Why I can sing

Holy week began with a boisterous procession, the One everyone hailed riding on a young donkey that had never been ridden. How did he tame that beast? I whispered, “Can you tame the wild places in my heart that still evade my censure?” Palm branches waved in my face as he rode near. Then he was there, looking right at me, something of a smile, the smile of a friend who knows me, perhaps better than I do myself. And those eyes. Not laughing, but bright, intensely alive, looking deep into my soul and loving me.

The donkey jostled him from side to side. Clop, clop, clop, he passed by, me clutching those eyes to my heart.

That smiling face followed me throughout the week, glancing from the table as he broke the bread and lifted the cup, one last time with his close friends. Nodding as he washed their feet, as if to say, do you see how I’m doing this? The way my touch loves filthy into soft and new?

And then he turned away, into the garden, into the night of his despair. I could only watch from a distance, knowing I would betray him with a kiss every time I loved something more than him.

As the cock crowed he turned and looked at me again. I expected harsh eyes, accusing eyes. But it was knowing, painfully loving me deep within, in spite of my treasonous heart that sought the approval of others over him. As he was beaten and humiliated, I knew every blow was meant for me. For my sin. And yet he took it. All.

All the way to the nails pounded into hands that had touched the leper and turned his skin into purity. Hands that had broken bread to feed thousands.

I stood at the foot of the cross, at first unable to look up, dreading the truth of his look. It was for me he struggled for breath as his blood ran down the rough wood and stained the ground.

At last, strangely drawn, I looked up. He smiled! It was brief, but there in the midst of darkness and pain beyond bearing, I saw his knowing. Barely nodding, his eyes said, “For it all. I’m here for it all.”

Out loud, “It is finished.”

Did the whole world shake as much as I?

But darkness seemed to win again. How could I go on, now that those eyes were closed and all the light had gone out?

At the end of the waiting, seeking even the closed eyes and still body, hands that could not stroke my cheeks, I went and found nothing.

Nothing like I ever dreamed.

Nothing I could do or change or earn or even imagine into existence.

The heavy stone was rolled away, the weight of all my mistakes moved aside to make way for life.

There he was! Laughing eyes loving me, somehow even more, as if to say, “Now you can laugh at the darkness, too!”

“Now you are free of grave clothes, too!”

“Now you can be fully alive, too!”

And I will never be the same again.

That’s why I sing, “Hallelujah, He has risen!”

Contradictions and opposites

On February 14th this year we had what appeared a strange contradiction–a day full of sweets and greeting cards professing love with lots of big red hearts, but also a day featured by black cross-shaped smears on foreheads marking our humanity, a sober reminder that we will all someday die and return to ashes. Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day seem to be polar opposites. Actually, the ashes mark our need for the biggest heart, for a love that won’t let go, or let us go.

That day launched the Lenten Journey with the one walking toward death. Another contradiction? Rather than a downer, this journey can warm our hearts with sunlight that never ends.

This year, rather than focus on “giving up” for Lent, I felt drawn to “so much more.” Going in deeper. Spending more time with the one who hovers between both worlds and offers a hand to us who are mired in here and now.

Along the way, I spoke with a friend about the sense of holiness, the glimpse of eternity we may experience when we sit with a loved one in their last days. The line between this earthly life and eternity seems to blur as we usher them into the kingdom. When the end finally comes, it can be hard, even jarring, to leave behind the empty body and walk outside into the sunlight, drive into the traffic or stop at the grocery store, go back to “normal life.”

Eternity colliding with here and now, the opposites can physically shock us.

Palm Sunday, branches waving and hosannas bursting made me wonder if what we really want is jolly old St Nick to come riding in and give us everything on our wish list. (Good for us, he never does. In spite of another strange cultural juxtaposition on Christmas, Santa Claus and Jesus have nothing in common.)

As we leave the bright light of the procession, the Holy Week readings begin and we enter the gloom of betrayal.

Can you imagine a companion you have shared everything with for three years, day in and day out, going behind your back, taking a bribe and turning you over to enemies who want to kill you?

Can you imagine your closest friends falling asleep when you beg them to help you through your hardest time?

Can you imagine being lied about, tried without representation, spit upon, mocked, then suffering hours of beatings meant to kill you, all before the real torture begins—-for nothing you ever did, nothing you could ever deserve?

Where’s the justice in all that?

That leads to Good Friday. How can a day of death, especially an unjustified death, be good? How can we celebrate it year after year, and wear shiny crosses commemorating the worst form of execution?

In another strange contradiction, Jesus endures the horrendous in order to save us from the worst that we deserve.

And from ourselves.

Though we may work or love and care, serve or give, in spite of lovely and loving moments, we are always circumscribed by our selfishness. No matter what we face in our circumstances, isn’t our greatest enemy always within?
No matter how hard we try to do better, or how far we may run to escape, we are always contained by who we are.

When Jesus died, the reports says the sky turned black. The huge, heavy curtain in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies from the mass of worshippers was ripped open. From top to bottom.

The death of Jesus, God-Man tore apart the barrier that confined us within ourselves and our weaknesses. He opened the way for us to be the person we are truly created to be. To live as we were designed to live.

Then, sometime in the grave, all the molecules of that dead, human body were realigned, revitalized and given a new form. A resurrected body brought hope for us. Healing for us. New life now, and when we die as well.

This year, compounding the paradoxical days, Easter coincides with April Fools Day.

How grateful I am there is no rude surprise here, and that I don’t have to live the fool.

With the ultimate contradiction, death gives life.

This is the kind of life you’ve been invited into, the kind of life Christ lived.
He suffered everything that came his way so you would know that it could be done, and also know how to do it, step-by-step.
He never did one thing wrong, Not once said anything amiss.
They called him every name in the book and he said nothing back. He suffered in silence, content to let God set things right.
He used his servant body to carry our sins to the Cross so we could be rid of sin, free to live the right way.
His wounds became your healing.
You were lost sheep with no idea who you were or where you were going.
Now you’re named and kept for good by the Shepherd of your souls
.

1 Peter 2:21‭-‬25 MSG

Where has your journey led you?

Easter morning started on a dark pathway

Early on Easter morning I heard children calling to each other in a family Easter egg hunt. Then I focused on morning prayers for those on my heart. As I brought these dear ones before the Lord, I wondered how many of those struggling with cancer, chronic health problems, some without even a diagnosis, others with painful relationships, some still in the pall of the death of their loved one – how many were coming to Easter morning, which is supposed to be joyful, only in dread, or duty?

How many felt like the women trudging to the tomb before the dawn light, hearts heavy, hope gauged away? Carrying spices and the weight of the world, everything in their lives spun off into terrible disaster.

Venice Beach by Jack H Thompson, Jr

As I lifted them to the Lord, I asked for the same, lightning clarity for them that Mary experienced.

That they might hear the risen Jesus call their name.

That they might find so much more than they are seeking.

Ibis and reflection by Jack H Thompson Jr

In truth, we all find more than we are seeking, though we aren’t always aware of it.

ducklings by Jack H Thompson, Jr

In a service during Holy Week, I thought about the Last Supper and the scene in the garden afterwards, when one of the twelve who’d walked with Jesus, seen him heal and cleanse and raise the dead, betrayed him with a kiss.
(Read the whole story here.)

Immediately, a painful scene from early in my life flashed into my mind, distracting me. I tore my focus back to the covered cross before me.
(In our tradition, the cross which hangs over the altar is covered during Lent.)

Church of the Redeemer, Sarasota, FL
photo by Fred Sieger

In that moment, I sensed a profound truth.

Though draped and obscured much of the time in my younger years, the cross has always been there in my life. Jesus was with me, loving me and dying for me every time I sinned,

Every time another sinned against me.

Every. single. time.

Since I was conceived, the cross has been there, redeeming me. Redeeming my life from the pit.

There were times when that redemption worked to prevent greater evil.

Other times, it worked to turn what the enemy meant for evil into good.

Every. single. time

Long before I could say the word, the Lord was there, redeeming me.

Long before I gave the mental assent and welcomed him as Lord, he was winding his love throughout my life.

Long before I studied the Bible and committed verses to memory he was writing on my heart with a nail-scared hand.

It is a great mystery, but it was the greatest truth I have ever discovered, that I have never been abandoned. Never neglected. Never hurt without being comforted. Never wounded without a healer at work. Never alone.

Not. one. time.

God is not limited by time or space. He is not linear as we are, with yesterdays, todays and tomorrows.

So he can be present in all things.

And he is.

For me, and for you.

sunrise by Jack H Thompson, Jrwater landing by Jack H Thompson Jr
Venice Beach sunlight from a cloud by Jack H Thompson, Jr

If this Easter was less than joyful, my wish for you is that you, too will hear him call your name,

Be alerted to the presence of the Living One, who is life itself,

Find a new and fresh vision this Easter season, tunneling into the swirling reality of God-With-Us.

Emmanuel.

flowers by Jack H Thompson, Jr

God’s wisdom is something mysterious that goes deep into the interior of his purposes. You don’t find it lying around on the surface. It’s not the latest message, but more like the oldest—what God determined as the way to bring out his best in us, long before we ever arrived on the scene….
No one’s ever seen or heard anything like this, Never so much as imagined anything quite like it— What God has arranged for those who love him. But you’ve seen and heard it because God by his Spirit has brought it all out into the open before you. The Spirit, not content to flit around on the surface, dives into the depths of God, and brings out what God planned all along….We didn’t learn this by reading books or going to school; we learned it from God, who taught us person-to-person through Jesus, and we’re passing it on to you in the same firsthand, personal way.

1 Corinthians 2:6‭-‬10 MSG