From Golgotha to the Grave

SepulcroIt’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave. Not in terms of footsteps or roads or the hours, minutes and seconds that make up a day. Not in terms of anything that is measurable.

It’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave. In footsteps that drag with grief gone wild. On a road that still recalls the stirring whirring dust devils created by a crowd wanting to see the latest spectacle. In the hours, minutes and seconds when the sky turned black and it seemed the devil had his day.

Bitterness consumes and eats away at joy until it is no longer to be found. Sadness is an anchor that drags a soul under turbulent waters until it is difficult to breathe. Hatred burns away flesh and humanity until nothing is left but unfeeling and uncaring bone. Fear crouches in the shadows of the mind until freedom is mired in the mud.

It’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave, and a lifetime is lived in the word “until.”

But joy grows in the soul until it blossoms as it finds meaning in sorrow. Faith provides strength and courage until it is no longer needed because its object has become Reality. Hope stirs in the cold heart until bitterness and regret are vanquished. Grace is the wings that hide a wounded soul, heals the brokenhearted, opens the eyes of the blind and makes the lame to walk until all things are made new.

It’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave, and a lifetime is lived, crucified, dead and buried in the word “until.”

Love overcomes hatred and fear until death itself is no longer the final word. Love burns bright in the darkness until a stone is rolled away. Love destroys barriers until an empty tomb is revealed. Love consumes. Love burns. Love blossoms. Love stirs. Love heals. Love is crucified. Love dies and love is buried. Love frees. Love redeems. Love resurrects. Love dies until all men are drawn to Himself, to LOVE.

It’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave, and a lifetime is embraced and loved in the word “until.”

Why do you look for the living among the dead? See? The stone itself has been rolled away.

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Easter Devotion

ImageThere is a saying I’ve seen a few times on Facebook: “If life doesn’t break you today, don’t worry. It will try again tomorrow.” And in the end, it seems, brokenness wins. Like a contagious disease, it has visited all of us. Like a thief, it robs us of peace, of joy, of life. For some of us, it has visited very recently, and we turn our tear-stained faces to heaven and hold our empty hands to God and ask why.

Jesus has been dead for three days. The “problem,” according to the religious leaders, has been taken care of. Jesus has been dead for three days. It was expedient for them for Jesus to die. It was necessary. In fact, it was necessary for US as well for Jesus to die. And Jesus has been dead for three days.

Brokenness. We talk about brokenness and what that means, of what we can expect from brokenness, of what beautiful stories, strong faith and dependence on God may come through the anguish of brokenness. And we have found that we are not alone. Our Lord was broken.

Like all of us, Jesus suffered and endured brokenness. Isaiah tells us in a prophecy about Jesus that he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, that he was smitten and afflicted, pierced and crushed. He endured what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul. Have you felt like that? Have you felt plunged into a darkness that will never end? Do you long to cry out, but your mouth is filled with sand?

Jesus has been dead for three days.

And so we join Mary on an early morning journey to the tomb. We know what it feels like to walk that road with Mary. Her heartbreak is universal. The reality of brokenness, despair, and grief are as near as the loss of loved ones, the heartache of children with disabilities, the failure of our marriages, the sinking feeling of never quite measuring up to our own expectations, and the deep grief of death. Mary’s sorrowful walk that Sunday morning is our walk on many a morning.

But whatever else is to be said, it is clear that the grave is not the end, that the tomb does not have the final say.

A shaft of light breaks through the darkness. Mary struggles to believe, not knowing what to make of the empty tomb, of a message that brings hope to her aching heart, of her Most Loved One calling her name. Mary!

We are so like her that at times it is painful. We believe, and yet we are overwhelmed with grief and loss. We believe, and yet we mourn at how awful the world is and how pointless some things seem. We believe … and yet we are not sure.

Our path of faith is similar to Mary’s as well. At the tombs of our life the risen Lord calls our names. Lift your head when brokenness, despair, and deep grief settle in and defeat seems sure. Look for the victory of Christ. It is at hand. You are His, you are engraved on the palm of His nail-scarred hand, and He will never let you go.

Death is defeated. Brokenness is defeated. Oh, to be sure, they are real. But they are not the end. The story is not finished. Through the victory of Christ who was broken FOR US, we are not alone.

On Friday, Jesus said, “It is finished,” and the temple curtain that separated sinful man from his holy God was torn in two.

On Sunday, the stone at the tomb was rolled away and He calls our names. It is the beginning.

Between Celebrations

crown of thornsWe just finished Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem and the beginning of Holy Week. Next Sunday, we celebrate Easter, commemorating of course Jesus’ resurrection. But between the two celebrations are days of incredible pain, heavy sorrow, nerve-wracking fear and almost unbearable grief.

They huddle in a dark room, this small band of brothers who have lost their beloved leader, teacher, Master and friend. They don’t dare light candles to chase away the shadows, and they start in fear at every footfall outside. Have they been discovered? Are the soldiers coming for them? Tension fills the air and sometimes breaks out in whispered accusations. Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you say something? Gazes drop in shame. Why didn’t I say something? Why did I run away?

Where is Judas? They have heard rumors that he killed himself. Good! some of them think. I’m glad he’s dead, that thieving, scheming betrayer. And yet he is missed. He had been one of them. He had been a brother. And yet because of his actions, their friend is dead, their friend who taught them to call Jehovah Daddy, who had multiplied the loaves and fishes, who had healed limbs and calmed the storm.

One of them remembers the taunts at the cross. “He saved others but he can’t save himself!” and he tries hard to push the hate-filled voice out of his head and yet like the serpent in the garden, it slithers into his soul and lodges there. “He saved others but he can’t save himself!” The words are joined by another mournful wail, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” He knows he is the only one here who heard that cry, and yet he can’t tell anyone that. So in this roomful of brothers, he sits and mourns and feels more alone than he has ever felt in his life.

Where is hope? Where. Is. Hope. To him, to the other 10 in the room, it seems that hope died when Jesus did.

Shadows deepen. Life is dark. Even today, we huddle together and face the dark. “In this world you will have trials and tribulations, but take heart,” He said. “I have overcome the world.” But at times, those seem like hollow words. “I will never leave you or forsake you.” But at times, we feel alone and and we feel forsaken. We fumble in the dark for a hand to hold, to somehow believe that we are not alone, that our grief will be comforted, that our tears will be wiped away. And so we gather up the tatters of our faith again like an old woman gathers up yarn to knit a blanket.

We live in the shadow of hope, we dwell in the shadow of the cross. Today, it’s Friday. It’s filled with pain, with overwhelming grief, with fearful doubt and crushing sorrow.

Today, it’s Friday. But Sunday is on the way.

An Enemy

Jesus in the Garden, from The Passion of the ChristThink of the miracles of Jesus. What is the first miracle that comes to your mind? Put yourself in that miracle. Picture yourself as the one witnessing that miracle. Jesus walking on the water. Turning water into wine. Calming a storm. Healing the man born blind. Raising Lazarus. Picture yourself as the one receiving the miracle. Eating the bread that Jesus multiplied. Having your disease healed. Sailing on a sea that is suddenly calm.

There are 37 miracles of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, all but one of them occurring before the crucifixion. 37 miracles. In the miracles of healing, Jesus was almost always responding to someone asking for healing. The Centurion asked Jesus to heal his daughter. Peter asked Jesus to heal his mother-in-law. A mother asked Jesus to cast demons out of her son.

But there is one miracle that doesn’t generally come to our minds. It is the last miracle Jesus performed before the crucifixion. Put yourself in this miracle.

You are the servant of a well-respected religious leader, the high priest. You have grown up knowing the laws, following them, respecting and obeying those who teach the laws. But lately you have been hearing about a rebellion beginning. It surrounds a man named Jesus from Nazareth. The leaders you have always respected, served and obeyed fear him. And hate him. This man, this Jesus is an enemy to all you hold dear and everything you have known. He breaks laws, including the most sacred Sabbath laws, and he encourages others to do the same.

And now the high priest and other religious leaders have found a way to trap this man, this Jesus. You are one of the first to volunteer to go with the authorities and have him arrested. As you march through the streets, you feel the righteousness in you build. You are doing right; you are not only the servant of the high priest, but the servant of God.

It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that you find him and a few of his upstart followers. Vaguely you are aware of the betrayer greeting Jesus, and you nominally hear Jesus say, “Must you betray me with a kiss?” This fades into the background for you, because you are focused on the small band of men and the confusion and the shouts and the anger and the fear and the fact that one of them has drawn a sword and a sudden blaze of speed and you hear the air whooshing by your ear before you hear nothing at all and the agony streams from the right side of your head and the shrieks you hear seem to come from far away but it is you who is screaming as your own sword drops and you clap your hand to where your ear had been and it comes away sticky with the wetness of the blood that looks black in the dark and once-peaceful garden.

“Put your sword away!” Jesus’ command to his disciple comes buzzing through the blur of pain and blood. And Jesus reaches out and touches your ear. The bleeding stops as bone grows and skin stretches over cartilage. Pain, which had been so mind-numbingly intense and real, is now only a memory, already fading. You are healed. But you are his enemy! You as much as your master want him dead. And yet, he touched you. He healed YOU, his enemy. Words that this man, this Jesus had said come back to your mind: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” and “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” and “Whenever you stand praying, forgive.”

This man, this Jesus, is practicing what he has so often said. He is forgiving his enemies. He is forgiving YOU.

This was the last miracle of Jesus before He was crucified and hung on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, the forgiveness of OUR sins. His last miracle was a miracle of not only healing but of love, of forgiveness, of reaching out to love and forgive an enemy. We place ourselves in that enemy’s place, knowing that all of us do in fact stand in the place of the man whose ear Jesus healed, for we have been enemies of God, and we have been forgiven. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

The Lost Sheep

ImageMost of us have heard many times the story of the lost sheep in Luke 15. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” The story is of course about how much God loves us. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to find us, his lost sheep, put us on his shoulders and bring us home.

It is one of the more touching of Jesus’ parables and is followed shortly after by perhaps the best known parable of God’s love–the prodigal son.

And while it one of my favorite parables and always has been, I had something happen to me recently that made me feel what that would be like, even though it’s from a human standpoint. First, the back story.

I will admit that I am somewhat of a high-maintenance drama queen. I am highly emotional and tend to act from my emotions and think about it later. I wear my heart on my sleeve and get hurt easily. A couple of months ago, I got it in my head that there were too many of my Facebook friends who wouldn’t care if I wasn’t friends with them, that they wouldn’t miss me if I was gone. So I made myself gone. Thumbing my nose at everyone who revels in how many friends they have on Facebook, I unfriended perhaps twenty people. A few of those were people I had never been very good friends with. But a number of them were people I cared about deeply; a couple of them were friends with whom I would have said I would always be friends. Click. Gone.

Yes, it sounds rather petty and high school-ish, doesn’t it? It was. But that’s how I felt at the time. I realize that people drift apart, particularly long-distance friendships or friendships maintained through electronic means, and especially when effort isn’t taken to keep the relationships strong. But even though that might be the adult reality, inside there was still a high school girl who felt uninvited to the party.

Click. Gone.

The holidays came and went, and it became a new year. I missed a couple of my friends, but even though I had come to realize how immature my behavior had been, I was too embarrassed to contact any of my friends and say, “Hey, how’s it going? So, about this Facebook thing…”

Then one of my friends sent me a message on Facebook. He said simply, “Hey Cher, how’d I get dropped as a friend?” with a little sad face, and he sent me a friend request.  I of course accepted the friend request and then explained to him what had happened.

I looked at his profile to see what I had missed while I was out there pouting. He writes some of the most profound things about the Christian faith and God’s love for his people, and reading his posts is better than reading any devotional or commentary I know of. While I was looking at his profile, I noticed his friend count. More than 2,400.

Out of 2,400 friends, he had missed me. He sought me out and re-established the friendship. He had reached out to this lost, petulant sheep and brought her home. He had become Christ with skin on. And I felt the power and the beauty of the parable of the lost sheep.

If I could convince you of one thing, this would be it. God loves you beyond imagining. His love for you is boundless. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to find you and bring you home. To be with him. Forever.

Wisp Part Four: Wash

This is the fourth part of the story Wisp. The parts in order are Grace, Pearl, Frank, Wash and Luz. The links will open in a new window. This story contains references to sexual acts. As always, feedback is welcome.

Wash

Isaiah Washington, Wash to his friends, Father Washington to his congregation, stood in the small, darkened apartment, listening to the sounds of the city five stories below. Rap rhythms floated up from the street, from a radio or from the teenagers who regularly gathered around the lit trash can for warmth, he couldn’t tell. Somewhere tires screeched. Farther off and then nearer, sirens wailed, their whee-ooo-whee-ooo bouncing off the crowded buildings. Closed-off buildings, closed-off lives.

It didn’t escape him that this was his real congregation, here on the cusp of the Capitol Hill district. Mere blocks to the east, high-rises housed the original young-urbans, lawyers, bankers, paper handlers, those who transferred virtual money from one virtual account to another. And mere blocks to his west were the crumbling buildings that some of those young-urbans owned, rat holes that sheltered homeless teens, amputeed vets, drug addicts with their needle-punctured arms scabbed or scarred over.

He knew that one in twenty of the men on that west side would end up in prison, thus beginning a seemingly unbreakable cycle of recidivism. What happened to “paying one’s debt to society”? It was nonexistent, at least for the west side. That drug deal, the oh-so-easy exchange of money for a small baggie of heaven, became hard to resist when the baby’s screaming because she’s hungry and Mother Hubbard’s cupboard is bare.

It affected the women as well. He had more than one young woman — girls, really — in his congregation who stripped for a living, sometimes offering more so-called intimacy for extra cash. He heard their desperation in the close, stifling air of the confessional. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two days, five weeks, eleven months, twenty years since my last confession. “He offered me an extra fifty dollars if I gave him oral sex, Father”; “He said he would pay extra for me and another dancer to have sex while he watched”; “He hit me, but I wouldn’t let him hit me in the face”; “I don’t know what to do, Father. I’m losing money, because I’m too old,” — and that from a twenty year old. Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee.

It would be nice to think that east of the divider he called his apartment were happier dwellings, richer lives. But he would be deceiving himself. He saw the small deaths there as well, alcoholic mothers, sexually abusive fathers, parents who drove themselves to early graves as they drove their children to football practice, basketball, baseball, soccer, golf, tennis; piano lessons, guitar, trombone, Spanish, French, German. It was a never-ending battle to get their children into the best preschools, only the first step in the long journey to the Ivy League. And that journey was riddled with its own drugs. Very often their fathers did lines of cocaine at office parties, ambition snorted with each gram. The mothers, on the other hand, did Prozac, Wellbutrin, St. John’s Wort, Paxil, Remeron, Celexa, Luvox, Lexapro, Zoloft. Their children did the designer drugs such as Ecstasy and other methamphetamines, drugs that the west side kids couldn’t afford to use, but could afford to sell. And there was always the ubiquitous Ritalin.

Even an intact family, such as Scott and Laurie Webber, had unbearable suffering. Their seeming functionality in a world of dysfunction had not protected them. He had a score of them in his congregation — not ones that Nietzsche would have termed “the boggled and the botched,” but boggled and botched nonetheless. Cancer, divorce, joblessness, depression, restlessness, herniated disks, adultery, abandonment, emphysema, muscular sclerosis, diabetes — the list was as long as were the drug names to chase the world of shadows away. Blessed be the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.

Wash sighed and turned away from the window. His gaze fell on the kitchen table. The cup of coffee, now cold and with grounds no doubt settled at the bottom, sat on the newspaper, still unread but now cup-stained from when he had been called to the hospital. Duty called as surely as it did any doctor. After he had sat with the Webbers, he had visited the old woman. Bitter woman, he thought now, as bitter as the coffee he threw down the sink. He had, though, been able to help somewhat. He had taken the paperwork to the Henry and Green Crematorium, the same mortuary he had arranged for baby Grace. Two bookended lives, he thought. The small baby, so full of unmet possibilities, and the old woman, empty of everything, even now of breath.

He decided against perusing the paper. It would only be more of the same, more death, more hatred, more war, more suffering.

Breathe, man, just breathe.

Television? More of the same. If not suffering, then inanities.

Like an alcoholic man trying to break a habit who returns to it with even greater devotion, he picked up his rosary. The beads had been worn smooth by the countless hours of prayer by his mother, her callused hands imbuing the wood with oil even as each decade prayed imbued her spirit with the grace of the Son and the Holy Mother. He remembered her teaching him the rosary, and the feeling of warmth from her hands as they guided his small fingers over each bead. Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. He had squirmed, anxious to be outside playing stickball, playing street hockey, playing anything, not understanding until much later the sacredness of the moment, not only between the supplicant and his God, but also between an only son and his mother.

He had been her fifth child and her only son, and he had never thought to ask why they all had different fathers, except for Teena and Tyra. His two oldest sisters were older than him by thirteen years and had been the product of his teenaged mother’s elopement. Their father had lasted only until his young bride turned twenty, and then he had left while getting a pack of cigarettes. Queenie had come next, a lighter skinned daughter whose father was never mentioned. It was assumed by all that she had been immaculately conceived. Tyra, though, had told him when he was seven that his mother — his mother! — had been lonely and a little drunk and the good-looking white boy at the bar had swept her off her feet and into his bed. He was gone the next morning, although he had left a twenty on the dresser.

Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra.

Therise came next. Her father, whom everyone called Uncle Jim, still came by a couple of times a year. He always brought Therise a toy, sometimes a frilly dress, once a little puppy that widdled over everything until his mother gave it to the grocer in exchange for a bottle of Children’s Tylenol. When Uncle Jim came to visit, he usually brought Wash something as well. He bought Wash his first copy of Nicholas Nickleby; even now, decades and many editions later, it remained his favorite book. He couldn’t imagine the poor streets of London, but he didn’t have to imagine his own poverty. He saw all around him, as Dickens must have, the poor, the orphaned, the abandoned, and the abused, and he knew because he read it that even the poor have a place of belonging, a love beyond circumstance. The book showed him that words could create worlds beyond this one, and more importantly, beyond the easy school primers. It gave him a love of learning that never abandoned him.

It might have bothered him to have been raised by his mother, never knowing his father, if he had attended the white school a mere mile away. There, most schoolchildren lived with mother and father and knew grandparents who came to visit on weekends. At his school, no one enjoyed such luxury. Mother, aunts, grandmothers, older sisters, occasionally a grandfather. It was a world ruled by women.

It was only natural then for him to gravitate to Regina, the Queen of Heaven, to hear the prayer Salve Regina echo more in the depths of his soul than in the chambers of his ears. It had been his favorite prayer as a child, and he remembered the smell of candles and incense as he had lit a candle and prayed, “Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our Life, our Sweetness, and our hope. To thee we cry, poor banished children of Eve.” When he was ten, he tried telling a boy in school that he also was a banished child of Eve. He got punched in the stomach for his efforts and from that moment kept his love of the Mother Mary to himself and to his Christ our Lord. Dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.

He remembered as a teenager trying unsuccessfully to correlate the dates of Therise’s birthday and his own with the date his mother “found religion.” Queenie told him that the crucifix with its sad-visaged savior had gone on the wall the year before Therise’s birth, three years before his. But how could that be? How could the woman who taught him to pray Ave Maria, gratia plena, the woman who slapped his cheek so hard his head rocked when he muttered “goddamn” under his breath, how could she have had sex with someone without being married?

He had carried that idealism with him to the seminary, where he had been destined since the moment of his birth. It was many months before he suspected that Uncle Jim might be his father as well as Therise’s, and many more years before he could understand his mother’s normal longings for simple companionship, and years before he could begin to comprehend in the smallest way the grace that was offered by the blessed pierced Hand to all those poor banished children of Eve. Sed libera nos a malo. Amen.

That comprehension led him to offer grace to whomever asked. He couldn’t endure his evangelical counterparts who, with all their talk of freedom in Christ and Bible studies and fellowship groups, placed a heavier burden on the children of Eve than ever the Catholic Church had done. They couldn’t understand how he could let prostitutes and homosexuals in his doors, and he couldn’t understand how they could not. The chasm seemed uncrossable.

And yet, Scott and Laurie Webber had come to him, as were others who had become disillusioned with a religion contained in a plain brown wrapper. They wanted stained glass and holy water and candles. They wanted beauty and tradition and transcendence. They wanted Mystery.

He contemplated the Sorrowful Mystery, Our Lord’s prayer in the Garden only hours before His trial and crucifixion. Our Lord was abandoned by the Father. Now there was a mystery! Did Scott and Laurie feel abandoned, now that their prayers had been proven fruitless and their child lay cold in the mortuary? If there was anything that gave lie to faith it was that building, stone cold and unyielding, its smokestack silent during the day but belching out the remnants and illusions of life at night where none could see, its cemeteries filled with flowers that had outlived the person in the ground, graves covered with fake grass.

Were Scott and Laurie taking comfort in Mystery tonight? He doubted it.

And yet, he was their priest. He stood as representative between the all-too-solid and the Mystery. He felt his inadequacy. He rubbed the beads between his fingers. O my Jesus, forgive us our sins.

He felt his knee cramping up, its complaint at the long hours of prayer. He kissed the crucifix, said one last Our Father, and finished with, “Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.”

He stood and returned to the window. Sirens still wailed, rap rhythms still punctuated the night, tires screeched, drugs deals were begun and concluded, loneliness was allayed by love bought and sold. If his prayers had had any effect, it wasn’t in the streets below, the streets over which he kept his vigil, over which he wept as had Jesus over Jerusalem.

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners. Pray for us sinners. Now. Pray for us sinners. Now now now and at the hour of our death.

Mortis nostrae.

Our death.

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