Ashes Falling, Hope Rising

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Yesterday was Easter. For me, it was a day filled with warmth and love. The Chicago weather was bright and practically balmy–a herald of spring after one of the longest winters in recent memory. My husband Joey and I were able to spend the day worshipping at church, laughing and eating with family and friends. When I finally sank down into my bed last night and closed my eyes after a full day of activity, I was genuinely exhausted, but in a way that spoke of a satisfying sleep to come. I was worn out, not from tiresome tasks, but from hours in which my mind and heart were flooded with grace-filled, deeply joyful images: singing together with fellow believers of Christ’s resurrection; chattering across the table with friends at lunch; the joy of seeing my pregnant sister-in-law for the first time after learning that she and my brother-in-law are expecting their first child.

This morning, I awoke with a deep feeling of gratefulness and a lingering sense of hope. My proverbial cup “runneth over”. Yesterday had sung note after note over my soul of the miraculous way that new life can come after death. Of how hope can rise from ashes. How the familiar faces of family and friends–and their embrace–can be a healing balm for a broken heart.

And my heart has been broken. Many times. But the one closest to my heart right now is my separation from my church family.

I am still reeling from a three-month old split with the church where I worked, and where my husband and I worshipped and built friendships for nearly three years. If you have never invested your whole self in a church and left under difficult circumstances, just know that this kind of separation brings a particular kind of pain. The penetrating pain that comes from sudden and multiple blows to one’s deepest sense of identity and well-being: spiritual, vocational and social. The lingering sting that comes from losing a job and a church family in a single, swift turn of events. 

My grief comes because truly, something has died in my life. A part of my experience is being laid to rest and is no more. A chapter has come to a close, and I have to start over again. Finding a new job, church, and trying to understand somehow the way to find balance between maintaining former relationships and building new ones. Added to the sadness of relational loss is a frustrating sense of confusion and powerlessness.

In my deepest heart, what best describes what can be found there is a sense of feeling ostracized, cast off and forgotten. I have been separated from the place and people I once called “home”. I bear some of the blame in this, indeed. But I do not bear it all. My teeth are set on edge by the way this whole experience hearkens back to childhood memories I wish were long-forgotten, yet resonate still within the throes of my forever photo album.

Yet that is why my yesterday has given me so much hope for today and tomorrow.

Yesterday, I experienced personally the hope of new life in so many ways. I experienced bonds with people I didn’t know would exist just a few short years ago. I saw new life and happiness come to a man previously devastated. I saw light in the eyes of children with the broad road of the future before them. I witnessed a couple encouraging each other’s dreams. A mother and father providing for their children. A niece daydreaming with her uncle. My husband singing beautifully with his siblings around a piano.

These are God-given, grace-filled images. These are markers and moments that show me that God is still here, bringing new life to the dead. Bringing celebration where once there was only grief. These are glorious glints of God breathing life into my family, friends and me. This is God inviting me to look at Him and engage with Him and remember Him. To remember His Word and His promises, and His love. To remember that when Jesus died, the curtain was torn and I am no longer a separated-being. That I am not alone, forgotten and cast-off.

I am encouraged that there is hope rising out of the ashes of my life as I reflect on these markers that trumpet the anthem that God sings to my heart, reminding me of who He is, who I am and the future that is promised because of His work:

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
Strangers will shepherd your flocks;
foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
And you will be called priests of the Lord,
you will be named ministers of our God.
You will feed on the wealth of nations,
and in their riches you will boast.
 Instead of your shame
you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
and everlasting joy will be yours.
“For I, the Lord, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
and make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants will be known among the nations
and their offspring among the peoples.
All who see them will acknowledge
that they are a people the Lord has blessed.
I delight greatly in the Lord;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the soil makes the sprout come up
and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness
and praise spring up before all nations.
Isaiah 61

 As you reflect on Isaiah 61, on what I’ve written here, and Easter, what comes to mind for you? What are some memories you have or recent “eyewitness accounts” you have experienced in your life or the lives of those around you that give you hope for the future–even in the midst of devastation? Feel free to comment here, or on Facebook or Twitter. 

 

 

 

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“Good” Friday

Good Friday began at 9 a.m.

It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. 

Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”(which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” 
Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. 
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. 
The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
-Mark 15:21-39, New International Version
Each year, on this Friday prior to Easter, Christians across the globe pause to remember and reflect upon the death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary two thousand years ago.

Yet, what I’ve noticed within myself, and seemingly reflected in some around me as well, is the simmering discomfort that exists with the thought of steadily gazing into the meaning of this day, grappling with the unsettling feeling we get from meditating upon the ugliness–and sheer brutality and shame–that is associated with the implications of the cross.

Though I look eagerly forward to Easter–to Resurrection Sunday–I tend to want to skip Good Friday and its brutal sadness altogether.

Perhaps for some within the faith like me, the discomfort comes from reflecting upon the many messages and sermons we have listened to: The meaning of the day that has been interpreted for us by so many leaders, pastors/priests, and teachers who have come before us. We’ve been given less than subtle hints that we’re amongst the voices in the crowd shouting, “Crucify him!” We’ve been told that we’re the ones who put Jesus on the cross. We’ve been commanded to take this as a solemn day. A grief-filled day. One in which we focus on how terrible we are and how awful the death of the Messiah was and is. We get to go to church services again and experience the sadness and discomfort as a preacher describes in painstaking detail what it was like for Jesus to hang and bleed on the cross. What it was about us that put him there. Who we might have been in that scene. Often, we’re left with the call to reflect on what it’s like to face and make sense of, much as the early disciples did, what it was like to experience the emptiness, grief and confusion that must have ensued with the stark absence of the living Christ.

We enter “Good Friday” in darkness, and with that darkness we are left to sit with until that glorious relief of resurrection Sunday comes around. That dawning of a new day.

If this works for you and brings meaning to how you commemorate Good Friday, then by all means, do what works for you. Truly, there is no judgment here.

For me, it’s more than a little difficult to enter into and truly experience this day as it has been traditionally portrayed. I have often entered, endured and left Good Friday church services working vehemently to get my emotions to match the mood of the day. Trying to feel the grief that I’m supposed to feel at “putting my Savior on the cross” and attempting to manufacture a sense of shame from the part I know I play in the cosmic indictment that Jesus took upon himself on Calvary. I try to remember and name the sin that I am so guilty of on Friday, all the while forcing myself to avoid allowing my thoughts to wander to the hope of Sunday.

Amid all of this, I sometimes think, “Does it have to be this hard?

And my conscience answers, “It should be hard. Tolerate a little discomfort and suffering. Be a faithful follower. Jesus suffered and died for you. Surely you can endure a day of uncomfortable emotions when compared with the vastly more difficult suffering that Jesus endured.

But the messaging of my conscience, which has no doubt been influenced by prior teachers and mentors, while not being technically “wrong”–doesn’t give me the answer to the questions that my heart and soul need to wrestle with.

The truth is: I don’t want to look the crucified Jesus in the face. I don’t want to gaze steadily upon a brutalized Messiah–one whom I’ve never seen, yet I love. I don’t want to see my precious Savior brutalized, and take responsibility for the fact that I put him on the cross and sent him to the death he died. I don’t want to wallow like a masochist in the guilt, shame and grief of the human condition. Of my condition.

There. That’s what it is. I don’t want to face my condition. My need. Because my condition is one of need. And I’ve been taught not to need. All the while being inundated with my own sense of helplessness, awfulness, and emptiness. 

Good Friday is uncomfortable and fires up my “avoidance shield”, not because I don’t want to remember and be thankful for Jesus’ crucifixion, but because it forces me to deal with and face my deep sense of need.

To take it a step further, it causes me to wrestle with the places where my needs are unacknowledged, unspoken, and unmet. It causes me to peel off the cracked mask of competence I wear, and admit to the fact that there is some part of me–even the whole of me–who desperately needs saving, reconciling, and healing. Good Friday causes me to contemplate the fears of not being seen, of not being saved, and ultimately of being eternally ignored and isolated. It causes me to see that had I not been royally screwed up, perhaps the God-Son would not have had to suffer and die. It causes me to remember again how often my very existence has been shamed and blamed and ridiculed. It causes me to see my separation from God, and to meditate upon the possibility of eternal darkness.

Then I am asked to gaze upon my Savior and see all of that crushing Him. 

If, like me, you have enough baggage that could break the backs of a herd of weight-bearing camels, then perhaps pausing and working through the questions below will help you commemorate Good Friday.

It is my hope and prayer that you will be able to invite and encounter God along the way as you go to these deep places.

  1. What images or words bring me the most discomfort when hearing the story of Jesus being crucified? Why?
  2. What is the most significant need I’m experiencing in my life right now?
  3. What does God say about my needs?
  4. What impact does the Good Friday scene have on my sense of need/human need, and it being met or not?
  5. Is there a past need, wound, or memory that is stirred because of Jesus’ crucifixion that causes me to withdraw from this day?
  6. Am I in a season of grief, or is there something in my heart that needs grieving? If so, will I allow this day to provide some of the space I need to grieve?