I am always attracted to stories of people who have overcome incredible odds and accomplished amazing things... Look in my bookshelves and you will find thick books on the Lewis and Clark expedition, Nelson Mandela's fight against apartheid, Sir Ernest Shackleton's leadership of his men when their ship was stranded in the Antarctic, Mother Teresa's mission to the poorest of the poor, you name it.

So of course I love this parable because of the gritty character of the widow in the story:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, 

     “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 

     And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

I have taught on this passage multiple times. Naturally, as I teach it (or read it on my own), I encourage everyone to insert themselves in the role of the widow. That seems obvious.

But today I wonder if it’s entirely inappropriate to sit in the seat of the judge. Not because I think I’m like God, but I’m not sure the judge is really acting like God anyway — we are told he "neither feared God nor had respect for people." He initially refuses the woman's pleas for justice. He only ends up responding because he's frustrated and impatient with her and hopes she'll leave. Hmm... That doesn’t seem like God to me.

Time and again I have understood this passage to be a remarkable description of what it means to live by faith. And I still think it is. But today I am learning something new. As I keep reading through Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, today's chapter is on listening. And then as I spent time reading and reflecting on my daily Bible reading, I came to Luke 18:1-8. How incredible to read these two side by side. This quote from the book clanged like a bell in my head when I read it:

“Listening has something to do with being willing to change ourselves and change our world.”

Certainly, I want to be like the nagging widow, unrelenting in my prayers because I have faith that God is listening, and that I trust him entirely. But I also do not want to be like the unjust judge. I want to hear the world around me, which includes the people I walk by on the street, the community of people in which I live, and the needs of the world. In other words, I want to listen well. No, I do not think I'm entertaining grandiose notions about myself walking around like some Christian superhero, waving my hands here and there, granting requests. But the Christian life is expressed in being the hands and feet of Jesus. And in my prayers, not only am I to bang on God's door day after day with my complaints and requests for justice, I am also to seek after ways to be the one he calls upon to grant some requests.

It has been popular to celebrate godly women by reflecting the robust character of the woman in Proverbs 31:10-31. But it is far too easy to overlook these two verses tucked in right ahead of that section:

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
    for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
    defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:8-9)

May we be the persistent widow and NOT be the unjust judge. May we spur one another on to speak up, to listen well, to express our love and praise for God by loving our neighbor in tangible ways. Amen.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Holy Week Readings, Day Two

Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them—and receive them from others when we are in need.

Parker Palmer

Several of my hours each week are dedicated to conversations, Bible studies or classes with college students. Graduating seniors are in the thick of big questions right now, and I could not begin to calculate how many hundreds of times I have had the "so what should I do with my life?" conversation. 

I try hard to bring fresh eyes to each one of those encounters, firmly avoiding a "been there, done that" attitude. To be sure, I have to work hard at times to suppress an eye roll (or two) when I hear some of them express what they think are original thoughts, but overall, I find their earnest searching to be refreshing.

At the top is a quote by a favorite author of mine that sums up much of what my thoughts are when I share with those students. Determining calling and career are obviously important, but I have come to believe that the community one lives in trumps them all, and is often the one of the main decisions they neglect. 

Certainly, I am not encouraging students to keep "livin' the dream" and bunk down with 8 of their best friends in a two-bedroom apartment, suffering together through mindless barista jobs, drinking wine and sharing deep thoughts every night... But I am also not pressing them to dive right in to the fast-track career trajectory, ignoring questions of faith community and service.

Palmer captures it perfectly, and as I now look back some thirty (gulp!) years after graduating from college, I can say that what has given me the most meaning in my life (and strength, joy, and challenge) has been the community in which I have lived. I'm not talking about the city or town where one resides... I am talking about the group of people one is "doing life with" week after week. 

Though the group has changed over time, in the last five years God has been slowly shaping a very safe, nurturing, thought-provoking group of people in which I get to live and work.  In my reading this morning from Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, these words are timely: 

Humility is the glue of our relationships. Humility is the foundation of community and family and friendship and love. Humility comes from understanding my place in the universe.

I encourage graduating seniors (and those muddling through their first year or two after college graduation) to look for (and help to shape) a community that is not held together by affinity (what things do we have in common?) or memories (we were all in this youth group or graduated from this college) but by mission First we are called to Jesus, and second we are called to serve... that is the essence of the Great Command: "'The first is... you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’" (Mark 12:30-31)

We love God by loving our neighbor, but the only way I can really love my neighbor is by loving God. It is a wonderful, interconnected, complicated, compelling, and at times exhausting pursuit. Jesus models all of this to us in the actions of his final week of earthly ministry. May we all contemplate those with fresh eyes and ears in our approach to Easter.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Holy Week Readings, Day One

This week I am reading Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today by Joan Chittister. In the last five years I have been inordinately drawn to monastic spiritual practices and how they can be pursued without having to hide out in complete seclusion. Here's a great statement from the first chapter:

The spirituality that emerges from the Rule of Benedict is a spirituality charged with living the ordinary life extraordinarily well...  The problem becomes discovering how to make here and now, right and holy for us. (p. 6)

As you and I enter this final week of Lent, in preparation for Easter celebrations, I ask myself where resurrection is needed most in my life. I found this illustration from the book especially resonant, and a profound roadmap to guide me in that question:

Once upon a time, an ancient monastic tale says, the Elder said the businessperson:

     "As the fish perishes on dry land, so you perish when you get entangled in the world. The fish must return to the water and  you must return to the Spirit."

     And the businessperson was aghast. "Are you saying that I must give up my business and go into a monastery?" the person asked.

     And the Elder said, "Definitely not. I am telling you to hold on to your business and go into your heart."

At our weekly times in the park on the Westside, there is a 4 year-old boy named Ernesto who already has a very distinctive personality. He loves to play with carritos (toy cars) and catch balls. You can hear his voice all the way across the park as he plays and laughs. He is an Energizer bunny, endlessly demanding that one of us play with him. Yet as focused as he is on playing hard, his attention will be completely shifted if he sees a butterfly. "¡Mariposa!" he squeals, and starts chasing it, fruitlessly attempting to catch it. He will follow the butterfly throughout the park, up into bushes, across the field, away from everyone.

In the midst of my full and noisy life, I desire that when the Spirit is prompting me, that my attention would be taken away from the urgent and temporal things around me, instead following the Spirit where He leads.