Who is Barabbas? (or Why is “Good Friday” good?)

“…will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?”  They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!”  Now Barabbas was a robber.   -John 18:40

It’s hard to understand, unless we take some time to ponder it, what is “good” about “Good Friday.”  After all, it is the day that Jesus, the son of God, not only died, but was actually put to death at the request of the very people who were God’s “chosen” ones.

How can this be “good’?

In order to understand, of course, we must know a bit about our history.  Not the history of the world, per se, but the history of our salvation.  For that, we need to go all the way back to the book of Genesis, and a long-ago promise made between God and Abraham.  Here, Abraham is pleading with God to give him a son, an heir.  And God promises not only will he have a son in his old age, he will have so many descendants they will “number the stars.” (Gen 15:5)  But in order for Abraham to know that God was serious about this promise, God said to Abraham, “Bring me a heifer three years old…” (Gen 15:9)

Say what?

Yes!  This is why knowing our salvation history is so important.  Because in the days of the Old Testament, bringing animals to sacrifice is a sure sign that a covenant is being formed.  And in today’s terms we sometimes refer to a covenant as a “contract.”  But it’s really so much more than that!  In America today, if you break a contract, you may get taken to court and have to make a monetary payment of what you owe or possibly spend time in jail.  But in biblical times, animals were sacrificed as a covenantal promise that if one of you should break your end of the deal, you would bring a curse upon yourself and your family,  perhaps to the same end as the animals you are sacrificing:  death!  Further, a covenant was often made between one person who had much to offer, and one person who had less but needed what the other one had.  Very often the person who risked bringing the curse upon themselves was the person with less, because that person would be taking out a loan but promising to repay the person who had given them the loan.  Part of the covenant then, was for both parties then  to walk between the bloody carcasses of the sacrificed animals to indicate they were offering their life–or at least their livelihood– in exchange for whatever they needed from the other person, should they not repay it.

But something strange happens in the covenant between God and Abraham.  Tradition would dictate that in any exchange with God, God is “holding the cards” so to speak.  So  clearly, Abraham should walk through the animal carcasses to swear his faithfulness to God or risk being cursed or put to death.  Instead though, we are told that “a deep sleep fell on Abram” (Gen 15:12), and “when the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” (Gen 15: 17)  This fire pot and flame, in biblical terms, is none other than God himself agreeing to be cursed– even to the point of death– if he should not fulfill his promise to Abraham.  And what does Abraham need to do in return?  Stay faithful to God.  And this covenant is binding not just between God and Abraham, but between all generations after them.  Sounds simple enough, right?

But as it turns out it is the regular old sons and daughters of Abraham, the father of our Christian faith, that fail to keep the promise of faithfulness. Yet, we can see that God keeps his promise!  In the first chapter of Matthew, we are given these long ramblings of generation after generation who are the descendants of…you guessed it, Abraham. (Yes! This is where all the “begats” finally start to mean something.)  Matthew takes us through generations that “number the stars” from Abraham all the way down to the Messiah, who is, of course, Jesus.  Jesus, the son of Mary, the foster son of Joseph… and the only begotten Son of God.

If this were a movie, the music would be swelling right about now, because with the birth of Jesus, we are going to see God deliver on his covenant oath and establish a new one.  Here God himself enters into the ancestral line (pointing clear back to Abraham, the father of our faith) in order to make good on his covenantal promise.

Which means someone is about to pay.

Not because God didn’t keep his promise to Abraham, but because the sons and daughters of Abraham didn’t stay faithful to God!

So God will send us his Son to pay the price. And his Son will die.

But first, in today’s reading, the crowd is given one last chance to let God out of this covenantal oath and instead pony up for all their own years of faithlessness and broken promises.  Again, though, we must understand some biblical traditions.  That is, that it was customary that every year on the feast of Passover, a prisoner was released.  Yep. One completely guilty person, released and set free.  This is what is happening when Pilate offers the people one last chance to let the Son of God go free, but instead they choose, not Jesus,  “but Barabbas!” to be released. (John 18:40)

And this is where the music should stop, and the cameras zooms tightly on your face.

Or mine.

Because there it is in my footnotes:  Barab’ bas.  Aramaic meaning “son of the father.”

You see, God ponies up on his covenantal promise (a promise he didn’t even need to make with us) not because he didn’t keep his promise, but because we didn’t.  He pays our due in that moment in time, with the death of Jesus, the Son of the Father, instead of the rightful death of Barabbas, the son of the father.  Barabbas, the “robber” who stole the spot of the Blameless One, is set free.

Who is Barab’ bas?

Barabbas is you.

Barabbas is me.

Because Jesus took the place for our unfaithfulness and sins.

And we are free.

Free from this covenant that we never upheld anyway.

Free of all the old ways of doing things.  The old ways of worship.  The old ways of sacrifice.  The old ways of judgment.

And God himself, in Jesus, invokes a New Covenant.  With moral laws that haven’t changed, but the ways we honor them have.

We honor them now “Loving God above all things and loving my neighbor as myself.”

We honor them with repentance.

We honor them with forgiving others as we have been forgiven.

And we honor them with Holy Communion.  Eucharist.  Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving because we never had to pay the price for the generations of promises broken.

Thanksgiving because we never even had to take the oath to pay.

Thanksgiving because God loves us so much that he gave his very self for us, just so we might love him in return.

Do you see it?

It’s all right there in front of us.

And it is very good.

Reflect:   Read the Passion of our Lord today (John 18:1 – 19:42) and place yourself in the story as Barabbas.  Give thanks to God for sending his only Son to take your place!

Pray:  Heavenly Father, we can never, ever thank you enough for the sacrifices you’ve made for us.  But we thank you for never giving up on us!  We thank you for loving us even when we fail to love you in return.  Help us to be more like you!  Send us your Spirit of Love to empower us to share your love with all your creation.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

How Will You Lay Down Your Garments?

Jesus…laid aside his garments…and began to wash the disciples feet.  – John 13:3-5

Today marks the beginning of the Easter Triduum, or the three days that mark the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord.  These mark the end of the Lenten season and are the summit of the Liturgical Year.  In the eyes of the Church, these three days are the climax of the year that mark a  “new age of Resurrection” and launches us into the 50 Day Season of Easter that then climaxes with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Sounds like a big deal, right?

Yet, in America, (at least in all the places I’ve lived), the world doesn’t seem to take much notice.  Especially in stark contrast to Christmas where store shelves start getting stocked for the season (largely secular décor, of course, but nonetheless they are getting ready) in early October.  And many people decorate inside and out to prepare for the celebration of the coming of our Lord (or for the coming of Santa, but again, at least the secular, too, is getting ready for something).  But what about Easter?  Maybe an aisle or two dedicated to cute bunny or egg décor, and an overload of candy-stocked aisles, but those are quickly whisked away once Easter Sunday has ended.  While most stores are closed on Christmas, many remain open on Easter.  Yet, this is the single-event in history from which we have established our calendar (A.D. and B.C., which are also quickly becoming out of vogue), and it is through the Christian Tradition that even our secular holidays originated (Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day).

So, it struck me today, as I read the Scriptures of our Lord preparing to wash the feet of his disciples, the line that reads, “Jesus…laid aside his garments…” that I needed to “lay aside” something, too.  Jesus’ action and  these garments, are symbolic of his human life.  In other words, Jesus “laid aside” his life  to serve those closest to him, and only when finished serving the others does he “take” his life up again.

And I wondered what will I do differently to mark this day? 

Of course, one thing will be to attend the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  But how else might I “lay aside” some of the other aspects of my every day life today and in the days to come?

One of my friends who does much of her business on Facebook posted beautifully today that, “For Holy Week, I will refrain from business posts through Sunday, when we celebrate a big ole spectacular Easter morning!!!”

She is certainly “laying down her garments” to mark this sacred event.

Then another thought came to me. An image shared by a pastor who serves at a nearby convent.  This convent is cloistered, so the sisters inside it have little to no communication with the outside world.  (I asked him once, “Is it like ‘The Sound of Music?’ and he smiled and said, “Pretty close,” if that helps you imagine it, too.)  Anyway, this pastor is one of the few people who has the privilege of seeing the routine day-to-day life of these nuns.  Yet, he said that each day, when the bells ring indicating it is time for prayer, no matter what they are doing (washing the floor, raking leaves, etc.) they drop everything about their ordinary lives and run to prayer.

They drop everything and run to spend undivided time with Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but to me, when it comes to “laying down the garments” of my ordinary life, stopping in the middle of what I’m doing throughout my day today and giving my undivided time to Jesus seems like a pretty good start.

Whether I do that by abstaining from parts of my work life like my friend, or by dropping everything and running to prayer hardly matters.

What matters is that these next three days  look different, and my ordinary life gets “laid aside”…

Ding! Dong! Ding!

Reflect:  How can you “lay down” your garments and spend undivided time with Jesus over these sacred three days?  What “garments” in your life are getting in the way of spending time with Jesus? Or spending time serving those you love?  Looking ahead to next year, what is one thing you could do differently about your home to “elevate” the significance of the Lenten season and these sacred days?

Pray:  Lord, thank you laying aside your life every moment of every day to serve even my smallest needs and desires.  Help me to remember that the least I can do is take some time in the days ahead to spend solely with you.  Help me to hear what you want me most to hear.  Help me to see what you want me to see.  Help me to love those who are hardest to love.  Transform me so that when I do “take up” my life after spending time with you, I have become more like you.  Amen.

 

 

 

Hold Every Thing Loosely

And the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus too, because many of the Jews were turning away and believing in Jesus because of him.  – John 12:10-11

Sometimes the hardest thing for me to change is my own mind.  My behaviors are hard to change at times, too, but it seems like if my mind is really made up about something, the behavioral changes follow more easily.

In today’s Gospel, the chief priests, are plotting to kill Lazarus because, well…because he was alive.  He had been dead for four days when Jesus raised him from the dead.  Lazarus’ very existence, then, was a testament to the miraculous power of Jesus, and therefore a threat to the high priests who just could not accept that Jesus was God.

As we walk this final journey into Holy Week, I find these readings about the plots to kill Jesus and the people that testify to his character very foreboding.  I do a lot of volunteer work at our church.  This means that sometimes I am in danger of being like the high priests and clinging so much to what I want to do (programs I want to run, ways I want to see things done, people I will and will not work with) that I lose sight of what God may be asking of me in each moment.  Sometimes– just as Jesus did when he first heard Lazarus was sick–we need to let things die. Even the things that are very dear to us–as Lazarus was to Jesus.

Our old ways of doing things (because that’s how we’ve always done them and that’s how we like it), our favorite events and celebrations (even though nobody new has come to them in years), and even the people we love to work with  (because they are fun and think just like us!)  always need to be held loosely.  This is the Paschal Mystery:  to die and to rise anew.  If we are not willing to hold things loosely enough that when the time is right, we let them die, then we have rejected a very large part of our faith!

This is a challenge and a struggle, yes, but the alternative as the Gospels seem to spell out again and again, should certainly give us pause.  If we do not hold things loosely, we risk clinging to them so tightly that we, like the high priests, fail to recognize God when he’s right in front of us!

We can stand firm in our faith that God is always for us, yes, but we do not know how his plans for our best interests are meant to unfold.  Therefore, we must hold loosely to all “things” in order to make room for him to stir our hearts, and give ourselves permission to change our minds when we’ve clung too close to something other than God himself.

The same is true for the people we surround ourselves with, too.  If we are not careful, we can push to the margins all those who think differently than us and therefore we run the risk of clinging too tightly to our own way of thinking.  As biblical scholar, Sister Dianne Bergant, recently stated, “Who are the outsiders in your life?  Be careful, they might be more righteous than you.”

Today’s Gospel message seems clear:  if we want to live our lives as a testament to Jesus, then we need to let things die when their “time has come.”  This means we must continue to examine all “things” which we hold dear:  not just old programs, old routines, and old habits, but also our old ways of thinking and those in our lives whom we are holding at arms length.  Jesus is more than willing to breathe new life into the things we think and say and do, and when we make room for him to do this, we point more people towards him, not us, which is exactly who we want to promote!  However, if we cling tightly to our old ways for the sake of our own status, our own glory or our own self-righteousness, then we are not only sure to be blind to God’s presence, but we also–perhaps even unknowingly–run the risk of plotting against him.

Reflect:  What are some “things” in my life that I have been struggling to “keep alive”?  What would happen if I loosened my grip on these things and made room for God to work within them?  Am I afraid they might “die”?  If so, why am I so afraid of letting them go?  Have I considered that perhaps these things really are meant to “live”…and that only God can make that happen?  Would I be willing to loosen my grip if I knew that were his plan?

Pray:   Heavenly Father, you gave us all you had in your Son Jesus, even to the point of death on the Cross!  Help me to give no less of the things in my life back to you.  Help me to trust in the New Life you desire for me and for all your creation.  Open my eyes to see your promise of New Life  in the signs of spring all around me:  the budding trees and flowers, the returning birds, the melting snow.  Take me by the hand and walk with me, so that I can loosen my grip on my old habits and ways of thinking, and make room to follow you more closely. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s New Wine in Me Yet

Then he returned to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine.  – John 4:46

I love the story of the Wedding Feast at Cana.  It resonates with me on many levels.  it’s a beautiful exchange between mother and son, where Mary, the Blessed One, looks to the Chosen One, her son and Savior, to help the wedding hosts who have –quite embarrassingly–run out of wine.  So Jesus intervenes, turns water into wine and effectively saves the day.  This is Jesus’ first miraculous act in public ministry, and yet only John records it.  Why?

I’m not sure.  What I do know from experience is that weddings are private events.  They are celebrated with only those closest to us either by blood or by friendship.  It seems reasonable that since John is the “beloved disciple” –and the one to whom Jesus later charges with the care of his Mother at the time of his death– that more than the other disciples, he would have likely also been close to the friends or relatives of Jesus’ mother, (who many scripture scholars speculate this wedding couple to be), and therefore would have been one of the few, or perhaps the only disciple of Jesus, to have witnessed this miracle.

Regardless, I’m particularly grateful for it, because the above quoted line from scripture harkened back to that miracle for me today.  And in this mid-point of Lent, it reminded me that as I feel the weight of the Lenten season upon me now, Jesus is not done with me yet!  Like the turning of water into wine, a transformation has to occur.  And though we can read about the many public miracles of healing Jesus performs during his ministry, like the water into wine, the miraculous transformations he performs in each of us are private, deeply intimate, and personal to us.  They are transformations we need, in order to become the holy people God wants us to be.  And while the outcome is really nothing short of miraculous, the process for us is usually less of an instant “water into wine” transformational event, and more like grapes fermenting into wine through a slow and difficult process.

But the outcome– the “new life” that we become as a result of it– is still nothing short of miraculous.

I’m reminded today that just as Jesus returned to Cana in today’s reading, he is eager to return to you and I in this Lenten season and do more transformational work.  The question is, are we willing to let him?  Just as she did in Cana, we can certainly ask for our Blessed Mother to intercede on our behalf to help us!

Here’s a bonus link for you today that dovetails nicely, I think, with today’s message.   I’m grateful to have stumbled across this song last week and have been prayerfully singing it ever since:  New Wine by Hillsong

Reflect:  What are some ways you’ve seen yourself change in the past several months?  Are you more joyful, more positive?  Or are you growing discouraged, tired, and distraught?  Whether you answer yes to the first question or the latter, take a moment today to see one positive change in your life over the last few months and really thank God for it!  Give him total credit for making that happen in your life and then reflect a little on how, like the vessels at the wedding feast at Cana,  God may have chosen to use you to make that happen, or like John, he may have chosen you–and perhaps ONLY you–to witness it!

Pray:  Lord Jesus, thank you for always wanting to make me a better person!  While I sometimes find the process difficult, and I don’t always participate willingly into your plan, I trust you to lead me only to what is good for me.  I surrender my will to yours and ask you to create in me all you desire me to be, so that I can become more like you.  Amen.

 

 

An Oasis of Laughter

Save us from the hand of our enemies; turn our mourning into gladness and our sorrows into wholeness.  – Esther 14:14

We learn as small children that the smile is a facial expression for “happy” and that a frown is a facial expression for “sad.”  So, most of us, I think, see gladness and sorrow as polar opposites.  As a simple communication tool that’s helpful. But life and it’s emotions are very complex.  And the spiritual life, even more so.

Today’s Old Testament reading is taken from the book of Esther, which is a beautiful story of triumph about a Jewish orphan who becomes queen and ultimately saves her people from genocide.  A dramatic plot unfolds over the course of only a few chapters wherein as evil plans are being formed on one side, God is at work planning to overcome the evil through Esther and her uncle.  At one point, Esther turns to prayer calling out to God to save her people and “turn our mourning into gladness.” 

I’ve had many prayers like this myself, and I imagine you have, too.  My intention, of course, is for them to be answered immediately, so that I can “turn that frown upside down” as we sometimes say. And while it stands to reason that God could certainly work quickly– and sometimes does–very often his work is more slow, more methodical, more plodding than I’d like.

Yesterday I had an experience that gleaned some new insight into the hurried pace I often tread alongside a slow and methodical God. And I realized I might be missing something:  that joy and sadness don’t have to be polar opposites, exactly because sometimes joy and laughter appear right there in the middle of the sadness, not as an opposite but as an oasis of healing in the middle of a struggle.

You see, last week, a friend informed me  that she’d received a call  confirming a diagnosis she’d been dreading: cancer.  The same friend met up with me yesterday only to share that she’d just gotten another phone call with more news that they’d discovered a second disease she would now have to battle along with the cancer.

A devastating blow for sure.

But after my hugs and assurance of prayers, she broke into a smile and said, “You know, when I told my daughter about the second phone call today, I was wallowing over all this bad news. I told her it was bad enough to get the first phone call, but the second was even more devastating.  Then I asked her what she thought I should do.  And you know what she said?”  I shook my head no. “She said, ‘Well, Mom, for starters, I’d stop answering the phone!’.”

And we both broke out into laughter right there in the middle of all that sadness.

Of course, we’d all like to be spared from loss and suffering.  But I’ve heard it said, “The only way out is through,” and very often that is true for each of us.  While, unlike Esther’s story,  we may not always get the outcome we are hoping for, in the midst of our struggles God is happy provide us an oasis of healing.  It may come in the form of laughter with a friend to balm our wounds, or in the form of a warm hug to flood us with the grace to accept an alternate ending to the story we’d written for ourselves.

So I see Esther’s prayer a little differently today than I did before.  Since her story has a happy ending within only a few chapters, I’ve always seen that God answered her prayer immediately. But the ultimate answer wasn’t immediate, of course.  Things had to be set in motion.  People and places had to be just so.  And I realized God had to work slowly because we are limited by time and space, not him.

But he meets us where we are.

And he walks us through s-l-o-w-l-y, reassuring us of his presence with countless oases of healing along the way.

Reflect:  What or who provide an “oasis of healing” for me in my struggles?  Do I recognize these moments with these people, too, are a way for God to answer my prayers?  If not, what would happen if I just labeled these moments as “from God” even if I’m not certain they are? 

Pray:  God, thank you for your constant companionship!  Help me remember that just because I grow frustrated or weary in my struggles, does not mean that you have abandoned me!  Help me to soak up the joys of each “oasis of healing” I encounter to strengthen me in my journey ever closer to you.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

O, That I Were a Ninevite!

Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” when the people of Nineveh believed God…     -Jonah 3:4

Today marks the first full week of Lent, and already it’s feeling like a lifetime to me.  The weather is dreary, the dog’s foot fungus won’t clear up, and the flurry of activity on my calendar for this month makes me anxious just looking at it… not to mention the fact that I’ve already failed a few times at some of the things from which I’d said I would abstain  (hello, all things sugar).

And I sit here like Jonah.  Resisting the words God is putting on my heart to share, insisting first that God respond to my own demands, OK, God, but first tell me…When will I see the sun again? When can I finally stop rubbing this stuff on my dog’s foot? Why can’t I just have one day without 47 errands to run and places I need to be? And why am I already failing at Lent and it’s only Day 7!?

And as I pray more over this Scripture the answer to everything–yes, all of my questions!– comes into focus.  But it’s not easy.  The answer is this: Return to Me.  Rely on Me. Repent and let go of so much…you.  And while I am more than happy to preach that word to everyone else (you know, all you sinners out there), God is reminding me today that having a share in the spiritual gift of prophecy does not give the prophet a free pass.  One cannot simply share God’s words and ignore it for oneself.  For Jonah, not following God’s words meant suffering in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights.  It was only after that miserable experience that Jonah took God’s word  of repentance to the ominous and intimidating citizens of Nineveh.

But how did the Ninevites respond to God’s word through Jonah?  By immediately believing God’s warning, fasting, and putting on sackcloth  (a sign of mourning and a prayer of deliverance).

By widening the lens, we see the bigger points:  sometimes we are quick to change our hearts (like the Ninevites), other times we change more slowly (like Jonah).  Keeping our hearts open enough to leave room for God to enter into them and change us involves sacrifice. The psalmist sets the example for us today with his words, “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” Psalm 51:17

The self-emptying of our pride, our own agendas, and even some our earthly desires are reasonable and necessary requests for God to make of us in order to make us more like him: Perfect Love.  How we do that looks a little different for each of us, but the good news is that God is more than happy to work with and reward us no matter how much, how little, how long, or how soon we open our hearts and make room for him to do so.

Reflect: What is one thing you know you should do, but you have been avoiding doing for a long time?  What if God were to appear before you today and ask you to do it?  Would that spur you into action?  If not, ask God to forgive your stalling and help you see how tackling that one thing will free you, and how continuing to avoid it is making you a slave to something contrary to God’s love.  Then ask him to help you take one (teeny-tiny) step towards accomplishing this one thing…and be ready to take it!

Pray:  Lord Jesus, we see in Jonah a foreshadowing of you. In three days time, you entered into death and overcame death for the world! Thank you for opening the gates of heaven for us so that we may know eternal joy.  Help us follow your example by purging ourselves of our own earthly desires and sacrificing them for God’s greater heavenly desires for us. Jesus, we trust in you! Amen.

 

Health and Holiness Don’t Come Easy

 

” … inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’.”                 – Matthew 25:34

It’s no secret to those who know me that I don’t like to cook.  I never have.  Granted, this a bit of a challenge since for the past almost 20 years my sole job has been a housewife.  If you were to write a job description for the role of housewife, I think most people would include cooking and preparing meals as a significant part of that job description. I should clarify here that’s it’s also not that I can’t cook.  When I prepare food it comes out pretty good most of the time, and sometimes even really good.  It’s that my heart just really isn’t into cooking, so I try to avoid it except on those days when I have nothing better to do.  And sometimes a trip to the dentist is a more appealing thing for me to do than cook, so I think you can appreciate how little I enjoy it.

While it’s rarely my first choice to cook, it is however, a priority of mine to eat!  I love to eat!  Especially junk food.  All the packaged, processed foods that get all the bad publicity these days?  I {heart} them.  Deeply. 

The thing is, as scientists and nutritionists tell us, those foods really aren’t good for us and have no redeeming value.  The vitamins, nutrients, and minerals that are necessary to human health and long life are severely lacking in these foods.  So we are advised to include them in our diets only rarely, if ever.

In Matthew’s Gospel today,  Jesus provides a similar caution about our eternal health.  Just as many of the perfectly legal and totally enjoyable (but often harmful) foods in the American diet are not advised for health and long life, many of the perfectly legal and totally enjoyable things about the American way of life (egocentricity, promiscuity, money-grubbing) are not advised for our eternal health. Today, Jesus warns us that the life we live here on earth –this brief, worldly life– is in many ways a preview of what our eternal life will center around based on the choices we make while here.

So, while I love  Suzy Q’s and Girl Scout cookies (I’m looking at you, Caramel Delights), I must admit that my health suffers from them when they aren’t taken in small doses. (I say this with confidence as I single-handedly stuffed my face with a box of Caramel Delights over the course of an afternoon and evening this past week.  I mean, I had to off-set all that Lenten fasting with something, right?)

The point is this: most of us enjoy things that are not good for us.  Most of us don’t willingly choose a life of healthy eating, nor do we choose a life of holiness and selflessness.  But most of us also desire to live a long, healthy life and I think most of us–regardless of what we believe comes after this earthly life–would like that time to be spent without pain and suffering.  But our choices matter, and we must train ourselves to desire what is right and good for us in order to get the outcomes we desire…in this life, and the next.

Reflect:  What is the one most unhealthy or unholy practice, habit or addiction in my life right now? In what ways do I rationalize spending time doing this thing I love even though I know it isn’t good for me?  What is one change I can make to put more distance between me and that unhealthy or unholy habit in my life?

Pray:  Lord, thank you for loving us so much you only want what is best for us.  You know our human weaknesses. Though you desire for us to be healthy and holy, you never force us to be.  Help strengthen us to stand firm against our weaknesses.  Make your desire for us, our desires, too! Give us the wisdom to begin building the foundations of healthy and holy habits both in this world and the next. Amen.

 

Get Your Hands Dirty

“This, rather, is the fasting that I wish…”  -Isaiah 58:6

The man was hard to miss as he came closer to my station in the food line. Not because of his disheveled shirt, tinged and dirty at the edges, nor because of his scuffed and worn sneakers with tattered laces. What was hard to overlook on that hot summer day as he shuffled through the line of our mobile food pantry was his urine-stained khakis. A grown man, no more able to hide his “accident” than a kindergartner in the front row of a school choir concert.

But the line for the food pantry begins to form early in the day, so it was quite possible he’d been waiting in line for over two hours. And line placement is critical because the further back in line you are, the greater your chances for many or all of the food to run out.

And he clearly needed the food.

So he had to choose: Degrade himself by soaking his pants? or go hungry?

That’s all I remember of the man.

Well, almost all I remember. I hadn’t been helping with the food pantry very long at that time, and I was still nervous about how to interact with “those people” on the receiving side of the table. I didn’t always know what to say and I sometimes ended up trying a little too hard. With this man, the only thing I kept thinking over and over was don’t stare at his pants, don’t stare at his pants, don’t stare at his pants. And as he got closer to my food station, I worked hard to hold steady and look at his face, though his eyes were  cast down. And then, the moment I’d been waiting for happened as he stopped at my station for the food (was I at the fruit table that day? I can’t recall), he looked up and met my eyes briefly and then cast them down again.

I hope he was relieved to find my eyes there waiting to meet his gaze instead of staring at his embarrassing stain. And I hope the warm smile I tried to flash quick enough for him to see, was in fact seen by him. I’ll never know because the moment was over so quickly, and he never said a word. I don’t know if I made any kind of an impression on him at all. But, I know he made one on me. Not for being a grown man who wet himself, but for having the courage to persevere despite how completely exposed he must have felt.

Like Jesus on the Cross.

Mother Teresa has said about the poor that “each of them is Jesus in disguise.” I sometimes wonder how that can possibly be, but when I think of that man, I somehow understand it better.

Today we are reminded through the prophet Isaiah that while fasting from material things like food and Facebook are good and honorable, the fast that God longs for us to do most is to give up our time to clothe in dignity “those people” who have less than us. “Those people” who suffer with impossible decisions every day like whether they should go hungry or relieve themselves in private.

It’s been a long time since I’ve worked the mobile food pantry line, and there is not one in our area now. But I heard God calling me through Isaiah today, reminding me it is time to “get my hands dirty” again and go out and serve “those people,” so I can better serve Him.

Reflect: What is one step you could take today to bring yourself a little closer to the poor in your community? If you don’t already give money, could you find a charity to support? If you already give of your money, could you give a little of your time to serve? If you already give of your time to serve, could you give your friendship? We can never out-give God. How is God inviting you to practice more generosity today?

Pray: Generous God, we know all good and perfect things come from you. Help us to imitate your generosity, your kindness, your love, and compassion to those who need it most in our community. Open our eyes to those who are most in need and inspire our hearts to make time to love and serve them. Amen.

 

The Killdeer

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.

-Matthew 4:1

This is the opening line to Matthew’s story of Jesus’ time in the desert.  It is a perplexing one, and one that at first glance can bring fear and a sense of foreboding. After all, deserts are known for their unforgiving, barren surroundings.  It is clear that Jesus would not have much to help him if he was going into the desert.  Survival is not a given.  Yet it is there, in a weakened state from fasting, that he is tempted by the devil.  And the most perplexing part is that the Spirit led him to this!

The message then, is a strong one:  go to the place where you are vulnerable, hold onto that place and endure it for a while, and you will find something new.

I see the truth of this in nature each spring.  We have many killdeer in our part of the country.  And they are chatty and somewhat pestering birds when you get near their nests.  You will often stumble upon their nests unknowingly because unlike most birds who build nests in trees or high places, killdeer put their eggs right on the ground and use camouflage as their main source of protection.    They sit on their eggs like most birds, but when you get too close, they do an interesting thing…they feign injury.  They run off their nests and, as my dad says, “flop around and give you the broken-wing treatment.”  Which is exactly what they do.  They flop around on the ground, squawking and carrying on so that you think they are injured.  For animals who act on instinct (like my dog) this is a wonderful distraction as it drives their potential threat away from the nest towards the bird itself (who is not really injured at all), as a means of protecting their young.  It also works for distracting humans as they make quite a scene!

I’m on to their act now, though, so I know not to be distracted by their carrying on, and I go poking about in the rocks and stones looking for their nest, careful of my steps as I could easily crush the eggs if I weren’t careful.  Twice now, I’ve found some eggs hidden right among the rocks.  And there, for me, the message is the same:  new life is waiting to burst forth in the unlikeliest of places, vulnerable and exposed, lying against the harsh backdrop of raw, barren earth.

There is a measure of Jesus’s trust in the Spirit, that I see mirrored in the trust of the killdeer.

To me, the message of Jesus’ experience in the desert and the message of the killdeer are one and the same:  don’t be afraid to start a new life by making yourself vulnerable.  In many ways, this is what the Lenten season is about, really.  Giving up something we’ve been holding onto in place of God.  Letting go of old habits that have gotten a little too comfortable, a little too routine.  We are to shake things up a bit.  Only by doing this, can we see ourselves in a new light and observe how we react and protect ourselves (our egos) from the absolute truth of God.  Only here can we see how easily we let the devil—that is, the great distractor– take our eyes off the new life that God wants to create in us.

There was an encouraging email that went around a few years ago that said, “The will of God will never lead you where His grace will not protect you.”  As we witness Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the desert, we can be certain this is true.  In the end, God sent angels to come and tend to him. Yet, as we read the story in its entirety we find that not only was Jesus able to withstand the temptations of the devil all on his own, but he came out of the desert now sure of who he was.   We’d be remiss to never notice that it was only after the desert experience that Jesus began his ministry.

Reflect:  How has my act of giving something up for Lent, or starting a new habit for Lent, helped me make room for the Spirit of God to create something new in me?  Have I made myself vulnerable enough to let God move in?  If I haven’t gone searching in the “desert” of my heart, what am I afraid of?  How might the Spirit be leading me to discover a deeper calling for his work through me?

Pray:  Guiding Spirit, help us trust you as you lead us into places within ourselves that we’d rather not travel.  Remind us that while we may feel vulnerable and exposed, our fear is nothing more than a distraction keeping us from carrying out your work.  Hold us firmly as we lay open our hearts to you.  Breathe into us the confidence that angels will tend to us, if we are willing to let them, and that a new life awaits us on the other side of our shadowed, broken selves.

Doing Nothing

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples,  “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”

-Matthew 26:36

Certain aspects of this moment with Jesus and his disciples in Gethsemane during his time of agony, are relatable for many of us.  Any time we’re “up against the ropes” torn between doing what is right and running from, hiding, ignoring or denying doing the right thing, we are in our own little garden of agony.  Those times of wishing our life could be another way, but knowing we must do what is right even though it will come at a great cost to us –be it to a relationship with others or to our reputation, or our integrity—are our personal moments of agony.  Here in the garden, Jesus gives us a clear model to follow in how to pray our way through accepting our fate, facing our suffering and holding onto hope that somehow, when it’s all over and done with, we too, will find a “new life” and be “resurrected.”

But what has perplexed me for some time now are the words Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel while he is suffering. “Sit here while I go over there and pray,” he tells them.  Not knowing what to do with these words, I’ve chosen for a long time to focus instead on Mark’s telling of this same event where Jesus says, “Sit here while I pray,” (Mark 14:32), which can sound a lot more like “Sit and pray with me,” and to my ear, at least, is much kinder.  But Matthew’s recalling of Jesus’s words makes it seem as though Jesus wants to be all alone and gives the disciples nothing to do—not even pray with him– while he prays.  In essence, it has, at times to me even sounded like, “You knuckleheads go over there and leave me alone.  Something important is happening here and I need it to be quiet.”  And while “over there” the disciples fall asleep, not once, not twice, but three times.  Each time Jesus wakes them and reprimands them for falling asleep.  In Mark’s account, where their job of praying can be implied, it makes sense for Jesus to be upset that they fall asleep.  But in Matthew’s account, why would Jesus care if they are awake or not if he sends them “over there”?

Then, yesterday, as I held Jesus’ words in my heart, pondering them, I read a reflection by Macrina Weiderkehr, a Benedictine monastic nun, where she talks about herself waking early in the morning to go and pray in the cafeteria of her monastery and spotting another sister near her each morning who was also praying.   Upon seeing the other sister day after day in prayer, Weiderkehr is moved to tears recalling something she’d read earlier about the importance of a younger person being mentored by an elder:

Mentoring takes place…when a young person sees in an older person a bright flame of life, which is a reminder of his or her own small flame.  When these two flames connect, the younger person gets his or her flame blessed, while the older person moves into deeper wisdom. (pp. 14-15)

Weiderkehr goes on to say she realized then that seeing another sister’s faithfulness to prayer each morning was blessing and strengthening her “own tired flame.”

Through her sharing of this experience, I had a new appreciation for Jesus’ words and actions towards his disciples in this garden scene in Matthew’s gospel.  Perhaps it was Jesus’ intention to not just model for the disciples (and us) what to do in times of agony and personal suffering, but in doing so, to give them (and us) a final blessing. Perhaps Jesus wanted the disciples awake and attentive to his prayer because in his time of suffering, it was the only thing he had left to give to bless their “old, tired flames” of faith.  Perhaps there really was nothing for the disciples to do but witness the scene as it unfolded, and by their witness, Jesus could be moved “into deeper wisdom.”

In light of this reflection, my eyes have now turned from seeing not just how we, like the disciples, often “fall asleep” to the suffering and agony around (and within) us, but how we are, at times, like Jesus and like Weiderkehr’s faithful sister in the cafeteria, modeling for others how to continue our relationship with God no matter what.  To know that sometimes we are the witness and sometimes—hard as it may be to believe– we are the mentor.

Isn’t it marvelous that the miracles of God are so great, my friends, that even in these small moments of seemingly “doing nothing”– save remaining faithful and prayerful to God– that we are both a blessing to others and blessed?

Reflect:  What person or persons has been the greatest strength and blessing to me and my “old, tired flame”of faith?  How might I thank or acknowledge that person today?  What actions and behaviors do I demonstrate that may be a source of strength for others without my even having been aware of them in the past?  How might I make room for more such actions or behaviors to “deepen the wisdom” of God in me?

Pray:  Dear God, thank you for the gift of faith-filled mentors in my life.  Thank you for Jesus’ triumphant example of faith unto death and new life.  Help me to never falter in following his example.  Forgive me when I falter anyway.  Show me how I mentor others through my faith in you.  Shine in and through me. Use me now and always for your greatest good.