Lent Day 45: ANSWER (revised)

In the Lenten season, today is sometimes called Good Friday or Holy Friday. It’s also known as the Day of Anunciation of our Lord. Today many faith communities hold vigil through the long hours we believe Jesus hung on the cross during his execution, dying. He called out to God from the cross. And then for a few days, his human voice was silenced by death and entombment.

How ironic that the word rising up in today’s texts is ANSWER. God is dying today. God is being silenced today. Like those first followers, we hold vigil through the emptiness and absence, where presence was once available. We are keeping watch through the hours when God couldn’t stand with us and answer us, not in the way we expected.

How often have we felt that same isolation and sense of abandonment? Of being left alone in the middle of chaos, without any calm or clarity, without any sense of support or solidarity? This feeling of being left behind, being left alone, to fend for ourselves and mourn and hurt and try to find a way to go on, is part of the Holy Week experience. It is part of the human experience.

On Easter Sunday, we will celebrate the truth that emptiness and absence are good news. That a tomb, once filled with a corpse, is empty. That God isn’t in the tomb anymore, but God’s love and grace are vital, real, palpable and returning to us.

On Good and Holy Friday, when we call out, it seems as if God isn’t answering. And while that may not be true, it feels like our lived reality. I’ve met plenty of people, in the hospital or in their own homes or even in the church sanctuary, who feel abandoned by God.

In the Book of Esther, Hebrew scholars point out that the name of God isn’t mentioned even once, yet a Jewish woman becomes a heroine, saving her people at risk of her own life. Looking at the text, the rabbis say that this is a metaphor for the times when God has been absent from the reality of Jewish lives, such as when they were in exile. And yet the people remained faithful to their covenant with God, worshipping and considering themselves chosen, trusting that God’s hand would move, that God’s power and presence would be revealed, and that their side of the relationship could be upheld, even when God wasn’t evident in the events of that story and the oppression they were experiencing. They found God in their deliverance.

During our Lenten explorations, we have considered praying as an act of dialogue with Godself. Yesterday I affirmed, again, my belief that God listens and ANSWERS.

We believe, in our faith tradition, that God continues to share revelations with people today. God’s answers didn’t end in the times recorded in the Bible. God listens and answers now, too. God speaks into our lives in this era, just as God spoke thousands of years ago.

Some of my colleagues hear God’s voice or God’s messengers, either as audible voices, internal leadings, or a dream or other form of message. Personally I often experience God’s influence through life events, and have to look backwards over the past, to identify the pattern of God’s response. I often recognize God’s tangible answer in hindsight.

Listening, and being in dialogue with God, takes practice. Like any form of spiritual exercise, it needs repetition and regular use to be most available to us.

On the other hand, God can hear our most desperate cries, even when we’re not usually in the habit of calling out to God. Anyone can pray. Any words will do. And no words are necessary. Prayer is also a bodily act. It’s an incarnate practice.  Just scream. Just hum. Just sigh. Just walk or dance or rock or hug or kneel or lay down or weep or laugh.

pray_for_others_shutterstock_92688232_1The other side of this ANSWER is that when God calls, we are asked to ANSWER. To respond.

So another question we may want consider is, when God calls out to us, do we answer, too? Are we even listening? Trust me, that’s a question I pose to myself regularly, as I discern my way in ministry.

Our relationship is reciprocal, at its best. God seeks us, we seek God. God listens, we listen back. We cry out, God responds. God calls, we answer.

Of course, we always have the choice. We can ignore the call. We can turn away, opting not to answer. Or we can turn toward the call, and say, YES.

Sometimes, like the Friday when we remember Jesus’ death, we are asked to persist through the silence. Raise our voices. Reach out. Seek connection with God. We may feel as if we’re being ignored or forgotten. We may not hear the reply right away. Yet assuredly, God is listening, and God will answer.

Selections from today’s lectionary:

  • Isaiah 52:15 — So he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
  • Isaiah 53:1 — Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
  • Isaiah 53:8 — All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way,
    and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
  • Psalm 22: 2 — O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
  • Psalm 22: 8 —  “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
  • Psalm 22: 24 —  For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
  • Hebrews 10: 8a — Then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.”
  • Hebrews 10: 16-17 — “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord:
    I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,”  he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
  • Hebrews 10: 23  — Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.
  • John 18:4-5 — Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.”
  • John 18:23 —  Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”
  • John 18:37 —  Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Lent Day 43: SHAME

Today’s texts discuss SHAME. Our sacred texts report SHAME inflicted by others. They describe being brought low by internal turmoil or worldly conflict.

shameSHAME is a primal emotion and a powerful, but destructive motivator, causing us to alter behaviors and conform to societal standards. Read more about it in Psychology Today. SHAME can inflict damage, pushing and pulling us in directions that often lead away from wholeness and integrity, even when the SHAME we feel isn’t of our own making. It can be blunt or subtle. SHAME may be heaped on us by social norms and cultural expectations. It is also internalized and self-inflicted.

SHAME becomes a critical, editorial voice in our psyches. It negates our capacity to believe in and feel our worth and value as human beings.

Yesterday we discussed STRENGTH. And remarked that becoming vulnerable, confessing even those moments and experiences about which we are ashamed, can be a form of finding strength. Of course, sharing experiences about which we feel SHAME ought to be done gingerly and with some safety in the process. Victims of other people’s abuse and oppression or systemic violence and injustice can also be hurt by openly sharing their experiences publicly, unless they are prepared to do so, and the community can receive such stories supportively and tenderly. So such sharing ought to be practices and have boundaries.

Yet such disclosures of difficult stories, about which we feel SHAME, often help others who otherwise continue to keep secrets and hide parts of themselves about which they are ashamed. AA is a wonderful example of openly sharing one’s not-best moments about one’s self. The community that receives the story will listen without contradicting the speaker. The listeners do so withour judgment, and offer support and appreciation for the sharing.

Listening, bearing witness, and simply being present as a person process these emotions is the most powerful act of solidarity we can offer. This is tough to do, yet a potent response.

When those we love feel SHAME, we often want to fix the problem, or negate it. We rush to point out all the reasons why that skewed self-perception is incorrect, inaccurate, or invalid. Huffington Post writes briefly but compellingly about this habit of wanting to fix problems. Trying to persuade someone of his or her own worth, and countering those shame-filled stories, doesn’t help.

shame2Best practice? Start by simply listening and receiving the story. Be with the person expressing and enduring the SHAME.

Sometimes SHAME is buried deeply. And it drives us toward avoidance behavior and fear-based decision-making or coping mechanisms. Some SHAME may take time to uncover in ourselves. We can hide it from ourselves, too.

Becoming self-aware and identifying feelings of SHAME, and their triggers, is a long journey of self-discovery. Sometimes confiding feelings of SHAME begins in a  confidential, intimate setting, with a trusted companion or counselor or mentor. Or sometimes in a circle of other people with similar experiences, who are also sharing. Or sometime it happens through acts such as journaling, spoken only to a blank and non-judgmental page.

Yet ultimately, the power of sharing stories rooted in SHAME is that someone else listens and acknowledges their validity. Someone else reflects back the value of our human identity.

Putting such feelings into spaces and times of prayer and contemplation, and entrusting them to God, also offers a healing process. We can open ourselves, through prayer. We can offer honesty and vulnerability. Such expression of SHAME mitigates the power of SHAME over us. that liberates and releases us from this emotion, and allows us to know ourselves as worthy of love and redemption, and God’s love.

Listening is a spiritual practice. Receiving another’s story, and helping them find the language for their experience of SHAME, is a powerful way to be a companion on this Lenten journey. In today’s texts, even Jesus shares his troubles with his companions, unburdening himself along the way, believing they are strong enough, at least some of the time, to hear and honor what he shares with them. At other times, such as in the Garden of Gethsemane, he offers all of his feelings to Godself in prayer and dialogue.

SHAME is part of the brokenness of our human condition. Yet we are more than our SHAME. Part of our worship experience, our encounter with the sacred, is to entrust our SHAME into the keeping of holy love and mercy. Our SHAME is not enough to separate us from Godself. God loves every part of us, including our hurt and wounded parts.

Excerpts from today’s lectionary passages:

  • Isaiah 50: 7 — The Lord God helps me;  therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
  • Psalms 70:2 — Let those be put to shame and confusion who seek my life.
  • Hebrews 12: 1-2 — Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
  • John 13: 21 — After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

Lent Day 37: DEATH

deathDEATH, the theme that is common to the texts today, technically means cessation of life. It is the end of breath and heartbeat and brain activity. For some people, it implies cessation of being. Our faith promises a different outcome … that our being endures, perhaps in another form.

DEATH often means the ‘enemy’ in our culture. It is considered the enemy, even in Biblical imagery. Death is also considered a failure, when we think of science or medicine.

In some traditions, death becomes a teacher, a mentor, and a way of understanding the fullness of our mortality. This has become more true through hospice and palliative care in our own society, too.

Certainly death has something to teach us. In part, it reminds us to live fully while we are in this world, on this earth. Claim our time with joy and intentionality.

The imminence of our own endings is one of the lessons of Lent. We journey in the shadow of our own human frailty, brokenness and vulnerability. And our whole Christian story walks toward Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans.

Yet the story doesn’t end there. It ends with post-resurrection sightings. With people who broke bread with the Messiah after he died and returned to us. The story ends with the hope of a life beyond death.

Death, as we say, is not the final word. Yet it is a word that we often, nowadays, fear. We use euphemisms, like “passed away” or “lost” or “gone.”

And I would say that one of our human challenges is to find a way to know that DEATH is part of our human experience. Once more, let it become a natural part of our journey, just like childbirth.

We may not want or welcome DEATH. Yet in the past few hundred years, we have become so afraid of death, we have lost language and rituals that make it part of our cultural experience. We tend to isolate those who are dying. We want people to snap out of it, or hide grief, and grieving.

We often medicalize the experience of dying. We offer escalating interventions, which may or may not gain us time, but may also compromise the quality of ouyr loved ones’ remaining time. Finding a different equilibrium is one of the ways of being we may be called to seek in these contemporary times.

More people have surgeries in the last week of their lives, and fully half of all medical expenses occur in the last six months of human lifespans, due to the forms of life-extending treatments and interventions that are possible.

Too often such endings mean that people die in institutions. Yet most people, when asked, say they’d like to die at home.

We will all die. And yet we are promised life beyond death.

Meanwhile, consider entering into conversation about this reality with the more vulnerable members of our family and community. If the subject comes up, explore it. Find out what people hope for the remainder of their lives. And what they fear. What gives meaning and purpose to life, what is worth trading away for more time, and what is worth preserving?

If you want to have a conversation, consider these resources:

Excerpts from today’s lectionary:

  • Isaiah 53:12a — Because he poured out himself to death,  and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many,  and made intercession for the transgressors.
  • Hebrews 2:9 — But we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Lent Day 31: WITNESSES

Today one of the themes that runs through the Biblical texts is WITNESSES.

I wrotFake Dictionary, Dictionary definition of the word witness.e much earlier in the season about bearing witness, which is an ethical act of seeing what is uncomfortable and unjust, and not looking away. That merely by being present, naming and watching what is before our eyes and understanding, we perform an act of compassion and justice. In this way, we are truth-tellers. We do not lie to ourselves or to a system that is broken. We acknowledge what is happening, and we refuse to remain blind and ignorant to it.

Our church has read “Waking Up White” by Debby Irving. Even this is an act of WITNESS. Through such exploration, we listen to how Debby bears witness, and along the way, ideally we become more self-aware. This is one step toward becoming accountable for the underlying privilege of ‘whiteness’ in a society that thinks of Caucasian identity — and better access to influence and resources — as a neutral value, a baseline that all people experience, which is simply untrue. It is an alignment, in some ways, with movements such as Black Lives Matter, and engaging in social discourse about issues such as racism.

Social media has become a tool that sometimes allows us to bear witness. Sometimes people trapped inside a situation, such as refugees caught behind combat lines, or snared in a camp, tell their stories. They cannot cross the boundaries that imprison them, but their stories escape through cell phones and recordings and videos. This has become the project of some Rotary International Peace fellows or club-sponsored advocates. They can use tools to provide access to resources, a way to get help, even as victims share their stories.

We can also bear witness when those we love are suffering or celebrating. We can be present to them, which is perhaps the greatest gift of all, simply to be engaged in the relationship.

In the passage from Isaiah, God calls upon people with insight and understanding to be truth-telling witnesses. In the Psalm, the fortunes of Israel become a public account of God’s power and benevolence: the entire nation becomes a witness to that relationship. And in Philippians, Paul sends a messenger to an early Christian community, to serve and minister with and among them.

We can WITNESS through words. And by the way we live.

WITNESS, like so many words this season, implies a relationship. We are hearing and telling the story of someone. We are sharing an account of a particular time and place in history.

Of course, the voices and experiences of different people share many facets of truth and reality with us. A significant part of WITNESSING is to actively listen: to pay attention and remain open. As we listen and see, we receive what is offered, and reflect it back, as opposed to having our own agenda and narrative about what we see and hear.

witness_artistcollageSometimes bearing witness doesn’t seem like its enough. After all, we don’t necessarily change material circumstances through this act.

So does it matter, just being present? Simply keeping company along the way? Yes. Humans are social creatures. Having one’s story and experience validated when we share these narratives, and having someone else listen, observe, and acknowledge that we are here and this is happening, can make all the difference.

Bearing witness is a spiritual practice.

Excerpts from today’s lectionary:

  • Psalm 126: Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”
    Isaiah 43:8 — Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears!
  • Isaiah 43:9b — Let them bring their witnesses to justify them, and let them hear and say, “It is true.”
  • Isaiah 43:10 — You are my witnesses, says the Lord,and my servant whom I have chosen,so that you may know and believe me  and understand that I am he.
  • Philippians 2:25 — Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need.


Lent Day 30: HOPE

hope_by_licks_ninjas2HOPE rises up as a theme and as a word in today’s readings. HOPE is a seedling, planted inside us. HOPE is a practice, that we cultivate with regular care and use so that we can call on it when we’re in darker, more desperate times. HOPE is a relationship with a creative power, a loving presence, beyond ourselves, so we’re not “in this” alone. HOPE fosters trust that something more is possible.

HOPE sounds frothy. Easy to say, not so easy to do.

And that’s true. How do you HOPE when everything has gone wrong? When life and death is at stake, and nothing is fair, or just? When it’s not only yourself at risk, but those most beloved, and more vulnerable, and you cannot protect them? How do you HOPE, when you have no power or authority or resources to change circumstances or events to create better outcomes? When you cannot restore integrity and dignity to the situation? How do you HOPE, when you’re overcome, overwhelmed, and out of control?

hope_by_burythereckless-d6vz97yThe Jewish writer Victor Frankl, reflecting on the human capacity for survival and belief in the face of catastrophic events like the Holocaust, calls humans “‘why-shaped beings’ … on a continual journey of discovery.” Hospice physician Dr. Ira Byock paraphrases the work of Victor Frankl, observing that people who are dying do not suffer so much due to bodily changes or pain, or what Frankl calls the ‘how.’ People suffer due to loss of purpose, meaning, or what Frankl calls ‘why.’

HOPE comes from finding a sense of purpose or meaning. HOPE is the ‘why’ that motivates humans to endure, sometimes beyond imagination.

Or as the poet Emily Dickinson so famously wrote:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Lines from this poem, illustrated by an artist who painted a wall of birds, spans the pedestrian bridge connecting Dana Farber Cancer Center and Brigham & Women Hospital. It creates a passage of HOPE for people living with life-limiting illnesses. My daughter and I often lingered there, watching the painter as the images came alive, and for years after, as I wheeled her to treatments that might extend and enrich her life a while longer.
Sometimes our own contemporary writers and thinkers and activists are prophets, too. People like Mother Theresa or Victor Frankl, or a poet like Emily Dickinson, see and touch something sacred. And share those insights with us, and help us walk the Way of Christ, 2,000 years later.

We are asked, over and over in Hebrew scriptures and Gospel passages, to choose and act from a place of HOPE and resilience instead of fear. When we act and speak out of fear, we’re often making imbalanced choices that are likely to hurt ourselves or someone else. Our faith balances out fear with hope and love.

Of course, fear has its place in humans; it keeps us alive in its most primal form. Fear isn’t wrong, but it has counterparts through hope, compassion, and resilience that we also need to consider and engage.

Our faith grows out of grappling with and acknowledging fear. I mentioned, in an earlier posting, that even saints like Mother Theresa and St. John of the Cross have known fear and depression and dark times in their lives. They have wrestled with those conditions, and named them, and turned them over to God. They have felt alone, isolated, emptied of all hope, and pushed through a time of darkness that seems endless. And yet, such people, in ancient times and modern days, have found their way back to a more centered and connected sense of self and being, even in the face of seemingly-insurmountable odds.

Sometimes hope arrives when we continue to practice our beliefs and rituals, even when they seem empty or hollow. Our practices of faith, such as prayer or working ethically in the world — even when it seems we cannot change situations and systems in meaningful ways through our own efforts — create the channel, the conduit, that allows the Spirit to reach us.

Ultimately, we aren’t asked or expected to pray or work alone. We are invited to do it in partnership with the Spirit.

Hope grows through connection versus isolation. Hope is turning a hand to what needs to be done, even if it’s a small portion of the greater change that we’re seeking to create. Hope is choosing for integrity and wellbeing, not just for ourselves, but for others, too. Sometimes hope is the capacity to choose at all.

Excerpts from today’s lectionary passages:

  • Psalm 126:5-6 — May those who sow in tears  reap with shouts of joy.Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,shall come home with shouts of joy,carrying their sheaves.
  • Isaiah 43:1 — Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
  • Isaiah 43:5a — Do not fear, for I am with you.
  • Philippians 2: 23-24– I hope therefore to send him as soon as I see how things go with me; and I trust in the Lord that I will also come soon.

Lent Day 18: FRUIT

Today’s passages from the Bible talk about sustainable crops with terms such as yield, grapes, and fruit. Human life and human spirit are spoken about through metaphor.

From living trees and vines, we grow. Alternately, without care, we may wither or fall and rot. Interestingly, the Gospel passage also talks about our unique gifts and blessings. Each tree bears its own type of fruit.

black-and-white-grapes-sally-bauerThe kingdom of God is compared to a vineyard, and we’re reminded about the tenderness with which it is domesticated and cultivated. It is surrounded by hedges, fed and watered, pruned and watched. Each of us, a vine or tree in this field or orchard, becomes the ‘pleasant planting’ of God’s love, commitment, and grace.

Without such vigilant care, we are trampled and devoured, and we do not yield a harvest that changes the world.

Seasons pass in anticipation of what will bud and grow. Yet sometimes the one who planted us is surprised by the harvest.

Of course, God may promise such care, but we are also the hands and feet, hearts and mind of God in the world. Whereas Christ may be the leading gardener, isn’t it wonderful to imagine ourselves as the gardeners of our communities and our lives? We are invited to tend and nurture ourselves, each other, and this world.

What fruit do you bear? What presence do you offer, rooted in God’s kingdom, right here on earth? What surprises do you offer to God and this world?

And what aspects of yourself and your life require additional tending, in the form of  self-compassion, self-care or perhaps self-discipline?

Excerpts from today’s lectionary:

  • Isaiah 5: 4 — When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
  • Isaiah 5: 7 —
    For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
    and the people of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
    he expected justice,
    but saw bloodshed;
    but heard a cry!
  • Luke 63: 43-44 — No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit.