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Life is hard. There’s no denying it. But during this Easter season, we are reminded that there is proof of the resurrection all around us.
Friends will betray you
they will dine beside you
then sell you out for silver.
The road will always be uphill
and the load will nearly break you.
(Others can ease it, briefly,
but they cannot die for you.)
You will taste sweat, blood, bitter
liquid; your body will snap, sag,
breach and be broken. You will die,
One has gone before
holding hope in his hands like a loaf of bread.
Even as you close your eyes
to all of this, you will open them again.
Like an Easter lily, you will wear white.
Like Easter morning, you will be born.
Don’t get me wrong – I love Facebook memes. My son and I send them to each other, post them on each other’s walls and laugh hysterically. Sometimes my husband reads over my shoulder and just gives me that look. “Really?”
But today I saw a meme that set my teeth on edge. “Like if you want to put Jesus back in the White House.” Judgy much? Or, as Lori would say, I sense a sieve personality at work. Okay. Lori wouldn’t really say that. She’s a lot nicer than I am. But, really? What short-sighted goof cake thinks they want Jesus in the White House? He wasn’t even popular in the temple.
Presbyterian women worldwide are studying the various ways that people “see” Jesus. How do they think of Him? What do they call Him? At my church, we take turns teaching. I chose lesson 3, based on Luke because Luke was a historian. He set the story of Jesus up in history, telling us who was the Roman emperor, who preceded Him (John the Baptist) and more.
When you say history, people think tradition, longevity, status quo. But the Jesus that Luke told us about worked to topple that status quo.
Luke recounts Christ’s first sermon, delivered in the temple. He read from Isaiah about God sending prophets to the downtrodden. Then Christ said, “Today I am here to fulfill the prophecy.” Everyone was super-duper happy because they were under Roman occupation. They saw themselves as the downtrodden. Christ must be here for them. Woo-hoo!
But then Christ pointed out that God and His prophets had a history. Many prophets were rejected in their own communities. God sent them to outsiders – non-Jews. The crowd in the temple was much less happy with this part of Christ’s sermon. In fact, they marched Jesus to the top of a hill, ready to throw him off.
They thought that they wanted to hear what the Messiah had to say. But they didn’t. Not really.
I’m not sure we’d be a whole lot happier to hear what President Jesus would say. And I don’t mean the Republicans. But I’m not talking about the Democrats either. I mean all of us.
Please, God. Keep Jesus out of the White House. I just don’t think we’re ready for what He’d have to say.
“It’s no big deal,” my sister says on the phone of her recent hysterectomy. “Of all my surgeries, it was the easiest.” Of course, this is a woman who has had surgery on her eyeball. And endured a double mastectomy. It is not surprising to me that she is stoic. She knows the way of pain.
The way of pain is also Jesus’ way. Imagine, if you will, being tortured for hours by Roman guards, kept up all night, having a crown of thorns digging inexorably into your head…then being loaded up with a wooden crucifix you can barely lift and having to drag it to your own execution site. All this before getting nailed to said cross and dying of exsanguination or collapsed lungs or shock or all three. And yet the gospel-writers never include anything about Jesus hollering curses or demanding morphine or even venting slightly with a few cross words (pun intended). Jesus takes on the worst physical pain — and the pain of all the sins of the world — and still finds time to take care of his mother, forgive a thief and absolve his murderers. Now that is something.
Pain is lonely. It cuts a person off from others. There is no “sharing” pain; each person’s pain is unique. When I broke my ankle many years ago, I felt pretty bad. Then a friend of mine related the story of how she broke her ankle. Just hearing the story made me know that what I was experiencing was, frankly, laughable.
Pain is dehumanizing, reducing most of us to our worst selves. When an animal is in pain, it may hide. If confronted, it will bite. We humans do this too, in our own way. Neither strategy lessens the pain, but the kind of thinking that goes along with pain is seldom rational.
Pain has become something of a dirty word in this country. We will go to great lengths to extinguish it with pills, shots and other tinctures, both of the legal and illegal variety. No one wants to walk through pain. But pain is also salvific: It is perhaps our only means of intersecting our life experience with that of Christ. I will never be able to multiply loaves and fishes, but I can certainly understand how it feels to hurt.
Holy Week is coming up next week, a week wherein we remember Jesus’ suffering and his triumph over death. It seems an opportune time to reflect on the pain in our lives. We all experience pain, physical, mental or spiritual. But what we do with that pain matters. Non-Catholics tease Catholics over the use of the phrase, “Give it up to God.” We use it a lot, for everything from small deprivations to devastating losses. But what that phrase means is this: With this experience, I am touching, in the tiniest way, the way of the cross and the way of Christ. This provides an opportunity for something special — to choose Jesus’ response of understanding, acceptance and sanctification or to allow myself to be diminished.
The way of pain is not the easy way. It is not something to strive for. But when it is thrust upon us, as it inevitably is, it is a place of possibility. And in this place, we are at one with God.
Of late, the popularity of Pope Francis has plummeted, particularly in the U.S. I guess some people (particularly Conservatives) don’t like what he has to say. Which is really funny when you think about it — because there’s nothing that Francis is saying that hasn’t been said before, by Jesus himself.
Feed the poor? Check. The rich man will not get into heaven unless he changes his ways? Check. Blessed are the suffering and outcast? Yep, that too. Honestly, you’d think the Pope was saying something radical. Anyone who’s read the Gospels knows who the real radical was and is. It’s why Jesus was put to death: Instead of leading an army against the Romans, He took the side of the marginalized. He wasn’t what the people of the time expected from a savior. Nor is Francis what you might expect from a Pope. He eschews pomp and circumstance for humility and simplicity. He doesn’t try to be popular.
Just as Jesus riled up the powers-that-be, Francis disconcerts the mighty. As well he should. Who said being a Christian was going to be easy? Anyone who thinks so is barking up the wrong tree (in the medieval sense, where “tree” meant “cross”). It is the Pope’s job to disconcert. That is how change occurs.
And, as ever, we need to change. Thousands and thousands of years post-Christ and what have we learned? We still choose war over peace, division over communion, and money over just about everything else. We still lack in love. We would still crucify Jesus for not being what we want.
If Christ came back tomorrow, I daresay he would be even less popular than Francis, especially in America, a country that many (especially those in power) call “Christian,” a country that claims to be “one nation under God.” Which begs the question: Do we really know what being Christian means?
Look to Francis for answers. And if you don’t like those answers, feel free to be disconcerted. You should be.
Back in college, I once had to take a bus to the airport in Indianapolis, a two-hour drive. A fierce snowstorm was brewing, and none of my friends dared drive me themselves. Boarding the Greyhound, I found every seat taken but one…in the very last row in the back, next to a man who made Charles Manson look like a choirboy. Knowing full well that the driver would be concentrating on the storm and would never see my imminent death, I took the seat anyway.
Though I immediately stuck my nose in a book and prayed for anonymity, my seatmate engaged me in conversation. He even introduced me to his friend “Red Dog,” who occupied a seat ahead of us and to the right. (Why weren’t they sitting together?) Turns out, my new friend was on his way to Chicago after a disastrous trip to Las Vegas, during which he was incarcerated for possession of “one little knife.” With these words, he drew a dagger from his boot.
“How unfair,” I hear myself squeak.
That I made it to Indy at all (with Red Dog even gallantly helping with my luggage) is an act I attribute directly to divine intervention.
Yesterday, I saw an article about the number of weapons seized at airports in 2014: an average of six guns a day, with a high of 18 one day in June. Grenades, C-4, landmines. Not to mention the wide panoply of knives and other pointy things. Knives baked into food, knives disguised as markers and canes or slipped into the inner workings of a laptop. Hundreds and hundreds of knives, all knowingly hidden from authorities.
What struck me first was the number of people who openly flouted the rules of air travel. What struck me second was this: why? Were the weapons meant for self-defense or something more nefarious? Why in a nation of people who overwhelmingly believe in God, who claim to be religious, who call out for prayer in school and demand to know on Facebook whether or not I agree that we are one nation “UNDER GOD” — why in the world are we all armed to the teeth?
If we truly are a Christian nation (as some pundits assert — I rather hope we are more diverse than just that), then why do we feel the need to fend off one another, to be ready to attack at will? Jesus never carried a weapon. When confronted with violence, he turned the other cheek, accepted the crown of thorns, carried the cross, let the nails be hammered into his skin. It says very little of Americans that we are so prone to violence, so attached to our weapons of choice that we dare not be parted from them even while we travel by winged metal tube for a few paltry hours.
Violence and the weapons from which violence springs cannot be held in tension with true spirituality and belief in a loving, giving God. The two are incongruous. As St. Paul observed, they will know we are Christians by our love, not by the razor-sharpness of our blade or the caliber of our firearm.
Being Christian means loving others not just as much as we love ourselves, but as much as Christ himself loves them. And that requires a love beyond human bounds, a love that does not discriminate, that does hesitate, that does not demand qualifications. It is the kind of love that makes weapons ludicrous, laughable.
So what gives? Either a large number of us are hypocrites, or we love our weapons more than we love God. And yes, I know that’s an inflammatory statement; I meant it to be. This is a subject that demands serious self-examination. If you believe in the sanctity of gun rights, how do you square that with the perfection of love your faith calls you to? And no, “hunting” is not a sufficient reply. No one’s going hunting at 20,000 feet. (I hope.)
This isn’t chocolate and peanut butter, folks. These are two ideas that don’t go together. So why not put down your weapons? Arm yourself with love instead. I guarantee a better bus ride for all of us.
He will come again perhaps in snow
or baked earth like the first time,
no one knows.
And if today,
what would he make
of sleighs and bells,
garlands, garish green
and red everywhere?
Perhaps he would shake his head
and chuckle at the foibles of his siblings.
Or point out, with rather more force,
“That’s a lot of hoopla
for a baby born in a manger.”
I myself would turn it all away,
all the tinsel and trimmings,
for a single moment of pure love.
That is what he came for,
and that is what he died for.
And so I say:
To beings everywhere —
You are greatly loved.
(That sharp uptick in your heart —
that right there is Christmas.)
They rang the bell. Twice. Then they knocked. They weren’t going away, so I opened the door. I could see copies of “The Watchtower” in the hands of one of the men. Ugh, Jehovah’s Witnesses! Maybe I could quickly blurt out, “I’m Catholic!” and slam the door. But I didn’t.
Instead, I listened to their spiel. And you know what? It was sweet, all about bringing God’s will in heaven to our earthly plane. Of course, we are bound to have doctrinal differences, and my view of God’s will being done on earth almost certainly does not strictly adhere to their vision. But it was nice, being near people who cared enough about their spirituality to slog door to door, undoubtedly facing plenty of rejection.
I understand rejection — or at least apathy. It is difficult to be a spiritual person in a consumer-driven, “might equals right”, “he (and I do not choose this pronoun thoughtlessly) with the most money rules” society. And it’s terribly difficult to keep putting yourself out there, knowing most people won’t listen or care…that they may, in fact, think that you’re a fanatic, or worse, just loopy.
I asked the Witnesses how they deal with rejection. It did not seem to get them down. “Some people just don’t understand,” said the retired minister. “But remember, Jesus could not get everyone to understand, either. He was simply happy with those who did get the message.”
Eventually, they moved on. On to face slammed doors, a mass of “no thank you’s,” and similar reactions. Having a blog and a radio show, I don’t get to actually see the slammed doors or hear the polite excuses, but I know they’re out there. I sometimes hear the more virulent responses, the ones from those who not only think I’m loopy but actually dangerous. But even that is a rare thing. Mostly, I live in a void, not knowing if anyone hears me at all.
And you know what? I can live with that. But is sure helps to know that I’m not alone. You don’t have to proselytize to show your spirituality, but it sure doesn’t hurt to let the world know you exist, that you and your faith are not going away. Keep knocking, people. Keep knocking.
So there I was: spending my weekly hour with God, a practice we Catholics call Perpetual Adoration. In our little chapel there is always someone present; the monstrance holding the consecrated Eucharist must never be left unattended. My hour is on Friday, and provides an ideal time for reflection.
In this case, fighting post-prandial wooziness and shivering in response to the overzealous air conditioning, I found myself asking: Believing as I do in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, knowing that he is here with me, what should I ask Jesus? The answer came back quickly. My question would be, “What can I do for you?” And I knew just what he would reply: “You already know. It’s all in the book.”
The “book” is, of course, the Bible, and specifically, in the words Christ himself spoke. In these words we get all the direction we need for living our lives. So if, like me, you’ve ever asked what you could do for God, here are just a few ideas, culled from Christ’s own words:
- Give to those in need.
- Divest yourself of things: You don’t need them.
- Practice the Beatitudes.
- Speak of Jesus to other people.
- Love your neighbor. All the time. As much as you can.
- Follow Christ’s example.
- Trust in God.
- Forgive, forgive, forgive.
There’s more, of course — much more. It’s a lot like having a textbook that includes the answers to each chapter’s exercises in the back. Christ’s words are there for us to access; he gave us the answers we seek. All we have to do is read them. We’ve got the book. What more do we need?
It’s been a tough Lent: full of loss and anguish. Today, I lost the uncle I adored; later, I had to put my sweet cat Smudge to sleep. I am aware that I am walking the way of the cross. Every loss I feel, every sadness each of us experiences, is a mere drop in the pond compared to the sacrifice of our savior. Jesus walks before us, always, and carries the brunt of the load. Here’s a poem to help us remember.
At first, it is a relief;
you are off your feet.
The first nail is bloodless,
threaded between the bones
of your hand and the blue veins.
Painful, yes. A shock.
The second should be easier,
a known hurt.
It is not.
The pain bangs in your ears
so that you hardly notice the feet.
It is worse when they stand you up.
The flesh tears, the bones snap
like twigs, like a bush ablaze,
the blood now throbbing I AM, I AM.
You shift your feet, standing as best you can
on a nub of wood. Otherwise, your hands
would tear like tissue.
Body exposed, arms spread — how you long
to pull them in, to cover yourself.
Below, they see only a parody of welcome, an invitation
to poke and prod you, like devils
in this burning place of judgment.
They roll dice for your clothes,
made by your mother probably,
the thread spun from wool lovingly,
the last things you own.
She is there, too, her round face
flushed with heat. She wants to wail,
to rend the skies with her wailing.
Your eyes warn her: She is of no consequence
to them now, a woman, a beast,
but if she disturbs their games
they will beat her.
They long to beat her.
It is tiresome to wait for you to die.
In the end, they must break your legs.
In the end, they must pierce you with a lance,
offer your parched lips vinegar,
one last practical joke.
You cry for what seems furthest,
and then you die.
They will be startled
by the sudden darkness.
They will be afraid of the answering call
from the sky. But they will not understand.
No. Not yet.