Category Archives: Lent and Holy Week

Ash Wednesday: Showered with Stars

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“…For dust you are and to dust you will return.”—Genesis 3:19

Halfway through the line I almost lost it. Until that moment I’d been in a ritual groove, looking my parishioners in the eye, dusting them with ashes, calmly delivering the ancient admonition, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.” One by one they came, listened, received. But halfway through I faltered.

It wasn’t that I suddenly realized the gravity of what I was telling them, that they were breathtakingly fragile, that at any moment they could dissolve into elemental bits, that someday they would. I’d been feeling the heft of that truth all evening.

So no, it wasn’t that I was giving them fatal news. It was that they wanted to hear it. It was that they’d lined up to hear it of their own free will. They knew exactly what the message was going to be, and still they inched their way towards the messenger.

My knees went wobbly as water. I wanted to wave them off, tell them they didn’t have to come, they could go sit down. But I knew no one would. That was the most stunning thing: even if I’d said it, I knew no one would.

So I regrouped, kept tracing charred crosses, kept saying the old words. And they kept coming, one after another, offering me their foreheads with the trust of a child.

And when I told them they would die, some nodded. Some said amen. Some even smiled; they said thank you, as if instead of sentencing them to death, I’d showered them with stars.

Prayer

Holy One, may I live this Lent in bare truth, total trust, and knowing joy; for in life and in death I belong to you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Always Contrite

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“You will not turn away, O God, from a broken and contrite heart.”—Psalm 51:17

The psalmist says that God will not spurn a contrite heart, but he might just as truthfully say that God cannot turn from such a heart. There’s something about a heart that’s been shattered, opened, rendered contrite and pliable by failure, that God cannot resist.

If that’s true, it makes me think it’d be a good thing to adopt contrition as a way of life, not just an occasional shamed response to a particular sin committed. The best heart to have would be an always contrite heart.

Not a heart always wallowing in guilt, mind you. Not a perpetually self-abasing or gloomily self-loathing heart. No wailing, breast-beating, or sackcloth and ashes. Just a heart that isn’t shocked by its own mistakes, but assumes them as a baseline human fact. A heart that, in a mysterious way of speaking, welcomes frailty as a God-magnet. A heart that knows failure is one of the best friends the soul could have.

Sr. Joan Chittister says we would do well to embrace the “sanctifying character of our mistakes.” To resist is to miss a mystery, and a biblical truth—our sins may make us holier than our virtues ever will.

An aware heart always on its knees, always truthful about its lack, always surrendered to what Mark Heim calls ‘the vast accomplished grace around us,’ and therefore always intimately accompanied by the Mercy within mercy inside mercy who is God—that’s the joyous life the penitent psalmist prays for. It’s the life I pray for too.

And you?

Prayer

Break my heart with your great mercy, O God, and be always near my always broken heart.

 

Passing Guests

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“Teach me, O God, how fleeting my life is.

Hear my prayer, listen to my cry;

for I am your passing guest…,

like all who have gone before me.”— Psalm 39:12

Whenever I’m herded onto a jetliner with a couple hundred other uncomfortable, prickly travelers, or crammed into a subway full of bleary commuters, or crushed in any crowd where a crash or a derailment or a shooting or a stampede could suddenly kill us all, I find myself thinking, “These are the people I may die with today.”

I look intently at them, eavesdrop on their conversations, imagine their backstories. “You and I may die together today,” I say to them in my inmost heart.

Does that sound morbid? Maybe it is, but it helps me be human. The more I see others as people I might die with, the harder it is to be rude and judgmental and impatient, my usual behavior in hordes. There’s something pathos-inducing about this thought. It elicits a softening.

We’re not rivals for life’s overhead bins. We’re not jockeying for earth’s limited seating. We’re not first class people and steerage people. We’re dying companions. How can I not be reverent? How can I not be kind?

The psalmist knows he’s here today, gone tomorrow, a passing guest of God. We all are. On earth for a fleeting breath, we live by sheer hospitality, God’s to us, ours to each other, our common death our closest bond.

For everyone in the great crowd of mortals, age to age, it’s the same. Soon I will die with you, and you with me.

In the meanwhile, let’s be kind.

Prayer

Life is short, most holy God. Make me tender towards my dying companions, all of us your passing guests.

Render Unto Caesar: On Not Knowing What It Means, or What to Do

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–Titian, The Tribute Coin

Exodus 33: 12-23; Mark 12:13-17

Our gospel story opens with the arrival of representatives from two factions who have put their heads together and come up with a trick question for Jesus. The first group is the Pharisees, a religious party of committed laypeople with whom Jesus had a lot in common, even though they are portrayed in the New Testament as his most intractable enemies.

For reasons scholars disagree about, but which may have something to do with the emperor setting himself up as a divine son of god, the devout Pharisees were resistant to paying the head tax to their Roman overlords.

The other faction, the Herodians, advocated pragmatic collaboration with the Romans. They get only one other mention in the gospels, and we don’t know much about them; but their name implies sympathy with a line of violent and irreligious puppet kings who ruled in Judea at Rome’s behest, and who were generally despised by pious, nationalistic Jews. That these two opposing factions are in cahoots gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘strange bedfellows’.

They begin their interview with Jesus by lathering on the flattery: ‘You are so sincere, Jesus; you truly teach God’s way…’   Jesus is thinking, ‘Blah, blah, blah!’ Then they pop the trick question. “Is it lawful to pay the tax to the emperor?’

It doesn’t take a mind reader to figure out what they are up to. Jesus knows that if he says, ‘Yes, we should pay the tax,” the popular base that resonates with his anti-imperial preaching will complain that he flip-flopped and gave into the special interests; in the next election they’ll vote for Ralph Nader. If he says, ‘No, we must not pay the tax,’ Bill O’Reilly will label him a dupe of the radical peace movement, and the NSA will step up the monitoring of his library books.

Give one answer, and your followers abandon you. Give the other, and the authorities have proof that you are a garden variety insurrectionist and will deal with you by the usual means. This Gruesome Twosome appears to have Jesus over a barrel.

Jesus asks to see the denarius used to pay the tax. He inquires about the image stamped on the little silver coin. They tell him that it is the emperor’s. Jesus says, “Well, then give him what’s his, and give God what’s God’s.”

Apparently this is a great answer. We are told that the Pharisees and Herodians heard it and went away amazed. But why? What were they amazed about? What did they make of Jesus’ reply? What did it mean exactly? What did they report to the party bosses back at headquarters?   Had they won? Had they lost? Is it clear to you what actually happened? It isn’t clear to me!

Once at an ordination I was participating in, a famous preacher gave a mesmerizing sermon that left everyone in the sanctuary breathless. Afterwards, in the reception line, a couple of colleagues sidled up to me and said, “Wasn’t she amazing?” I allowed that yes, indeed, she was. Then one of them whispered, “But what did she say, exactly?” I had absolutely no idea, and no one else did either, as it turned out. A great turn of phrase is worth a lot in my book, but it doesn’t always say anything.

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ It’s got a nice Zen-ish ring to it. But what does it mean? And what precisely are we to do with it?

Some theologians think that Jesus was talking about two distinct realms of human life—the secular and religious, or maybe what we call church and state—and telling us that we are citizens of both, one foot planted in each. God sanctions earthly government and requires our loyalty to it as long as it is godly; but when it is ungodly, or when it demands from us the absolute allegiance that pertains only to God, we must always give precedence to God’s claim on us, or risk idolatry.

Now, if that is what Jesus meant, it seems simple enough. If you think, for example, that the war in Iraq was an unjust imperial project; and if, after it took more than 2,000 American lives, untold Iraqi lives, and cost billions a day, you are more persuaded than ever in your Christian conscience and in your judgment as a citizen that preemptive war is just plain wrong, then you should not fork over the taxes that pay for it if you should be asked to support such an immoral misadventure again. Right?

On the other hand, some of you might think, taxes also pay for public education and other things that are needed and good, and one would not want to harm those interests by refusing to pay. Others might wonder, what will happen to me if I withhold my taxes? And wouldn’t it be a futile gesture? Would it really stop a war? And still others of us might say, I can’t think about this right now, I have a meeting.

Give to Caesar what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to God. What does that mean? What are we supposed to do, exactly?

Another line of interpretation says that when Jesus told the ambassadors to give to Caesar what belongs to him, he was being facetious: the overarching truth is that nothing belongs to Caesar. Everything is God’s, and claims by the Empire to possess and control its subjects with ultimacy—claims implicit in the coin’s inscription identifying Caesar as divine—are simply blasphemous.

This interpretation has given rise to various and sometimes contradictory approaches to Christian civic life. One place to which it has led is to withdrawal from the world. This is the separatist, or sectarian, impulse exemplified by the internal exile that evangelical Christians in this country once imposed on themselves—before they came to love power, that is—as the most faithful way to be a disciple in a lost and corrupt world. It is still what many religious home-schoolers believe. Minimize your involvement lest you be tainted by the idolatry of the State.

But even sectarians make compromises. Maybe you don’t run for the local town council or school board, maybe you don’t even vote, but if the government should ever move to take away your church’s tax exemption, I’m guessing you will get on the horn and call your Congressperson, or hire an attorney and use the courts for redress.

Give to Caesar what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to God. What does that mean? What are we supposed to do, exactly?

In most cases, using this passage to describe a reasoned approach to the question of the Christian citizen’s relationship to government ends up generating all sorts of complications. It’s no wonder that another typical line of interpretation gives up trying to relate this story to politics, citizenship and government altogether. Instead the story becomes a stewardship message: Give Uncle Sam what belongs to Uncle Sam, it says, but don’t forget also to give St. Polycarp by the Pool what belongs to St Polycarp by the Pool—pay your dues to your country and to your church! Render unto Caesar…

So, what did Jesus really mean?

I have no idea. And I doubt that all the Pharisees and Herodians back at headquarters did either. Whatever they understood by it, it did not convert them on the spot; it did not deter them from further confrontation with Jesus; it did not ensure him the lasting loyalty of his followers either, and it did not win him the mercy of Pontius Pilate. Whatever Jesus meant, he did not mean to save his life.

Now, we all know that this is not the only place in the scriptures where Jesus is deliberately cryptic. It isn’t the only story in which we hear that people walk away amazed, even though we are not quite sure what that amazement was about. It’s not the only instance in which the theory we spin from what Jesus says seems at first so straightforward, and then turns out not to be. Not the first time that we are left to work out the implications for ourselves, and to discover the unsettling truth that faithful disciples can and do work them out in different and even conflicting ways. It isn’t the only example of Jesus’ resistance to cooptation and manipulation.

And I think that it is in elusive moments like this one that Jesus, whom Christians believe is ‘God with us’, most reminds me of the God who is not with us in any ordinary sense, but is the Hidden One whose ways are not our ways, and who is under no compulsion to explain or justify anything at all to mortals.

This is the part of God’s biblical character that seems most forbidding to us, this absence, this stubborn silence. Many of us are impatient with Zen-like utterances. We don’t want a God that slips eternally through our fingers. But in some ways it is only this hidden, cryptic, elusive and unknown God that you can really trust to have your best interests at heart.

When by divine reticence God lets us know that God is not who we think God is; when God won’t give us a straight answer to a simple question; when God amazes us without letting on what it’s really all about, God is doing human beings a huge favor.

Because like Moses, we keep asking for clarity. We keep demanding the truth about God. We want the picture sketched out. Put the instruction manual in our hand, we pray—tell us plainly who you are, what you want, and how, precisely, we should regulate our social, political and ecclesial lives according to the gospel. But the saving grace that we are granted instead of all this clarity is simply that we are finite, partial and contingent. We want it all, but the gift and blessing we are given is to see only a little light, as we peer out from the cleft in the rock where God has thoughtfully stashed us.

Never in this life to know everything is not a cause for sadness and frustration. Not to know everything is a cause for gratitude and praise, because, by glimpsing only God’s back, we are shielded not only from a blast of full frontal glory we could not possibly endure, but we are shielded also from pride—and from the violence and contempt that always go with it. If we can be content to see only snatches of truth, if we can resist claiming more about God’s being and God’s intentions than any finite human can truly claim, we may, by God’s grace, be les likely to set ourselves up in God’s place, with all the dreadful, familiar consequences that such self-delusion always entails.

I once had student who had a great crisis of faith and left the seminary, abandoning all thought of a pastoral calling. He had many reasons why this was a good thing to do. Mostly it was a move prompted by a need for intellectual, theological and moral purity. He did not think he could be a pastor with complete integrity; he had mixed motives, his ego was untamed, he wasn’t sure that he had enough faith, or faith of the right quality. His departure seemed a sad waste to me, since no one accepts this calling with complete integrity, without a mixed motive or a doubtful cloud on the horizon of the heart. If complete personal coherence were a qualification for ministry, there would be no one serving. But one thing he said has stayed with me, and it challenges me all the time. He said, ‘I don’t know how I can get up and preach to people every Sunday as if I knew what God wants. I am afraid to speak as if I actually knew what God is saying.’

Today in our nation a large number of Christian voices are not, apparently, the least bit perplexed or stymied by Jesus or by the God of Jesus. They seem to know precisely what God means and exactly how to practice what Jesus preaches. They are often invited to tell our pluralistic nation all about it on TV. They are happy to do so. You have seen and heard them. They seem unafraid that they may be presuming too much, overreaching. No shadow of doubt or complexity haunts them.

I do not wish to judge anyone’s faith. I am in fact eager for the good news about what God is doing for the world in Christ to be heard in the street and on the airwaves. I myself hope always to speak with joyful confidence about the good news, never being ashamed of the gospel. But I also pray every day, for me and for all of us, that I might be protected from myself, from my prideful need to know it all, my anxious need to control even God, my presumption and overreaching in speaking in God’s stead—and from the violence and contempt that lurk in the shadow of such self-delusion.

I want to be protected from myself by the very God who refuses so wisely to be fully known, so that from the cleft in the rock where the hidden God has so compassionately hidden me, I may tell the amazing story of what I do not know, as well as the wondrous story of what I do know—and do so with humility of speech, with modesty of exhortation, with joy in my human limitations too many to count, and with a reverent and awe-struck heart before the One whose Holy Name cannot be pronounced, but whose seen and unseen love is everlasting.

I invite us all to the do the same.

Ghastly Prayer

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“By your sword, deliver me from the wicked, O God. Fill their bellies with the wrath you have stored up for them. May their children have a surfeit of it too, with leftovers for their little ones.”  –Psalm 17:13-14.

What I pray for when I’m distraught, terrified, enraged, or overwhelmed is not what I pray for when I’m peaceful, content, hopeful, and safe. What comes out of my mouth when I’m beyond the end can be ghastly.

My most desperate prayers lay bare the damaged self I normally conceal under good Christian wraps—an aggrieved righteousness, contempt for those who oppose me, a primal impulse to pay back with lasting hurt those who have hurt me (and while we’re at it, their children too), and a cowardly urge to have God do the dirty work for me.

I’m grateful to this bloodthirsty psalmist for being as nasty as I am when my heart is backed into a corner. Grateful not so much for validating my emotions, or for modeling honest prayer, or for reminding me that God is big enough to absorb my fury, but for shocking me into recognition. I hate what he prays for. I recoil at his viciousness. But I’ve prayed that way myself.

We could shun psalms like these, excise them from our devotions, denounce them for their violence. Or we could pray them. We could let their hateful words come out of our mouths. We could discover in repeating them that they are not as foreign and distasteful to us as we think they are, or as we want them to be.

Self-knowledge. It’s the beginning of wisdom.

Prayer: Have mercy on me, O God, just as I (really) am.

 

Out of the Depths

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“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your cataracts…” —Psalm 42: 7

 

God loves the deep.

God loves abysses, caverns, valleys that lie between heights, bedrock at the bottom of the sea, profundity, and graves. If it’s deep, if it has fathoms and fathoms, if you have to go down, in, or beneath to get there, that’s where God goes. Where God is. God loves the deep.

Now, we often speak about God differently: God, we sing in our hymns, is enthroned on high, above the skies. God thunders from the mountaintop. God goes up to shouts of joy. We raise our eyes to the heavens. We lift our hearts to God. God is over and above and higher, higher than our thoughts. God is up—a ‘higher power.’

But if you go by some of the great stories of the Bible, it’s not up God loves so much as down. God is a ‘deeper power.’ God’s preferred trajectory is downward, into the depths of creation, into the depths of our lives, into the depths of love, loss, ecstasy, sin and perversity and pain; into the depths of our prayer where our sighs replace our words. Downward God goes, into the deepest thing of all, our human deaths. If something is deep, if it has depth, God will go there.

Moses discovered this when he came to the Red Sea with the Hebrew children in tow and Pharaoh’s army at his back. There God’s love plunged deep into the sea and parted it. Water high on the left and right, and in the middle, in the deep, bedrock. And the Hebrew children got down to the bottom of things. They went deep and were free. God loves the depths. If it’s deep, if you go deep, to the bottom of things, you find God there. And freedom.

Jonah discovered this when he boarded a ship to anywhere but where God wanted him to go. In a raging storm, the sailors threw him overboard, and he began to sink to the bottom. A big fish swam up out of those depths and swallowed him. In the belly of the fish Jonah swore to God he’d be a good boy and a docile prophet if God would get him out of there. It was a prayer so oily and self-serving that it made the fish throw up, spewing Jonah onto the shore, saving his life and giving him another chance to do what God wanted. God loves the deep. God works in the deep. God changes things down there.

Ezekiel learned this when God took him on a guided tour of a grisly sunken place of bones. Bone by bone, God rubbed his nose in the charnel, as if God wanted Ezekiel to certify that they were in fact ‘very dry,’ as the story says, which is another way of saying ‘very dead.’ They were. Like the corpses bulldozed into open pits at Treblinka, or the skulls of neighbors lined up on the pews of village churches in Rwanda, those bleached carcasses stood for a people, “the whole House of Israel.” The valley held a fate worse than death—genocide, the prospect of a future erased, no one left to remember and tell. And  in those depths of horror and despair, God told Ezekiel to prophesy life. You know what happens next: ‘the knee-bone connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone connected to the hip bone…” The people live. Out of the depths.

Jesus knew it by heart, this word about God and the depths. He went deep himself when he put aside the glory that was his and lowered himself into a fully human life in his mother’s womb. It was in a lowly trough where she first laid him to sleep one silent night. And it was in an airless cave cut deep into rock that he was laid to sleep again when he died, wounded with the wounds we gave him. Out of the deep God raised him to indestructible life. Easter, never forget, took place in a grave. God loves the deep.

And remember the way he wept and groaned out of his deep love for  Lazarus? It’s a mysterious story, Lazarus’ rising. Like all stories about love and pain, loss and confusion, faith and hope, it’s deep, and we can’t fully fathom it. All we read is this—Lazarus was dead, decaying for days, but at Jesus’ command, he came out. Out of the depths he came back to life.

If you didn’t know this deep God already, wouldn’t you love this God? A God who is not a highness, but a lowness? If you loved this deep God deeply, you wouldn’t be content to live well, with panache and brio, high spirits, high ambitions, high expectations and high hopes; you’d find yourself instead longing to live in a lowly way, profoundly, with depth, humility, and outstretched hands. If you loved this deep God deeply, your trajectory would start to mirror the divine course: you’d tend to the subterranean, track downwards, into, and beneath. All the way down into the fissures love has not yet bridged you’d go, into the lesions love has not yet healed, into your own and others’ pain, into the guilt and haplessness, the fear and falsity, the secret shame, the bottom-feeding greed and self-protection. Down there, on bedrock, you’d know again on whose unfathomable mercy you utterly depend, as life and freedom beckons, and deep calls longingly to deep.

 

 

 

 

 

Memento Mori

St-Francis-Contemplating-a-Skull-by-Zubaran1“Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” — Psalm 90:12

In the Middle Ages, many Christians practiced a spirituality summed up by the Latin phrase, memento mori: remember that you die. Our forebears figured that cultivating an awareness of death was the best way to keep themselves bracingly honest about life and deeply engaged with the world.

The proximity of death taught them that nothing is secure or permanent. The democracy of death taught them that power and privilege mean nothing in the grave. The finality of death taught them that on this side of the grave they might as well risk everything.

Such realism, they believed, was essential for grounding an authentic love for God and neighbor. But it doesn’t come naturally to us, we have to work at it. It’s an everyday discipline.

So, for example, if a medieval nun kept a companionable human skull in the alcove where she prayed, she was not being morbid, and she was not depressed by her daily contemplation of its unmistakable message. It ushered her instead into a realm of radicality, clearing her mind of the world’s nonsense and her heart of egoistic clutter.

In its shadow it seemed foolish to aspire to the unnecessary; it became easier to refuse ephemeral delights and savor lasting ones, easier to gain the freedom of soul to respond to the urgent claims of her neighbor. By a practice of discernment and detachment in the light of our common end–a practice of distinguishing impulses from needs, needs from wants, and wants from entitlements–she prepared her heart to offer the least possible resistance to the Holy Spirit.

She believed that Jesus asked her to live in such a way that when death came it had very little left to take from her.

She would be surprised that we find that notion grim. What she would find grim, as another writer has noted, is a culture like ours that considers the accumulation and protection of wealth to be so serious as to merit the efforts of a lifetime.

What she would find depressing is the way that the material things we collect and store away like cadavers in a morgue captivate our hearts.

The big question is why we don’t.

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Image: St Francis Contemplating A Skull, Francisco de Zuruburán, c. 1635