Reflection

beheld in the desert

camille-corot-hagar-in-the-wilderness-1835-oil-on-canvas

Camille Corot, Hagar in the Wilderness, 1835, oil on canvas.

Mental illness flung me into a desert last Lent. It wasn’t a desert I planned to enter for piety’s sake—not a safe desert and not a desert I could find my way out of when it got too hard.

I called it a desert because I wanted to find meaning in what I was suffering. I wanted to believe that the Spirit had flung me out there like he flung Jesus after his baptism, and that, after some pain and struggle, I’d come out victorious and find that the season had a purpose. I wanted to write a good story.

But I quickly realized that the metaphor wasn’t romantic. The desert was cruel and incoherent. I still can’t wrestle a narrative out of it. And I certainly came to no victory on my own.

Most of the time my thoughts were abusing me in the pit of the netherworld. On rare occasions, they’d swing me up to a height where I’d wonder why I’d ever thought anything was wrong with me. Neither world told the truth. So I couldn’t trust my thoughts. Even my therapist told me to distract myself from them. Prayer and reflection, the two things that keep me grounded in myself and God, weren’t safe anymore. I didn’t know who I was, and I couldn’t see God either.

Imagine bringing that wounded, estranged self out in public. I felt like a leper. I spread shame wherever I went. And at home, my instability brought out latent sins and magnified others till I’d never felt so dirty and so powerless to become clean.

I kicked against the meaninglessness of the desert. I fought for a story. And I came up with nothing.

I did nothing, and something changed.

God entered my imagination, toward the end of the forty days, and I saw myself in the presence of the Father. I was dirty, wounded, naked—and yet covered from head to toe in tender love. I could stand in that loving presence fully exposed, and yet fully at peace with myself. That love stilled my questions and my search for meaning. It was the Answer and the Satisfaction. And in the stillness it brought, I found the freedom to truly lament.

That Sunday, I sang the Kyrie like it was a wail—and I saw Jesus look at me. I was in the crowd watching him on the dusty road to Golgotha, and he stopped, and turned, and looked into my eyes—oh, the gaze of my Lord—and I looked into his. In that brief beholding I knew he was there in all my suffering, and he felt the pain of it too. Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.

The desert didn’t end there, but it was changed. I didn’t experience a dramatic healing; I couldn’t write a story of triumph. But I could say with Hagar that “I have seen the One who sees me.” And I have seen that he is good.

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Poem

father god

Out of the drowning depths I felt
strong arms bundle me up,
hold me close.

Was this the one I love? He too
had gone under and I
was afraid.

Into my fear, a voice: “I’m safe.”
I sensed the warmth and strength
in his embrace and knew
it was true.

But I am also safe for him,
like an infant daughter
in his arms is safe. A
tender safe.

Safe enough for him to whisper
of how he so loved me
to send his only son—
whom I love—to fetch me
from the deep.

They share the heart that beats as I
cling tightly to his breast.
Father God.

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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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Reflection

welcome home

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Pompeo Batoni, oil on canvas, 1773
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

A reflection on the beginning of Lent

For months and months, I’ve been reflecting on glory— the glory of God—and that mysterious promise that we humans will one day attain it. All have fallen short of the glory of God, Paul says, implying that we humans were intended to participate in God’s glory. We can (and must) still hope for it, for Christ in us is the hope of glory. I’ve been dreaming of that glory, of my union with Christ, his love for the world flowing through me without ceasing. I’ve dreamed of the day when I’ve grown to my full height; all my gifts and talents mature and excellent, useful for love.

And I’ve been living lately, too. I’ve chased after my own comfort and independence instead of my union with Christ. I’ve watched as the energy inside of me to love has withered up, dry and fragile. Things that once gave me joy have been made a trudging through resistant soil. The skills and talents I’ve been given, buried under dust. I’ve been fading, scrambling to redefine myself, and then wearing thin all over again. I have utterly exhausted myself, but I have not yet rested, nor climbed into the lap of Christ.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

On Ash Wednesday, it was made clear to me that I cannot have life without utter dependence on the presence of God. My sin in this regard is humiliating, but it is also what the ashes smeared cross-shaped on our foreheads represent. We are all made of dust, we all fall short of the glory of God, and we are all utterly dependent on the mercy of God. In my cries for mercy, I felt the welcoming arms of the Father. And this, my friends, is what Lent is about. Lent is a welcome home to all prodigals. Lent is our repentant journey home to the Father before we celebrate the great feast of resurrection.

This Lenten season, I want to take a journey into greater dependence on God. I want to give up my desperate scraping for independence and my habit of distracting myself from my own feeble condition. I want to pursue rest. I want to learn to lay down my weary head on the breast of Jesus Christ my Lord. Journey home with me, this Lenten season. Walk with me, with a contrite heart, into the healing presence of God.

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Quote

Central to Paul’s understanding of the cross is the belief that it is the free gift of God to a wicked and corrupt world. This point was and is offensive to those who want to make their own unaided way through life, or who suppose that nothing much is wrong with the world or the human race, or indeed themselves. Free grace is obviously correlated with a radical view of human wickedness and the threat posed by death. For those who want to remain independent, being ruled by grace appears almost as much of a threat as being ruled by sin and death. But this is, of course, absurd. Grace is undeserved love in powerful action; and love seeks the well-being, the flourishing, of the beloved, not their extinction or diminution. To look love in the face and see only a threat is the self-imposed nemesis of the hermeneutic of suspicion.

N.T. Wright on Romans 5 in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary

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Reflection

the cross

Good Friday at Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem  (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Good Friday at Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

On Maundy Thursday, after washing each other’s feet and celebrating the Last Supper, we shrouded the cross, stripped down the altar of its adornments, and changed our robes to black. We processed, perhaps one hundred of us, down the dark streets of Wheaton, in utter silence. We bore the cross, that emblem of love, to our neighbors.

A few days earlier, a friend, a former Catholic, told me about the long Maundy Thursday night he spends praying in churches throughout the city. It seemed like a foreign kind of religiosity. I didn’t understand.

That night, I followed the cross for two miles, in the unseasonable cold. My lower back was stiff, as if my spine were made of rusty gears. The grating sound they made, turning, was the pain I felt. But I pushed my weak, weak body. I followed that cross with all the strength I had. Somehow, I was joining myself with Christ in his agony on the Mount of Olives. Christ’s passion was real, and near. I had never wanted to gaze too long into Christ’s passion before.

When we came back to the church, it was mostly empty, and so still. We sat (oh, sweet relief) around the baptismal font, the few of us left, and we were so quiet. We sat, and sat, some singing softly, some praying, one weeping. My heart was still. I did not pray. What would I pray? When someone you love suffers, you don’t say much. You sit up with them. Though I did not pray, my silence was filled with peace and comfort, and a longing to be near to Christ. But I still did not understand.

My strongest memory of Easter, before now, was from when I was about seven. My little brother Aaron was sick, so my mom stayed home with him. I sat in one of the pews of our fundamentalist Baptist church with just my dad, and endured the sermon. That Easter Sunday sermon, absurdly, was about the crucifixion, in vivid medical detail. My whole body squirmed in discomfort. My breath was shallow. The cross stood in judgment over me. The cross was my fault. And for many, many more years, this was what it meant to me.

This year I celebrated Good Friday, and the cross. For the first time in my life, when I saw the cross, I saw love. God had been preparing me for this. As I learned to share my suffering with Christ, and came to know Christ suffering with me, the suffering of the cross ceased to stand outside of me, to judge me. Instead, it drew me near, and I met Christ there. I met Christ there. His love, oh, his love.

Before that moment, Eddy’s love for me (what a beautiful, self-giving love) was the strongest love I knew. Eddy’s love was how I pictured God’s love, if I believed in God’s love at all. Afterward, I understood how women could be nuns, and I wept for the Parousia. Oh, Christ, give me one more vision of you.

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