Reflection

the last alleluia

The last alleluia came and went, quietly.† When I caught it, it startled me: a sudden loss. The moment felt heavy and solemn. I knew that I must turn my face toward Jerusalem with Jesus and not look back.

I’ve never felt a true desire to make a change for Lent before, but this time I knew that I could not do anything else.

The word faithfulness has been on my mind for the past few weeks, perhaps a gift-word whispered by the Lord himself. When I first heard the word I knew it was a deep desire of mine: Faithfulness to the kingdom of God. Faithfulness to my dear Lord Jesus.

I have little faithfulness. When I’m weary, worn, and sad, I lose it. I let hours and days slip by in aimlessness. I forget my prayers. I forget who I am.

What if I pattern my life on the faithfulness of Jesus? I remember him forty days hungry but still holding fast to the word of God and his identity. I remember him on the road to Jerusalem, each step growing heavier until he stops and turns and warns his friends that he’s going toward his death. Can you imagine the effort it took to walk for hours and days toward that? Weary, worn, sad, faithful.

When I’m weary, worn, and sad, I make the couch my home. I settle down and let the clutter of life rise around me. Foxes have dens, Jesus said. Birds have nests. But the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. When the last alleluia came, I knew I’d have to leave all of it behind to follow him.

But how do I get from the last alleluia to the first? I don’t know. Not by my faithfulness in the end. It’s a mystery of grace, and it’s so sweet. It’s why I call him my dear Lord Jesus: he loves me enough to invite me into his faithfulness and he gives me his faithfulness when I don’t have enough. No matter what happens in the forty days to come, I know I’ll be his, and he’ll be mine, even if he has to carry me all the way. Thank you, Jesus.

†During Lent, we do not speak the word alleluia. It’s restored to us with much joy on resurrection day.

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Reflection

Gently, God Chastens the One He Loves

It started the day before our house blessing party. Eddy and I had moved to a lovely apartment in Glen Ellyn two months before, and we had been looking forward to finally breaking our home in with friendship and prayer and food. I had been scrambling all week to put some finishing touches on our walls: quotes and pictures that are meaningful to me, a shower curtain that wasn’t disgusting. And my painting of the Christ of Divine Mercy.

I’ve been working on this painting since last January. It’s been a prayerful process, and although I’ve never tried to paint on canvas before, I’ve been surprised by the beauty and power of the image. I believe that it has been a gift from God. But on this day before our house blessing, it wasn’t quite finished, and I was desperately forcing it to be. It was as if I would seize this gift for myself like the forbidden fruit of the tree—before God’s good timing—so that I could be my own god. And I heard God say, “Don’t hang the painting.” I finished a few strokes and let it dry and then hid it away in the closet. I understood why, I thought; I was too proud. But I didn’t fully understand yet. That painting was only one precious piece of a mosaic I had been crudely fashioning for my own self-glorification—a mosaic that God was about to shatter (and begin to reassemble).

The next morning, Eddy and my brother and I went to church, and I was cut to the heart by the sermon. “You can’t serve God and mammon,” Jesus said. Father Stewart explained that mammon is a worldview of acquiring for our own security, opposed to the posture of receiving life and all our needs from God. Because life is so fragile, so uncertain, we all place our faith in something for a sense of security. Father Stewart rattled off examples of the things we tend to grasp at for our own security. What took me by surprise was this: “Beauty,” he said. “I don’t simply mean being good looking or acquiring someone who is good looking. I mean it more deeply. You have a deep need for beauty. You’re trying to acquire that beauty, perhaps through a home or an apartment, through a particular way of living, through food. You’re trying to acquire beauty. You want beauty.” I saw myself precisely as in a mirror and I grew weak inside.

Father Stewart described life under the mammon faith-system—my life. “In the mammon faith-system,” he said, “your goal is to acquire, secure, on your own. You have to become good at acquiring, because—here’s the deal—everyone in the mammon faith system is trying to acquire too. . . . If you’re doing well, you’re able to develop constant and regular high praise from those around you. You have to have that in the mammon system, because when you’re living by performance and acquiring, you’re never quite sure if you’ve done enough; you never have much sense of where you are in the system. You build your life on praise received. Criticism is an utter crisis in the mammon system.”

I was headed into a crisis. We went back home and finished preparing for the house blessing party. I watched myself grasp at security through artful food and drink and a home that was beauty-full with the presence of God. I saw that I actually wanted to use the presence of God in my home as a means for my own sense of glory and transcendence. It was devastating.

And then, so few friends actually showed up. It hurt, oh it hurt, not just because I felt forgotten, but because I depended on the presence and praise of others to validate my self-glorification project. And I was so busy mentally processing everything that had happened that in the end I wasn’t present with anyone there. Although I was thankful for the prayers of our friends, my heart was not in the house blessing anymore. It was a human home, and the food turned out to be just human food; no one bowed down and worshiped me for it. I knew that God meant to show me all this about myself, but I was laid bare, and later, I was angry. Why now, God? Didn’t you want our house to be blessed?

My anger spilled over onto Eddy that week and I sunk into a kind of depression. What began my redemption, though I still ached, was spending Thanksgiving with friends who love us. I needed to humbly receive hospitality and to see what a humble offer of welcome looks like. On Sunday at church Matt Woodley’s sermon enabled me to imagine myself like a disciple who had run away and could now share a breakfast of fish on the beach with Jesus. I knew that though I had betrayed God, God was not finished with me yet, and it gave me hope. One day that week I shared hot cocoa and making paper snowflakes with my coworkers; it was cheering. I needed to create something simple and humble with my hands and to feel part of everyday friendships again. I knew that all of this was from God, and it started healing me again.

On Saturday, I told my story to a friend, and she asked good questions. It was a confession before God, and it was something good. I was truly grieved and ready to repent, but I was stuck on how I could learn again to desire God for God’s sake and not for some other selfish end.

The next morning, I went to church in the stupor of a cold, and I was too tired to pay attention. When it was time to receive the Eucharist, I zombied through it. My body remembered to cup my hands in a posture of receiving, and my mouth remembered to say “amen,” but I was not very conscious of what I was doing. When I returned to my seat, I noticed that something had changed inside of me. I realized that I felt Jesus there, embracing me. I have never felt anything better than being with him. I was exultant. The joyous love of God was bubbling up inside of me, and I was so happy, because Jesus is so good. Oh my Lord Jesus, he is so good. And that’s how I knew I could desire God again for God’s sake—as a gift to be received.

And, with thanks to God, this is not the end of the story of our home. Now, more than ever, I am confident that God greatly desires to fill our home and our hearts with the gift of God’s presence. Perhaps not climactically, but in small, humble, human ways, through friendship, shared meals and prayers, and when the time comes, a painting of our beloved Christ.

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Reflection

thoughts on holy saturday

I walked away from the Good Friday service last night with a goofy grin on my face. It was the same kind of goofy grin I wore on the day after my wedding. The privilege of intimacy brings an uncontainable joy. This Good Friday, I received what I had been dreaming of all year, and maybe, in some way, all my life. I received the privilege of bowing before the cross.

The cross is the symbol God chose out of all things in the world to display his glory. I have fallen so short of the glory of God. These past few days, I have realized, predictably, that I am so much less like the woman who anointed Jesus than the disciples who fell away when things got tough. Holy Week is only a microcosm of the whole year, and of all of life; how can I be that dear woman now, when I have been those disciples all along? And on these, most holy of all days, I’ve felt the grumpiness of my soul, and my selfishness. When I arrived at church, on Thursday, and on Friday, I knew that I had nothing to give. No costly perfume, no tears. I’ve fallen so short of even a faithful human being, let alone the glory of the Faithful Human Being. But this is the very power of the cross.

It is God’s power in the cross by which that gap was bridged, is being bridged, and will (amen) finally be bridged. In the cross I find God’s power to restore me to himself. Only by his death on the cross, and my death there, will we finally be united in new, glorious life. So the cross is the very power of God.  At the cross, his blood and water anoint me, and I am accepted, called beautiful.

I understood this last night, and could hardly bear the wait for my turn to embrace the wood of the cross. I cried in my seat, just imagining it, yearning for it. And finally, after watching hundreds and hundreds kneel before the cross, they released my row. I ran down the steps, beaming, and joined the line, and I sang the songs a little too loudly. I made it to the cross, and I knelt there, and I took up too much room, because I pressed my face against it rather than just a hand, and I knelt there, and felt the presence of God. No words, no tears, no costly perfume, just me and the glory of God that I’ve so longed to meet again—his love, his joy, his peace—anointing me. The only, the best place on earth. And I kissed the wood at the foot of the cross, and walked back to my seat, overjoyed and triumphant. Yes, by his cross, I can be the dear woman who kissed his feet.

All my life, I thought that the day my knees would bow before Christ and confess him as Lord would come at some eschatological moment. But I did not dream that Christ is present, even now, and that I may bow before him, here. A real, physical bow before the living Christ. The cross is the window through which I behold the crucified God, and the place at which I kneel before him. I know that I must make it my practice to daily kneel before the cross, the glory of God. How else will I attain it?

And now, it’s Saturday, a day to rest, a day to reflect. Today we wait. But this waiting is unlike the first. We’ve already read the end of story, and we know how it ends (or, begins). We do not huddle together in a closed room out of fear. We wash our faces, and don clean clothes. We enjoy the sunshine and the warmth of this spring day. Our waiting is in anticipation, even joy, because we heard his words: It is finished. And we know, a new thing will begin.

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Reflection

come, let us adore him

Sacred: The Heart of Jesus, 2011
Charcoal on Paper, Stephen B. Whatley

Imagine you are the woman who anointed Jesus. You break open your jar of costly aromatic oil and tenderly pour it over his head. His head. You weep as you behold him. My Lord and my God! You fall on your knees. You cannot stop kissing his feet.

(Oh, to be in her place, to repeatedly kiss his feet! to come scandalously close to God!)

Hers was true worship, not some abstract awe at the theological idea of the Christ. This was worship from the depths of her person to the depths of his person. She knew him, Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee, and she worshiped him. All her excess of love— the potent aroma, her tears, her touch, and her uncovered hair—so exposed to the whole place, and yet, so tenderly accepted by Jesus, called beautiful. This is what Holy Week is like.

During Holy Week, more than ever, we enter into the Gospel story and cling as close as we can to Jesus. It takes both boldness and childlike humility, like that dear woman had, to enter into this story and really live it, to wave our palm branches and weep at the cross. If we have the courage, we can become the woman who anointed Jesus and who could not stop kissing his feet.

During Holy Week, we celebrate the Last Supper with Jesus, and we allow him to wash our feet. We watch and pray with him in the garden. We weep with the women who weep at the cross. We prepare his dead body with extravagant amounts of myrrh and aloe and tears and wrap it in fine linen, and lay it to rest in the tomb. We wait. We rise early, breathless, running, and meet the Gardener at the empty tomb, falling to our knees in joy and adoration. Will we be able to stop kissing his feet? Oh Jesus, how we adore you!

Holy Week is all about the adoration of Jesus, and all about coming as scandalously close to him as we can, until we can just taste resurrection, his body mingled with ours, his blood filling our veins. Come this Holy Week, and let us adore him. Let us be united with him in death, that we may be united with him in resurrection.

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His holy body wholly mixed
     with these our bodies, and His pure
               blood poured generously out
to fill our veins, His voice
     now pulses in our ears,
               and look! His lighted vision
pools within our eyes.  All of Him
     is mixed with all of us—
               compassionate communion. And as
He loves His church His body
     utterly, so He gives
               it more than bread, more
even than bread from heaven
      but His own, His
               living bread for her to eat.
Wheat, the olive, and the grape—
     these three—serve Your mystic union
               in threefold manner.
Your bread became our strength,
     Your wine our consolation.
               Our faces were renewed,
illumined by the grace and
     blessing of Your holy oil. For all
               of this and more, Your body—
saved by Your abasement—
     now unites in true thanksgiving.
               And Death—the insatiable lion
who consumed us all—by You alone
     its appetite was sated—by You alone
               its hold has burst, and we
rise strengthened, comforted, luminous.

“The Living Bread” from Scott Cairns’
Endless Life: Poems of the Mystics

the living bread

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Hymn

Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.

Other refuge have I none, hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, ah! leave me not alone, still support and comfort me.
All my trust on Thee is stayed, all my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenseless head with the shadow of Thy wing.

Wilt Thou not regard my call? Wilt Thou not accept my prayer?
Lo! I sink, I faint, I fall—Lo! on Thee I cast my care;
Reach me out Thy gracious hand! While I of Thy strength receive,
Hoping against hope I stand, dying, and behold, I live.

Thou, O Christ, art all I want, more than all in Thee I find;
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint, heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is Thy Name, I am all unrighteousness;
False and full of sin I am; Thou art full of truth and grace.

Plenteous grace with Thee is found, grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound; make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art, freely let me take of Thee;
Spring Thou up within my heart; rise to all eternity.

Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1740

Jesus, Lover of My Soul

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Prayer

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany from the Book of Common Prayer

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