Palms to Palms

A leave (frond) @ mom's portico

Daily readings:
Psalms 84; 150, Zechariah 9:9-12, 1 Timothy 6:12-16, Matthew 21:12-17

Palm Sunday readings:
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Matthew 21:1-11, Isaiah 50:4-9a, 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 26:14-27:66


For most Christians around the world, today is Palm Sunday. It’s the Sunday when we remember Jesus’s triumphal arrival in Jerusalem as he rode a donkey down a road covered in branches – traditionally palm fronds – placed there by a cheering crowd. We also remember how the same crowd, at the urging of their religious leaders, later turned on him and demanded his crucifixion.

For English speakers, “palms” figure into this story again, but this time as the traditional site where the nails were driven through Christ’s hands. Since the gospel texts were originally written in Hebrew or Greek, this similarity is a mere accident of language, but it highlights the mixture of highs and lows of Holy Week.

As Good Friday and the cross draw nearer, like Peter we reaffirm our commitment to Christ, but we must admit that, also like Peter (and the rest of the Twelve), we have and will inevitably fail him in some capacity. Like the crowds who greet Christ as a King, our community celebrates the victory we anticipate our Messiah will deliver. And also like the crowds, we must confront our failures to follow him when we let our leaders – religious, political, or cultural – persuade us the difficulty, danger, or sacrifice will be too great.

This is a week to remember strangers we have rebuffed, the poor and sick we have neglected, the tribalism we’ve used to justify withholding mercy, the times we have asked forgiveness in advance because we’d rather sin than suffer.

Holy Week exists because the triumph of the resurrection is at hand, but – painful though it might be to admit – it also exists because we are the people who crucified Christ. During the time between the cross and the empty tomb, the disciples were lost, left to grieve their failures and shattered hopes. Can we spend a week in that space where they were and contemplate what it means to be utterly lost? It’s a challenge to imagine, because while we know what comes next Sunday, they thought Christ was gone forever. Palms to palms, contemplating what it means to have lost Christ might deepen our appreciation when that Easter victory arrives.

Comfort: Christ is triumphant.

Challenge: Read the passion narrative from Matthew a few times this week, putting yourself in the place of a different character (Peter, Judas, Simon, Pilate, Mary, etc.) each time.

Prayer: God of mercy, thank you for freely bestowing the grace I can not earn. Amen.

Discussion: What character in the Passion story do you most identify with?

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Casseroles and Compassion

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3, Galatians 3:1-14, Matthew 14:13-21


When we study the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we usually focus on the most obvious part – namely, fives loaves and two fishes feeding five thousand men plus women and children. It’s an important and miraculous story on its own, but since the Gospels have been broken into chapters, verses, and headings (absent from their original format) we often read a section without considering the context of what comes before or after.

The first sentence in Matthew’s version of this story – “now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself” – is more meaningful when we remember “this” was the beheading of John the Baptist. More than a prophet announcing the Messiah, John was (depending on which scriptures you read) Jesus’s cousin, teacher, and friend. He prepared the way of the Lord. John’s death was a signpost on the road to Calvary.

How eager would we be to learn thousands of people had followed us to the place where we sought to mourn in private? Many of us would have turned them away. Jesus though “had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Even after he was done – probably many hours later, as it was evening by then – he didn’t choose to turn them away.

John’s parents were probably dead already. Jesus was possibly his only family, and many people who sought Jesus on that day were undoubtedly John’s disciples. According to legend, John did not get a traditional burial, so this gathering may have been as close to a funeral as things got.  What happens after most funerals? Friends of the grieving family bring food and offer support. Note that Jesus did not distribute the food himself: he instructed the disciples to do it, as they would have traditionally done if visiting Jesus in his home after a loss. John may not have had a funeral, but the meal afterward was thousands strong and presided over by Christ … in the only home he had … among his followers.

In the face of death, Jesus responded with healing, nourishment, and generosity – and persuaded the crowd to do likewise.  Whether we grieve or support someone who does, Christ offers hope and new life in ways we can’t imagine until we live them.

Comfort: We never grieve alone.

Challenge: At times we may be called to be compassionate when we really want to be left alone. At those times, can we remember that service is sometimes a path to healing?

Prayer: God of compassion, be with me when I grieve, and help me support those who suffer loss. Amen.

Discussion: What (if any) parts of– funeral rituals do you find most comforting?

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Peace as Mourning

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Readings: Psalms 102; 148, Genesis 3:8-15, Revelation 12:1-10, Reading John 3:16-21


Jewish mourning rituals are structured and lengthy. For up to a year later, depending on who has died, life is conducted differently. Loved ones help create space for the grieving process by being quietly present for it, rather than trying to make things better.  Anyone who has been in the receiving line at a funeral can tell you most words meant as comfort are anything but. Yet most modern Christian mourners get a funeral and a few days off work, after which our culture tells us to push through it as quickly as possible. We don’t grieve well.

Mourning is not simply being sad. It is not depression. It is the processing of our emotions. When we put on a brave face, the effects of grief will be miserably prolonged. If we choose suppression over healthy mourning, grief remains trapped below the surface only to emerge unexpectedly in endless drips or powerful gushers we are rarely equipped to handle. Mourning permits us to experience the full depth of our loss so we may eventually be at peace with it. The end of a Jewish mourning period signals a new beginning, a reconciliation with our changed reality.

Death is not the only loss we need to mourn. A sense of identity shredded when we lose a job; disillusionment in institutions we once respected; relationships broken beyond repair; a sense of security crushed by world events; younger, healthier bodies; hopes and dreams beyond our ability to realize: mourning helps us let go of these things. The weight of carrying them slows us down until we lag far behind the peace and joy in the life still available to us.

When the psalmist says:

My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin. (Psalm 102:4-5)

he knows he must fully engage with his grief or be forever burdened with it. Advent is a time for recognizing how God mourns a lost humanity, and anticipating the new beginning he sends us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Comfort: Mourning is the mill that grinds grief into peace.

Challenge: Whatever you currently need to mourn, give yourself space to feel your grief while you read Psalm 102.

Prayer: As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God. (Psalm 40:7)

Discussion: When you experience grief, do you allow it to wash over you or do you put up defenses against it? Why?

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Baby Steps

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, 1 Kings 3:16-28, Acts 27:27-44, Mark 14:12-26


A famous story about King Solomon’s wisdom involves two women who bore sons within days of each other. After one of the sons died, one woman claimed the other had switched the infants while she slept. Each insisted the living child was her own. Solomon proposed to treat the matter like any other property dispute by physically dividing the infant in half. One woman immediately relinquished her claim so the child might live; the other agreed to his decision. Solomon declared the true mother to be the woman most concerned with the child’s survival.

There is a big difference between loving something, and loving to own it.

Is there anything we claim to love which we are willing to see destroyed rather than let it continue existing outside our control? Does the church come to mind? The innumerable denominations of the Christian church exist because people would rather divide over doctrine than live without control. When we sing “One Bread, One Body” is it more longing than truth?

Then there is public space – the civic and social realm in which we all interact. Americans say we value freedom of speech and religion, but our behavior doesn’t always align with those ideals. For most of our history, the default expectation of religion in the public space was Christian (and usually a homogeneous kind of Christian). As the public space grows more diverse – the inevitable outcome of the American experiment – some people find they don’t care to share it. From enacting laws that cross into theocracy to shutting down speech we find offensive, we seem determined to strangle freedoms rather than let them survive outside our control.

Like the grieving mother, we are more vulnerable to demanding control when we grieve. If we grieve the passing of a way of life we treasured, perhaps what we really grieve is not having our control challenged. If we grieve a past that left us voiceless, we can’t enforce silence and call it reconciliation.

Not everything we love, once let go, fully returns to us. If that stops us from loving it, maybe we never really did.


Comfort: You don’t have to control everything. 

Challenge: You don’t have to control everything.

Prayer: God of Mercy, unite your children in love. Amen. 

Discussion: Have you ever left a community over a disagreement? Have you ever been forced out because of a disagreement? How are they similar and how are they different?

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Blue Christmas

20161210_170325-01.jpegI cross-post from here to Facebook, and have never gone the other direction, but these thoughts seemed meaningful to people so I thought I’d share. If you feel similarly, please share or re-blog so those you love who struggle with the holiday season may feel some support. Peace to you!


I’ve read  several posts about how difficult the holidays can be for people who are grieving, living with depression, or struggling in some way. I don’t know what your personal pain is like right now, but I believe you that it is real.

So if I post about Christmas and family, please remember you are in my thoughts too. I don’t need you to pretend to be happy or festive for me. If your mood goes from light to dark, you don’t owe me an explanation, but I do owe you some compassion. I can take a break from the festivities to lend an ear, a shoulder, or a hug. My love for you is not conditional upon your mood. And if I ignorantly say something unhelpful or hurtful, please tell me; my feelings are not more important than yours.

In a season that celebrates Jesus arriving in the world, how can there be any excuse not to offer room at the inn for the weary travelers of life? Peace to you, my friend.

 

Lemonade

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Job 12:1-6, 13-25, Acts 11:19-30, John 8:21-32


“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

Doesn’t hearing that make us want – at least a little bit – to hurl the lemons at whoever said it? Ironically, the times we are most likely to hear such well-meaning but ill-considered platitudes are also the times we are least likely to appreciate them. They come across as trite and condescending. When the disciples scattered to distant cities after the death of Stephen, “making lemonade” was probably the last thing on their minds.

However, even in this period of fear and confusion, the Spirit moved. In Antioch, some disciples shared the Gospel with local Greeks and a great number became believers. The church in Antioch grew so large that the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas – the first Gentile convert – to visit with and encourage them. No longer identified strictly with Judaism, the believers began to be known as Christians.

While this may seem like a classic lemons-to-lemonade situation, we should not to be glib about blessings springing from tragedy. No number of Greek converts diminished the loss and sorrow of Stephen’s death. To say God used Stephen’s death to achieve a greater good would have been cold comfort to his mother. While none of us can speak with authority on God’s motives, perhaps it would be better to say the faith of the disciples allowed the Spirit to transform the nature of the tragedy.

Lemons do not spontaneously turn into lemonade. Such a transformation takes effort. Likewise, recovering from tragedy is not a matter of inactivity, but of determination and openness to the possibilities of the Spirit. Consider the story of John Walsh, whose son Adam was murdered in 1981. John channeled his energy into helping missing and exploited children. He is most famous for his television show America’s Most Wanted, which aided in the capture of more than 1000 fugitives. To say God used the murder of a little boy to achieve a higher good is cruel and dismissive of the tragedy. To say God helped transform grief into justice is to speak of hope. The difference is subtle, but all important.

Comfort: God does not inflict tragedy, but helps us overcome it.

Challenge: Pray over a situation in your life that may be an opportunity for redemptive grace.

Prayer: God of life, out of my brokenness reveal new hope. Amen.

Discussion: What are the least and/or most helpful things people have said to you while you were grieving?

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How dusty is your head?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 56; 149, Job 3:1-26, Acts 9:10-19a, John 6:41-51


Job’s three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, having heard of his tragedy, arrived at his home to console and comfort him. They did so by acknowledging Job’s grief: “They raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads.” Afterward, and more importantly, “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

Then Job, who was faithful but not superhuman, cursed the day he was born. Anger, grief, and confusion poured out of him. He did not reject God, but he was not afraid to demand an accounting for the injustice of the world. After this his friends thought they could best help by trying to make sense of it for him. If they had been as smart as they thought they were and kept silent, Job would have been about thirty-seven chapters shorter.

When we have a friend whose suffering is great, what is our first instinct? Many of us try to make the person feel better as quickly as possible. Others want to offer advice on how to solve or get past the problem. A smaller number suffer in solidarity. And a gifted few are willing to be present but silent. A wonderful ecumenical organization called Stephen Ministries trains people to be present for other people in crisis. Stephen ministers do not fix, and do not counsel. They listen and love.

In the next chapter, Eliphaz will offer Job some unsolicited advice. Like we might, he does this as much to reassure himself as to comfort his friend. The other friends will follow suit. This helps move along the book’s exploration of the nature of suffering, but it does more harm than good for Job. Listening is a gift anyone can give, even without formal training. When someone shares their suffering with us, sometimes the best thing we can do for them is to sit in the road next to them, and let the dust settle on our heads.

Comfort: Each of us can listen, and be listened to.

Challenge: The next time you have the urge to fix someone’s problem or give them advice, spend time just listening to them instead.

Prayer: God of renewal, thank you for ears that help others heal. Amen.

Discussion: Are you a fixer? Are you frustrated by people who try to fix? Both?

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Burying the Body

 

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):

Psalms 143; 147:12-20; Judges 4:4-23; Acts 1:15-26; Matthew 27:55-66


Jesus was dead. His disciples, not understanding he would return, were scattered and gutted because their revolution had ended in crucifixion. The Messiah had been killed by enemies among the occupier and the occupied. The evidence of failure was his own lifeless body, hanging on a cross as the Sabbath drew near.

“What now?” they whispered. “What do we do now?”

Joseph of Arimathea and the Marys knew the simple yet devastating answer: bury the body.

Life can go so drastically wrong that we literally don’t know what to do. At these times, the best thing is often to attend to the practical. When life smashes our expectations beyond recovery, the loss can be too overwhelming to process all at once. When this is true, the momentum of responsibilities like a job, cooking dinner, and showering can keep us moving like a bicycle that will topple if it stops. Such distractions help us swallow grief in bite-sized chunks rather than a choking whole. Though we don’t want to turn these responsibilities into a form of denial, engaging in them can help us throttle the grieving process to a manageable pace. Funeral arrangements, for instance, while not routine, serve an important psychological purpose of engaging the grieving parties in activity. They draw us back into the decisions and actions of the living. While it is inevitable that we will have moments when breaking down is the right and necessary thing to do, we need a purpose to rise back up.

Short of clinical issues like depression, we all have the capacity to move on. Parents who care for children with severe disabilities are often asked, “How do you do it?” When the disability is unexpected, a parent may, in a sense, have to bury the body of hopes once held for that child. The future may hold resurrection, or an altered set of expectations, or further disappointment; in any case, these parents pull the extraordinary from the ordinary. Like Joseph and the Marys, they know the enormous healing power of being able to honestly say, “We did what we had to.”

Comfort:  In our greatest losses, God grieves with us.

Challenge: Make a list of the tasks you perform each day. Turn this into a litany of thanks: “God, thank you for the opportunity to …”

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, give me the strength to do what needs doing. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been immobilized by grief? What got you moving again?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!