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Christmas, In our minds, is supposed to be a time of joy and coming home to all that is right in the world. It is supposed to be a time when we can set aside all the confusion and hurt and pain and believe again. However, more often, it is a time when the brokenness of our lives and world actually become more apparent because of the contrast and our inability to manufacture joy in our own strength and power.
It is easy to romanticize Christmas as a respite or reprieve from all that hurts but if we reflect upon that first Christmas, we see that it wasn’t a respite or a getting away from pain but a movement through it all that actually leads us home rather than some sort of a manufactured, illusory, temporary reprieve. Consider these words from Brother Keith Nelson, SSJE:
“Mary and Joseph’s consent to the divine initiative was offered in the thick of public disapproval, private confusion, painful risk, and gathering scandal. Being human, they struggled. If they had not come undone – if they had not broken open, even just a little – the words of the angel would not have had room to land and to grow in their hearts. They offered their lives to this mystery, trusting in its power to do more for them than they could ask or imagine.”
In many ways, Mary and Joseph had to experience a deconstruction of previous categories to enter into the strange experience of being part of the incarnation. Make no mistake – it was strange and foreign to anything they’d ever know. Our willingness to be “undone” and embrace it in these strange and foreign times that are modern life is the path home. It is the path toward wholeness and healing and the birthing of something new in us. What might God be birthing in you? As you let go of previous categories and conceptions of what makes up “the good life,” may you begin to see life in the context of His life in you … shaping you and bringing a life that is more than you could have imagined … free from anything but the God who is the lover of your soul.
Lord, in Your mercy, may I be undone and broken open so that my heart can receive. Give me the strength to trust and hope in what You are doing, not what I can see in front of me. Amen.
A Sunday Morning Reflection
Colossians 1:17, 19: He is before all things, and in him all things hold together … in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
If I’m honest, I don’t know much with certainty … I can’t control things … I often feel lonely and lost. There are strong forces within me that want to fight … fight for certainty and control and acceptance. And again, if I’m honest, they all seem out of sight … beyond reach. As I allow myself to truly feel this reality and I give up the fight for even a moment, I begin to see. I see in every square inch of the universe that there is One who holds all that I long to hold. He holds all things, including me. I begin to see that I am a creature, not the creator. If I allow myself to get lost here … absorbed in this reality … I move past seeing into being. I begin to experience rest and freedom because all that I’ve longed for has been available all the time … in the hands of the One who holds all things. I may not know much but He does. I may not be able to control anything but He holds it all together. I may not feel like I fit but I fit in Him. To detach from my self-determination is the battle … a battle of release rather than grasping. O, maker of all things, may I rest here today … even for one moment. Tomorrow, maybe two. May your Holy Spirit prompt me to release when I’m tempted to grasp for things on my own rather than rest in You.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). John 20:11-16
He blesses every love that weeps and grieves
And now he blesses her who stood and wept
And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s
Last touching place, but watched as low light crept
Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs
A scatter of bright birdsong through the air.
She turns, but cannot focus through her tears,
Or recognize the Gardener standing there,
She hardly hears his gentle question, ‘Why,
Why are you weeping?’, or sees the play of light
That brightens as she chokes out her reply,
‘They took my love away, my day is night.’
An then she hears her name, she hear Love say
The Word that turns her night, and ours, to Day.
Easter dawn. a sonnet by Malcolm Guite
“But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.’”
Prayerfully reflect for a few minutes on the One who calls you by name. Imagine that you were there on that first Easter morning looking for Jesus. He calls you by name. How do you respond?
As we come to the end of this Lenten journey in the wilderness, we also come to a beginning. What will you leave behind? What will you take with you as you continue to journey with Jesus into this next season of your life with Him?
Finally, remember that you have been brought from death to life in Christ. “You died, and your life has been hidden with Christ in God. Whenever Christ, your life, should become manifest, then you also will become manifested with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:3-4) This pattern continues to be the pattern. Notice and participate with God in what He is doing in taking you from death to life over and over again. In Christ, you have the “working of His great might that He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 1:19-20)
“… for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.”
Song of Solomon 2:11–12
Lord, thank You for loving me and calling me by name in the middle of the wilderness. Thank You for the resurrection power at work in me. Give me eyes to see it and join in what You are doing. I trust You. I love You. I praise Your holy name. Amen.
And then we wait.
The work is done, and now we wait in humble, enduring trust.
On this Saturday, it is quiet. The intensity of Friday is no longer. The quiet, mixed with the lingering questions, provides a different kind of intensity. Saturday may feel a bit dark. The suffering of the wilderness is a companion of sorts, and then the quietness of waiting companions in a different way. Over the centuries, one of the most significant descriptions of silence and waiting is dark night of the soul. Dark night of the soul is an experience of forsakenness. We may hear echoes of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1)
A dark night of the soul is not the suffering itself but the silence that is present as we wait for something new, something unrevealed. The silence can be deafening unless we are able to rest into it, knowing that the pattern of death to life is surely at work. For the people of Israel, they understood there was a destination. They still struggled. For the disciples on that first Saturday between cross and resurrection, there was apparently a measure of disbelief. The disciples from Emmaus made their preparations to head back home. (cf. Luke 24:13) The eleven gathered together and had hardened their hearts. (cf. Mark 16:14)
As we walk through our own wilderness, we may find ourselves in a place of disbelief … even hardening our hearts … struggling to keep an open, trusting heart. In these moments, we may become aware that we have been trusting our own understanding rather than trusting God Himself. We want to know … to grasp what is happening! On Saturday, we know very little, if anything at all. We are invited to pray a prayer like “I don’t understand you, but I trust you.” (Basilea Schlink)
In Psalm 22, the words that follow the cry of feeling forsaken are these: “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.”
Pausing here for a moment: in the darkness of Saturday, can you let go of understanding and move toward trust? Don’t move along too quickly. Feel the weight of not knowing and rest in the One who does know … the One who holds your life. Can you sit with that word “yet” from Psalm 22? This leads us into a freedom in the empty space that makes what is coming even more profound.
Jacques Philippe, in Interior Freedom, suggests: “It is natural and easy to go along with pleasant situations that arise without our choosing them. It becomes a problem, obviously, when things are unpleasant, go against us, or make us suffer. But it is precisely then that, in order to become truly free, we are often called to choose to accept what we did not want, and even what we would not have wanted at any price. There is a paradoxical law of human life here: one cannot become truly free unless one accepts not always being free! To achieve true interior freedom, we must train ourselves to accept, peacefully and willingly, plenty of things that seem to contradict our freedom. This means consenting to our personal limitations, our weaknesses, our powerlessness, this or that situation that life imposes on us, and so on.”
On this in-between day, reflect on the ways that you are in-between … incomplete … unknowing. You are in this place because something has died. You have been led to stop fighting, stop avoiding, stop resisting. Now, you accept the emptiness because it means that God has graciously allowed death. As you prepare today for resurrection, remember that resurrection is meaningful because something has died. Hold onto that hope in order to fully experience the hope of Sunday.
Thomas Merton wrote, “No despair of ours can alter the reality of things or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there … we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.” Today, we wait at the edge of the dance floor in trust and in hope, and tomorrow we dance. Perhaps, we tap our foot a bit even today as we know what is coming.
Question for reflection: today, simply reflect on where you are in the movement from “death to life.” What is it like to be in the in-between? In this space, can you pray: “yet you are holy?”
Prayer: “God, I so much want to be in control. I want to be the master of my own destiny. Still, I know that you are saying: ‘Let me take you by the hand and lead you. Accept my love and trust that where I will bring you, the deepest desires of your heart will be fulfilled.’ Lord, open my hands to receive your gift of love. Amen.” (Henri Nouwen)
“… that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13
Friday … the most horrific day in human history as God in human flesh was brutally crucified. Yet, this Friday has been called good. Good … a word that is often flippantly thrown around to modify any number of things. And yet, that Friday was good. It is was good in the most true, pure, solid, holy way possible.
“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
His love for us displayed perfectly. And at the same time, this day was devastating for those first followers of Jesus. They were disoriented and displaced in the depths of wilderness. Confusion, doubt, despair, loss, and fear all mixed together. As we refuse to run from the suffering, we find ourselves in a waiting space … a liminal reality in which is can be difficult to know if it is day or night. The invitation in the desert season is trust which leads us to stay in that liminal space. This is what Paul refers to as “endurance” in 1 Corinthians 10. As we wait, we remain present and stay open to the work of God.
While the questions may be fast and fierce, we wait with God in trust … knowing that He is at work when we can’t see it. Even though they were told that this would happen, the disciples couldn’t piece it together. It was too much. It couldn’t fit into any of their categories. There was nothing about love, peace, and hope that seemed to connect with their Rabbi and Lord hanging on a cross. While we can see the whole picture in retrospect, it wasn’t so clear in the throes of such suffering. And so it is with us in our wilderness. Because we have the cross and resurrection as the center of faith, we can borrow from this paradigm to fuel our trust. Death to life (cross to resurrection) is the pattern. It is how God works.
Of course, we think: can’t there be an easier way? This was, of course, Jesus’ question in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before. (Luke 22:42) Anne Lamott suggests: “Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness, and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” Staying in the hurt, confusion, and pain allows the space for a shaping … a transformation. As we stay in the pain that our crosses produce, we are able to see the grace and provision of God.
When Jesus spoke with Nicodemus in John 3, He said something that draws upon the forty years in the wilderness: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (vs. 14–15) While it might have been a bit opaque in the moment, Jesus was clearly connecting the bronze serpents of Numbers 21 to the cross. What was happening in Numbers?
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (vs. 4–9)
Grace in the wilderness. Provision. And it required a trusting look – what Jesus calls belief in John 3. Can you believe that God is at work in your worst moments? Can you trust that what looks like the worst thing imaginable will soon be called good? Can you trust? Death always leads to resurrection. Always. Every time. Without exception.
In Christ, Sunday is always two days away. We experience losses (deaths) in this life that God uses to transform us in deeper and deeper experiences of His love. And, when we experience our ultimate death, God uses that to transform us as well. This is why the Apostle Paul can say that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8) When we settle into that reality, we are free. We are free to experience the pattern of death to life over and over again. And so, even in the pain and uncertainty, a little smile may emerge because of the knowledge that God is doing what He does.
The gospel writer John, who was also one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, referred to Himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved. (John 13; John 18; John 19; John 21) Certainly, Jesus loved all the disciples, but John’s identity as the beloved had been shaped so deeply that this is how he saw Himself. It is significant to note that when all the other disciples scattered as Jesus was arrested, tried, and taken to the cross, John endured … He stayed … He remained. He stayed in the pain and He experienced the love of Jesus in more profound ways than anyone else. His first New Testament letter is rooted in discussing the love of God. He wrote the statement: “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) He is love, and this is our trust in the wilderness.
It is His love that transform a disastrous Friday into a good one. Will you look at the cross and let it encourage you to endure? He is at work even as our world falls apart.
Question for reflection: how is God stirring your heart? What is He inviting on this Good Friday?
Prayer: Lord, as I look at the cross, I trust that just as the serpents in the wilderness were transformed into a healing agent, You take it all and transform it into healing and life. I look to the cross and believe. I know that in Him is life. Amen.
“but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13
The overall temptation in the wilderness is to escape, to run, to get out. It is a natural instinct, but as we have seen, God desires to be with us in the wilderness and He has His good purposes for how He shapes us in the desert. When frustrated, it is indeed tempting to say: I’m done. I’m out of here. At that point, we experience the temptation to manufacture a way of escape.
It is a grace when we begin to notice our impulse to escape. At that point, we have an opportunity to stop, slow down, and notice how God is at work and what He is doing. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, we are encouraged that God provides an escape as well, but the escape is from the temptation to escape the situation, not the situation itself. This brings us back once again to a concept we explored earlier in this Lenten journey: it is not about getting out, but trusting God in the wilderness. In the mysterious depths of God’s love, giving us an escape hatch from the situation is much less loving than giving us an escape from the temptation to escape. The point of being rescued from the temptation is that we would be able to endure … remain … hold fast.
As we come to this final day before Jesus would be crucified, the temptation to escape was perhaps never more heightened. But rather than run, Jesus kept walking step by step, being led by the Father. How He interacts with those around Him speaks volumes about the nature of the “escape from temptation.”
The first words of the description of this final night are often skipped over but notice the profound nature of what is expressed: “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1) He loved them to the end! Consider that for a moment. Rather than being self-focused and self-protective, He loved. Don’t miss the reality that Jesus existed in human flesh and was facing a gruesome death … and He loved them to the end. For us, the reflex under stress is usually to retreat, regroup, and devise a strategy for survival. Jesus walked toward His death with love. We are invited to follow in those footsteps.
The “escape” that God provides is not a strategy built around survival but love. Rather than retreating inward, we are invited to move out … to move into love. Jesus was immersed in the love of the Father which then directed His “strategy” for moving through the most challenging day of His life. As we “die before we die,” we are freed to leave the details of our earthly existence to good purposes of the Father rather than pouring ourselves into survival strategies. As we consider the movement this week of “death to life,” we begin to see that survival mode is a kind of death and as we release it we are ushered into life … a life defined by and directed by the love of God.
Jesus clearly expressed this love in washing the feet of His disciples as they moved toward the Passover meal together. Imagine: on the most difficult night of His earthly existence, He stopped, stooped, and served. He entrusted all of Himself to God the Father and loved others to the very end.
Then, in the context of this meal – which He clearly connected to His impending sacrificial death – He shared that all of His disciples would fall away. How He handles this is another staggering expression of love. He isn’t angry but simply says, “Don’t worry; I’ll see you in Galilee.” (Matthew 26:30-32) He wanted to prepare them and let them know that He knew and would still be there for them. He displayed incredible grace and provision even as He shared with Peter that He knew Peter would deny Him. He was preparing them all and considered them before Himself. As we entrust ourselves to God, we are freed to love. And so, this is the “escape” from the temptation to escape.
Finally, the dinner itself is a testimony that the way of the cross is the way of love. Ann Voskamp makes the observation: “On the night Jesus was betrayed — He gave thanks.” She goes on to say: “On the night when the prodigal sliced open your heart, on the night when you lost your job, when your person slammed out the door, and the toilet stopped flushing, and the dog gagged and puked all over the back mat, on the night when it looked like the dawn would never come again — there is always a choice, and why not choose what Jesus did? Because when Jesus had to fight through dark, staring right into the most impossible situation of the Cross — what does He do? Out of a universe of supernatural options at the tip of His fingers — what does Jesus do? On the night when Jesus was betrayed — He gave thanks. If Jesus can give thanks in that — you can give thanks in everything.”
Sit with that for a few moments. How does “dying before you die” free you to love and give thanks? What is stirring in your heart and mind as you consider Jesus’ steps on this Thursday night before the crucifixion?
Episcopal brother James Koester summarizes the invitation: “The way we are invited to walk is not an easy one. It involves towel, basin, and water. It requires us to bend, to stoop, and to kneel. It involves cross and nails, thorns and spear. It requires us to die. It involves tomb, and grave clothes. It requires us to lay everything aside, even our own lives. But for those who follow, it is life, and peace, and joy.”
Question for reflection: how is God shaping you and speaking to your heart?
Prayer: Lord, here I am in the middle of the wilderness and I notice my instinct for survival and self-protection, and I also notice my desire to follow the way of Jesus. Strengthen me through the Holy Spirit to release self-preoccupation and receive the grace to walk in love, to give thanks, to serve others. Amen.