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?

A holy Lent?

It’s that time of the year when many western Christians in liturgical churches attend an Ash Wednesday service and receive ashes on their forehead, a reminder that we are dust (referring to our creation) and to dust we shall return. (That takes the wind out of the sails of pride, at least until the ashes are washed off!)

candles in church
Lent began in the early church as preparation for Resurrection Sunday of converts for baptism, as well as those who were separated from fellowship to be reconciled.

The weeks approaching the observance of the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus soon became a church-wide time of preparation with self-examination and repentance.

In my young teen years, my Roman Catholic friends couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. So, they’d plan parties to be sure to run until midnight, when they could feast on a burger with the rest of us, then we’d all head home.

At some point I joined the many in my church who gave up something for Lent, the most common being chocolate. The mindset was, the more you liked it, the holier you’d be if you gave it up.

Later I heard a caveat that Sunday, reflecting Resurrection day, is a feast day, so you could indulge on that day. That seemed like cheating, but I guessed it helped the struggling. The whole business wasn’t spiritual for me. It seemed more like a carnival game: Sin? Now you see it, now you don’t.

But this Wednesday I will be called:

to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and mediating on God’s holy Word. Book of Common Prayer

Good, healthy activities for the spirit.

I want so much to observe a holy Lent. A couple of years ago I felt strongly that I had to give up social media and online games, namely Facebook, Words with Friends and FreeCell, which can eat up a lot of time. Seeing how hard it was to do that let me know they held too high a place in my priorities. A worthwhile exercise, for certain.

The next year, after learning from Ann Voskamp and others about the value of a thankful heart, I decided I would both give-up and add-on for Lent. I gave up griping and complaining, and sought to add gratefulness to my conversations.

I thought I was just been realistic. But I saw that too many conversations reminded me of something sad, harmful or tragic from my childhood, which I felt needful to share to break free of the secret-keeping tradition, or warn another from hard lessons learned. Oh, my, it’s difficult to change those patterns!

(Note: The secret–keeping in abusive homes is harmful, blocking healing and allowing the abusers all the power. But talking about it over and over, years beyond therapy or confession, is only reenacting the pain, not setting anyone free.)

Each year I’d do an above average job of keeping my Lenten intents, but usually slipped back into old behaviors afterwards.

I’d take another lap around Mt Sinai, like the Hebrews who left Egypt but never made it to the Promised Land. Never enjoyed the life God had saved and rescued and delivered them for.

Always sensing that I’m not good enough.

Yet

After the physical struggles of the past two years, my time of unsought-for-spiritual schooling, as I approach Lent this year, I see “A holy Lent” in a new light.

The brighter light of grace.

My husband and I both grew up in performance oriented homes. (That is probably the norm for our generation, and why Baby Boomers have accomplished so much.) My position in the dysfunctional family was the worker bee, the one who tried to hold everything together, to make everything right.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to turn that off, especially in regards to my self-worth. I fall in bed a night, exhausted and relaxed after proper “sleep hygiene.” Then I close my eyes and pull up a movie of my day, in full color, seeing the errors of my way or words, freezing frames, wishing so much for an edit, or repeat performance, to get it right, as if I could “do the things left undone” and undue the things I “ought not to have done.”

All in my head.

That doesn’t make for great sleep.

Why is it that we can so quickly switch from receiving God’s love and grace to thinking we have to polish our shoes and shine our halos and make ourselves worth the Passion of Christ?

The lesson I have been hearing, month after month, and want so much to really take to heart is that I can’t do anything to be better than I am. God loves me, always has and always will, and nothing I can do will make Him love me more, or love me less.

Certainly, I can do things to show my gratitude and share the love, but NOT TO EARN THAT LOVE! No creeping to the top of 1,000 stone steps on bare knees, hoping my blood will earn a kind welcome.

No number of church services attended, offering given, acts of kindness performed, or Bible verses studied or memorized will make Jesus grin any bigger or stretch his arms any wider in welcome. All that comes from his heart. From the heart of Love.

My children and grandchildren are so different from each other, and whether or not they perform or “reach their potential” or any of the parameters we human beings are so fond of, I love them each passionately, uniquely. Always have. Always will.

And God is such a better parent than I am!

“We are not beggars on the one hand or spiritual customers on the other; we are God’s children, and we just stay before Him with our broken treasure or our pain and watch Him mend or heal in such a way that we understand Him better.” Oswald Chambers, Christian Discipleship, V2

So instead of so much striving I will bring my broken treasure, and at times my pain, and seek the face of the One who sees me, always.

The holy Lent I seek this year is being wholly, gratefully aware of the grace of every breath I take. Of the Love that cushions my heart. And will one day welcome me home, no matter how I perform today, or tomorrow.

Are you planning to observe Lent this year? What will that look like for you?

Forty days?

This week, many Christians begin observing forty days of Lent. Forty days marked many significant events in the Biblical narrative: Noah floating in the ark, Moses on the mountain with God, the Hebrews scouting the Promised Land, Goliath taunting Saul’s army until David picks up his slingshot, Jesus fasting in the wilderness before he begins his ministry on earth.

And, like Jesus, we are being called to forty days in the desert.

© Jane Foard Thompson
crown of thorns

Rather than Lent, perhaps life itself has called you into the desert. Illness, disability, dementia, losing a dream, job, home, loved one or a relationship . . . the desert places are open to all of us.

© Jane Foard Thompson
succulent in desert

And whether we come out on the other side at all, or haggard and bitter, or lean and ready to really live, depends on how we respond in our desert time.

© Jane Foard Thompson
In silence of the desert

In truth, we don’t want the desert. In our culture, pain is an enemy to be avoided at all costs, from the ever-present ibuprofen bottle, to drug or alcohol abuse, and even assisted suicide. Others of us are running ahead, doing the right things, working very hard to keep it all together.

However, in The Healing Path, Dan Allender says,

“God promises us redemption, but his sacred path leads us away from safety, predictability, and comfort. Any attempt to fly over the dangerous terrain or make a detour to safe ground is doomed because it will not take us to God. Instead, it leads to a host of other idols that can’t provide us with the confidence of faith, the dynamic of hope, or the passion of love we so deeply crave.”

The Healing Path

Only in the desert, we become the people we were created to be, living the life we were meant to live.

“It is in the poverty of the desert that we see clearly our attachments to the trinkets and baubles we cling to for security and pleasure. The desert shatters the soul’s arrogance and leaves body and soul crying out in thirst and hunger. In the desert, we trust God or we die.”

The Healing Path

Trust God or die.

When Eve didn’t trust God, and ate the fruit instead, she died to all her life could have been in the garden, including evening walks with God.

God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden, into the desert were they would learn how much they needed him.

And every time we chose our own way, in place of God’s pathway, we eat that fruit again.

© Jane Foard Thompson
thorny desert plant

“The healing path must pass through the desert or else our healing will be the product of our own will and wisdom.”

The Healing Path

So, where are you heading for your forty days?

Recommendations for study: The Healing Path, Dan B Allender, Ph.D., WaterBrook Press, 2002
YouVersion Lenten studies
My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers, Barbour and Company, Inc., original copyright 1935