Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday: The "In-Between" of the Triduum

In the chapel of St. John's hangs the Corpus Christi.  On either side of this rendering of the crucifixion are windows depicting Mary, His mother, and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.   This scene was part of the Passion Gospel of John read this evening:

   26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Jesus, as he is dying an agonizing death, is bringing together two people in a familial kinship.  Before this moment, Mother Mary and Disciple John may have been at most acquaintances.  But Jesus is providing the bond that draws two strangers together in Love.  

Another verse in the Gospel passage from tonight also caught my attention:

There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

John's Gospel doesn't elaborate on this moment in the way that Matthew and Luke feel the need to discuss the ones hanging along side Jesus.  Matthew would have us believe that the criminals, who we believe are justly accused as opposed to innocent Jesus, join with the crowds in mocking him.  Luke, on the other hand, gives us a more hope-filled moment where one criminal is mocking Christ, and the other criminal comes to Jesus' defense and asks Chris tto remember him.  And Jesus, again in the midst of his own physical pain, assures that criminal that today, he will be with Christ in paradise. 

Jesus' arms, stretched out on the hard wood of the cross, is reaching out to those condemned to die with him.  That reach, extending forward to us today, invites us, too, to die with Christ to all those various sins of failure to love more fully, pay attention to those around us, reach out to those in need.  This is the day of recongition, reconciliation, and repentance. 

It seems fitting, then, that Good Friday represents the day that hangs in-between Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil proclamation of that Christ has conquered death.   Its solemness and the hard wood of the cross remind us that we must endure and pass through this pain before we can celebrate on Saturday night/Sunday morning.  And even as we are in pain, we are not exempt from reaching our hands forth in Love.    

The Naked Altar: Maundy Thursday, 2014

Let the marathon begin.

Tonight marks the start of the period called the Triduum (I'm told it's pronounced "TRIJ-oo-um"), the three Holy Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter (which begins with the Easter Vigil usually late Saturday or very early Sunday morning).  For me, these are typically days of deep reflection and examination.  A sort of reckoning.  

This was my first time experiencing Maundy Thursday at St. Thomas in Thomasville, and the first time I'd participated in an adult choir singing at the service.  It ended up being a rather intimate time complete with the foot washing and the Eucharist.  Interesting that the collect emphasizes the latter, while the Gospel lesson emphasizes the former.  Our priest, Fr. Varas, made the point that the words of institution said at the Eucharist, "Do this in remembrance of me," should also be in our heads as we participated in ritual footwashing.  Just as with the Eucharist, cleanse the feet of your fellow parishioner and think, "Do this in remembrance of me." 

Those words stayed with me toward the end of the service.  After the Communion hymn, the choir was instructed to fan out among the congregation for the singing of "Sing my tongue, the glorious battle" done a cappella.  The cross, and the reserved sacrament, were processed around us as we sang.  As the final note was trailing off, the altar guild, half of whom were choir members, ascended the steps and began the ritual stripping of the altar.  Candle sticks, torches, crucifix, fair linen:  all taken away.  I kept waiting for someone to lead us in Psalm 22.  Certainly, someone would start that.  

No. We were to sit, facing forward, and watch all the finery go away.  

For me, this was the most moving part of the service.  I have been struck before when the altar is stripped.  But the enforced silence made it even more powerful to witness.  And it served as the metaphorical reminder that the process of Lent for me is one of a stripping away until we come to Good Friday and I am faced with seeing what has been hidden within me.  It is truly humbling.  

There was a ripping sound.  Apparently, the altar cloth is secured by Velcro.  That jarring noise recalled for me the way that Jesus is stripped of his clothes before his execution.  Our artists have always given our Lord some modesty by depicting him with a loin cloth on the cross.  But if the Scripture is to be believed, he wasn't even granted that dignity.  He was naked.  And now, so are we who witness this ritual.  I felt that way.

To be reconciled to God is to strip away all illusions of control and to trust that the promise given, "Remember I am with you always until the end of the age," is true.  Even as the hour of His ritual death approaches.

Do this in remembrance of me.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Theft and Loss in Holy Week

Well, I don't know about anyone else, but my Holy Week started off with my bicycle getting stolen from our carport, and the reality as I filed my tax extension that my business hit a big bump in the road this past year resulting in a loss of income.  The two are not necessarily related, except that they are.  I had been intending to sell my bike to recover some of the income I lost traveling to and from New Hampshire.  It was in good enough condition that I could ask a good price for it.  Now it's gone.

The theft happened while I was at St. John's leading Morning Prayer.  As I pulled into our driveway, I noticed my partner's motorcycle helmet and my bike helmet on the pavement of the carport.  I thought, "That's strange."  Then I realized that the bicycle, which had been holding these two items, was not there.  I ran into the house to ask my partner if someone had come to pick up the bike, or borrow it, or something.  "No?"  And so, a call to the police, a report filed.  And I was told I'm not likely to get it back.  Ever.

I was angry, not just about the theft, but that I had so stupidly left the bike unlocked (they also took the lock with them).  I was hurt that someone would just come up into our carport and take what was not theirs.  And I was frustrated that this happened just as I was making arrangements to put it up for sale.   My partner suggested that maybe a homeless person took the bike, and perhaps whoever stole it really needed it more than I did.  If that were the case, I might feel a little differently.  But it is just as likely that it was stolen for the purposes of a joy ride, and a trip to the pawn shop, so the thief might get a few bucks.

Theft and loss.  Those were the words that bubbled up to the surface for me as I lay in bed contemplating the state of my mind.   And so imagine how I felt as I listened attentively to the collect for the Wednesday in Holy Week this morning:

O Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his back to
the smiters and hid not his face from shame: Give us grace
to take joyfully the sufferings of the present time, in full
assurance of the glory that shall be revealed; through the same
Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with
thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I thought about that line of taking "joyfully the sufferings of the present time..."  and lined that up against my past 48 hours.  I can't say that I take any joy in "the sufferings of the present time" at all.  This prayer sounded to me almost like those martyrs of the early church who earnestly believed that they had to endure a gruesome death in order to achieve glory, a mentality that, in my 21st century ears, sounds an awful lot like the mindset of a religious zealot turned suicide bomber.

I then thought about this idea of Jesus being beaten and whether he really "joyfully" accepted those sufferings.  I somehow doubt it.  I believe that Jesus felt the injury, and while we don't know from Scripture if he cried, or shouted, or had any emotional response to being abused so badly.  I believe that each strike to his back could be seen in his face, even though he did not hide his face in shame.  How terrible to think that his hurt was so visible, and yet his abusers continued to beat him.  Those who are abusers, sometimes, seem to lose track of the humanity of those they are injuring.

So, what could be meant in "taking joy in the sufferings of the present time?"  I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm thinking that "joy," in this particular context,  is not meant to be "happy" or "light-hearted" or even having any kind of enjoyment and pleasure in what's happening at all.  "Joy," I'm thinking, may be a notion of letting go of fear or trepidation in times of trouble and sorrow, and recognizing that there is some truth in the old adage, "This too shall pass."  This collect has its roots in much of Isaiah 53 and the feelings of being "cut off" during the Babylonian exile.  But the prophet  notes that the suffering of Israel was not in vain and, despite what they may have thought, God has not abandoned them but is redeeming them even in the midst of their woe.  This, I'm thinking, is where "joy" might enter the picture. 

Put this along side my feelings of "theft" and "loss."  There is no pleasure in my bike getting stolen or the economic vagaries of being a self-employed massage therapist.  But to dwell in the hurt or anger or fear or trepidation will not get me anywhere.  A bike is a thing.  And my business goes through cycles of economic downturns and upswings.  But "theft" and "loss" go deeper for me at this time than either of those two things combined.  As I contemplated "theft" and "loss" I found that it took me back to my grief.  I have had to grieve the death of my mother, changes in some friendships, and the continuing sadness of leaving a church family.  Examining those things has pointed out to me how my grief, or more accurately, my hurt and my anger has been cutting me off from God.  How can I be reconciled to God when I am wallowing in the sufferings instead of  letting go?  I can shed tears, but I shouldn't drown in them.

Certainly, Christ is aware of the theft and loss that happens in life.  He knows about death, and he has been in that dark place of grief.  But Christ's life and death also point to his resurrection and ascension.  I'm counting on Him to be the reminder to me that the meanness of the world will hurt me, but it will not break me.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pesach Meets Monday in Holy Week 2014

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25He clogged* their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’

The Pursuers DrownedThen the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ 27So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. (Exodus 14:21-29)

At tables in Jewish homes this evening, families and friends are gathered to remember the deliverance of the Israelites out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt.  There will be ritual remembrances of having to leave quickly before their bread could rise, dipping parsley into salt water, a symbol of the tears shed by the Israelites and eating bitter herbs to recall the hardships endured under the Pharaoh who did not know their ancestor Joseph.

Did the escape from Egypt happen exactly as outlined in the Book of Exodus?  Not likely.  But Jews still tell this story because it isn’t so important whether it literally happened.  Its ultimate lesson is still the same: oppressed people will be made free and those who wield power unjustly will be toppled.  

We incorporate the Exodus story into our Easter Vigil as a reminder that we, too, were part of that history.  And while our stories diverged and traveled in different parallel paths, we both are striving to live our lives in the freedom that comes from the justice and mercy of God.  

The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ is the Christian’s deliverance from a different kind of slavery.  Not one in which we are fleeing a tyrant who forced hard labor of making bricks with less straw and longer work hours.  In Christ, we are graced with a freedom of our hearts, minds and bodies which can become enslaved to many other “gods”: money, status, power, or a belief that God’s love has limits. 

At the table, on this first night of Passover, the question is always posed to the youngest at the table,“How is this night different than other nights?”  This is how they begin the examination of their struggle for freedom from Pharoah, and recognizing that even in today’s world, they must still commit to the work of liberation for all.  We, in Christianity, might ask ourselves this same question, “How is this Week different than other weeks?” as we embark on this journey toward the cross of Good Friday, and the hope of the Resurrection on Sunday. 

“How will this Holy Week change me?” 

“How am I still living as a slave to old habits, patterns of thought, beliefs that no longer serve as helpful in my coming to know God through Christ?”

“How do my actions present a stumbling block to others in knowing God?” 

“How can I allow myself to experience spiritual freedom that comes through Christ?”

Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but
first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he
was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way
of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and
peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.
(this was the closing worship reflection I offered at the Education for Ministry group this evening.)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry,
and my words of distress?--Psalm 22:1

Today, we begin the sobering walk toward Good Friday.  Of course, in Episcopal Churches across the country, we plowed right through the week in a span of 20 minutes.  A celebratory walk inside the church with palms and singing, "Hosanna! Hosanna!" goes quickly depressive when we launch into the Passion Gospel reading in which we crucify Christ.  I have already made my thoughts known on this one in past entries, and my theological viewpoint hasn't changed: I don't care if it's convenient for people to get Good Friday on Palm Sunday, so they don't have to come back to church at the end of the week.  If the chuch can't communicate to its people why this is an important set of Holy Days, and important enough for them to come back one extra time, then the church is undermining its own relevance.

That gripe aside, when I thought of the reading today, and I thought about Jesus dying in a most grusome and agonizing way, I thought those words of the start of Psalm 22: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

I suppose Jesus could have been lifing those words upward toward God, the Father who sent him.  He could be lodging his complaint against the Almighty for leaving him to this fate.  He could be feeling quite alone in this time.

I also wondered if those words are directed to his disciples.  They beat feet when they realized that the authorities were coming for Jesus rather than face guilt-by-association and wind up nailed to a tree, too.  

And then I thought how these words of Jesus and the psalmist not only speak for us (afterall, how many times has anyone of us felt abandoned at a time of need?); these words speak to us.  They level a certain accusation at us for our own behavior and the ways that we, who profess to love and follow Christ, veer off the path to follow any number of other desires.  To actually follow Christ requires an emptying of our self, not something that is encouraged or rewarded in the larger society... and not practiced very often even in the church.  This walk toward the cross is a painful reminder for me of how I can forsake Christ simply by not remembering his commandment to love as he has loved, and by failing to pay attention to the least among us.

My God, My God, I don't know why I have forsaken you.  Forgive me for when I have failed to follow you and your path and recognize your presence which is nearer than I think.   May I spend this week paying attention to what it is you ask of me, and striving to follow you, even to the cross.  Because the cross is never the end of the story but the beginning of something new.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Love is All Around: Pride Interfaith 2014

It's the second week of April; must be time for LGBTQ Pride! 

Yes, I know. Pride is supposed to happen in June, perhaps in October to coincide with National Coming Out Day.  But Tallahassee's organizers decided a while ago that they wanted to grab the "early bird" designation in deference to the students at FSU, FAMU and TCC, as well as holding our celebration when it isn't the sweltering sauna of Tallahassee summer.  And so, we are all geared up for Pride, and it's theme of "Feel the Love."

One of the hallmarks for our local pride celebration is the annual interfaith service, dubbed "Colors of Faith."  Representatives from various traditions come together to craft a liturgy, and lead a celebration of the Spirit for the community.  This year, our combined efforts came from the Unitarian Universalist Church (who hosted), Gentle Shepherd MCC, United Church of Christ, Red Hills Pagan Council, Temple Israel, Unity Eastside and the Episcopal Church.  The program was mostly music mixed in with readings and stories of our history as LGBTQ people who have faced many obstacles in our path toward acceptance as part of the human family.  While we acknowledge that many have suffered from difficulties encountered with families, friends, even our houses of worship, what this service provides is a sacred space where no matter who you are or what your individual story may be, you are invited in to meet the Holy.  And for those most deeply wounded by their faith family, this may be the one chance to feel truly embraced in the arms of Love.

For our Episcopal part, we offered up a reading our Bishop Gene Robinson's book, "God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage."  We didn't get into the marriage equality issue.  Instead, the excerpt discusses the nature of God in the work of creation and how that fits with the spiritual selves of LGBTQ people:

“In creation, God does an amazing thing.  God creates humankind and gives us free will.  We are free to love God back—or not.  This is an astoundingly vulnerable action on God’s part: to create humankind, to desire a relationship with us, indeed (if Scripture is to be believed) craving a relationship with us, and at the same time giving us the freedom to be in relationship or not.  Just think of human parents, and how we desire a good, right, and loving relationship with our own children—and how vulnerable and sad we feel when it doesn’t happen.  So too God has made God’s self  vulnerable in creating us free.  In doing so, God is disclosing who and what is at the center of all that is…..

It seems to me then that vulnerability and self-disclosure are at the heart of what we understand about the nature of God.  And the reason I believe gay and lesbian people are spiritual people is that we too have participated in vulnerability and self-disclosure, especially in the process of coming-out.  When someone shares with you who they really, really are, it is a special offering. To do so when it risks rejection is a profound, holy gift.

Someone who comes out as gay puts himself in a very vulnerable position, not knowing how that new knowledge will affect relationships.  It may destroy a friendship.  It may cause a parent to throw her own child out onto the streets.  It may cause a child to reject her gay dad.  But it is an act of self-disclosure that makes true relationship possible.  This kind of vulnerability and self-disclosure  I would label “of God”  That is, it participates in the very deepest understanding of what we know about God.”—pp107-109

To punctuate this passage, we used these lines from the First Letter of John:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also."

Songs of praise of love, and the earth, Adonai  God were also all part of the celebration.  The best part: we didn't waste time with introducing ourselves and saying who we were and how wonderfully open and affirming our congregations are, etc. etc.   We don't need to say these things.  We just need to be with one another.  Interfaith work reflects true faith when we can find our common language to work side by side for Love.  It felt good to see that come together in our service this year.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reconciliation and Remembering

Today was not an easy day.  The readings for this Sunday included the death and raising from the dead of Lazarus and the valley of the dry bones from Ezekiel.  OK, neither of those are inherently tough readings, and actually they embody much hope in the redeeming works of God.  I should be left with a sense that God will reconcile and remember us always.  He will bring us to new life and lift us up out of the pit.  I've written about that take on the raising of Lazarus in a reflection on the words to "unbind him."

But today, as I listened to that Gospel lesson, the one I identified with the most in the story was Martha.  Her grief touched my own, and I reflected upon her situation.  Her brother is dead.  He'd fallen ill and she had really believed that if Jesus had arrived a few days earlier, all this would have been just a bad dream.  But things didn't work out that way.  I heard in Martha those opening words of our psalm from this morning:

"Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication."

This is how I have felt over the past two months.  Out of the depths, I have called out to God: "Hear my voice!"  I have had moments of thinking that I wanted to tell my mom something, or get her input on an idea.  And that's when I am reminded that she's gone, and she's been gone to me, in that way, since March 27, 2013.  There wasn't a whole lot that she could offer me over the phone any more, and "So so so" didn't mean much without being able to see her facial expression.  But death puts an end to even the opportunity to have her smile and pat my hand.

Another part of the Gospel story also rang true to my own experience.  Martha went out to meet Jesus.  Last week, after the blind man was tossed out of his synagogue, Jesus went to meet him, an illustration of how Jesus will seek after us.  Today, however, Jesus hasn't quite arrived to the house and Martha has gone to him.   She wails to him her fervent cry of "Why? Why did this happen? Why did you delay? Where the hell were you when he needed you?!?!"  

I have been in this space, too.  I have found that I have actively sought out Christ to complain about everything from my sorrow at my mom's death to a constant plea of "Help Me!" every time I encounter another person who hasn't heard that she's dead and they innocently ask, "How's your mother?"  As I have mentioned before, Jesus seems to be the only one who totally gets the pain and the anguish in my heart.  He is the only one who knows how to sit shiva with those who weep and mourn.  And, just as with Martha, he is the one who is reminding me, "I am resurrection and I am life."  Yesterday in Morning Prayer, we read the story of Exodus with Moses and the burning bush.  We know that the name of God, as told to Moses, is "I am."  So, it seems to me, that God is resurrection; God is life.  Belief in God by believing that Jesus speaks as one who is completely at one with the One serves not only to unbind Lazarus; it will free Martha, her sister Mary, and me, as well.

Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief.