Forty Days Returning, Day 41–We Rise

And so it is Easter, Resurrection Sunday. All over the world Christians are celebrating the risen Christ. Today also concludes my annual Forty Days writings. This has been a different year. It began in February, as we in the US distantly experienced a serious viral illness plaguing people far away from us and ends here in April, with all of us in the US experiencing shelter-in-place separation from one another. These are indeed odd times, and yet, as I wrote in this post from April 2018, we rise. I thank each of you who has been with me for these 40 days, for steadfastly reading and reflecting on these words. Please enjoy one more posting. He is risen, Alleluia!

Forty Days Revisited, Day 40–You Can Say That Again (We Rise)

I grew up Catholic. As a child I wondered why we couldn’t say “alleluia” during Lent. As I got older, I came to understand that this prohibition is one of many acknowledgments of the solemnity of the Lenten season, that it is a time of fasting, prayer, reflection, and various forms of sacrifice. One of those forms, firmly in place all around the world is the fasting from saying the word, “alleluia.” I was so happy when Easter came, not because of egg hunts and decorating eggs (which we rarely did) or wearing fancy clothes, complete with hats and dresses and white anklet socks with ruffles and patent leather shoes. (God am I glad those days are over.) The good news is: these 40 days are over and today you can say again what you could not say yesterday: “Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia.”

I used to sing “alleluia” on Easter Sunday with the same gusto as I used to bellow, “Crucify him!” two days earlier at Good Friday services. It was all the same to me back then. So after 40-plus days of giving up chocolate and bear and meat on Fridays and not saying alleluia, today is the day you can knock yourself out and do all those things. Of course, I say this all tongue-in-cheek, which seems somewhat sacrilegious on this holy day of resurrection.

So let me shift gears and title the rest of this blog as I decided to later: We Rise.

We Rise
On that day, the third day, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary (who some say Jesus’s aunt–sister to his mother ) were heading to the tomb. When they got there, the stone had been rolled back from the grave. In one account (Matthew 28), a being of light is sitting on top of the stone, ostensibly waiting to report to whichever of Jesus’s followers showed up, that Jesus was no longer in repose in the tomb. In another( Luke 24), two beings of light join the two Marys who had already entered the tomb to likewise report that Jesus was not there. In both accounts, the angels delivered essentially the same message: He isn’t here.

Different translations exist of these words. I love what the angel in this particular version (Matthew 28) is purported to have said: “He is not here. He is risen, just as he said he would.” I also love the question posed by the angels in Luke’s version: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Very practical question, unless you consider the ramifications of it.

Just two days earlier they had washed, anointed, and wrapped Jesus’s shredded, battered, and wrapped his decidedly dead body in burial cloths. At that time, so engrossed were they in their task and enveloped in their numbed grief, they did not contemplate the notion that he would rise and return to walk among the living. And now here was this being, too bright to even look at, telling them that the body was no longer there. It even invited them to look for themselves, “Come over and see where he had lain.” After their shock at the whole thing had begun to diminish sufficiently enough for them to move, they took off running to tell the disciples.

The translation of this passage is important. The one I prefer says, “He is risen,” while others declare “He has risen.” He has risen which is a stated action of something that he did, while “He is risen,” is a statement of being, of his present condition. I saw other translations that said, “He has been raised,” which took the entire thing out of his hands, like it was something done to him, rather than something that he did himself. It might be obvious here that I much prefer, “He is risen.” It would be like saying someone is awesome (something that they inherently are) or “they have awesomeness,” (which no one would say, but you get the point.) One says that’s what they are at their core, the other says that’s a quality that they possess, but that might be temporary.

And so, as we wind down these 40 days, I want to add a few thoughts to those I shared yesterday, when I wrote about how we wait after the death of a loved one:

“For we who wait after the deaths of our loved ones, there is no predicted resurrection. We know they will not come back in three days as if they went on long trip from which they would return. ”

I realized something when I woke on this “resurrection morning,” no matter what has preceded the previous night, each morning it is we who rise. We rise the next morning after the death of a loved one. We rise after we’ve fallen or been struck down by an unexpected physical or emotional blow. We rise the day after a victory just as we would after a defeat. Whether it is physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, we rise. It has been so, and so it will continue to be. We might not quite be at “I am risen,” as a state of being, or we might be and I simply can’t picture what that looks like. But we can and do rise according to our natures and according to the laws of physics.

So while a physical body is seemingly incapable of appearing to rise after it has ceased to function (that is, it is dead), the spiritual body has and is risen. Our loved ones–my mother and father, others who have gone invisible oh so many years ago–perhaps are indeed risen and walking amongst us in some realm which our three-dimensional physical selves cannot detect. We may not see them, but they are risen. We too rise. And so it goes.

Deep bows of gratitude to everyone who has been on part or all of this Lenten journey with me. I do not know what the future holds in terms of what will happen next year–if I have another 40 days in me–but that is not important at this time. What is important is that we live in this moment as best we can, that we are present to the people and world around us right now, and that as needed, and when it is called for, we rise.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 40–While We Wait

It seems as though we are in a long space of waiting. I ran across this post from “Holy Saturday” three years ago and found it remarkably relevant to what we’re experiencing today. We are in waiting mode, as were the followers of Jesus. For them it was only three days, for us the end of our wait is uncertain. Nonetheless, it is important for us to consider how we wait. We could wait in impatience, fear, hopelessness, or with as much equanimity as we can muster, knowing that fretting will not make things move any faster. I find myself stretching, reaching toward that equanimity and calm, finding it a little elusive in this moment. Sometimes I reach it, sometimes I don’t. Regardless of how I wait, wait I must. And so it goes. I welcome your thoughts about waiting as you read this post from April 2017.

Another Forty Days, Day 40–And So We Wait

Jesus is dead. For  those watching the spectacle from start to finish–people like his mother, Mary, Mary Magdalen, and John–it must have felt like the day that would never end. He was taken down and prepared for burial, then sealed in the tomb and the massive stone rolled in front of it. When it was all said and done, the two Marys, the disciples and followers went to their respective abodes and likely collapsed from the exhaustion and strain of an incredibly stressful 24 hours.

Anyone who has ever sat with the dying and been drawn into all the preparation that precedes and follows the death of a loved one, knows what a stressful and exhausting ordeal it can be, even when the death is expected and relatively uneventful. While my mother was dying, my five siblings, our father and I sat vigil with her at the hospital for nearly a week, all of us arriving from various cities on a Sunday afternoon. Apparently she had died at least once when she’d first arrived, but my father (who was a physician) resuscitated her. We hovered around her praying and singing and telling her it was okay for her to go. (I can only imagine what she was thinking, we were probably such a sight.)

At one point in the middle of the week, she appeared to rally, actually alert and motioning and asking questions. By Friday, she had exhausted herself and fell into a deep sleep, from which she didn’t stir before I left to go back home to check on my family. We were all physically and emotionally drained from having lived at the hospital for most of those days, keeping watch. It was interesting, but she in essence waited for most of us to leave–me back to Michigan and my sisters back to the DC area–before she quietly took her last breath, witnessed only by my father, one brother and his wife.

I was not involved in planning my mother’s funeral. I showed up where I was told to be, did what I was told to do. I did sing at her Mass, a song I had written for her, alongside my younger sister who sang harmony. The entire time was surreal. But it was simple, straightforward, and while heartbreaking for us, it was not marked by the drama and violence that had been visited upon Jesus and witnessed by his mother and close followers.

For some reason, I was more involved with the process of my father’s death and aftermath. I arrived in his hospital room only a few moments after he’d died. One of my brothers and my oldest sister were in the room, and my father lay there, still and unmoving. It was hushed in the room–no whirring machines or beeping monitors, only the occasional sniffing of one of us who was quietly crying. After a while we scattered, and I called my children in California, trying to wait until it was late enough to not wake them, to tell them their grandfather had passed.

Those days were a different kind of exhausting. I wrote his obituary–for some reason the task fell to me, though any of my siblings were capable of writing it–and all of us were involved in the planning of the service, selecting readings, and music and making all manner of mundane decisions. At times we argued over silly things. I could tell it was all about the strain of it all. And I wept far more often than was my wont. Mostly the time was draining. When it was all said and done, we all boarded our planes or got back into our cars, and went back into our lives.

For the followers of Jesus, from the time he was sealed in the tomb, they waited. Hadn’t he said he was coming back? What must that Saturday have been like? They all were sequestered, in hiding while much of the unrest surrounding Jesus’s death continued to bubble. The religious establishment as well as the Roman oppressors each had their stresses associated with this wait. The whole city, at least the part of it who had heard the prediction, the promise that Jesus made that he would rise from the dead to walk the earth after three days, was holding its breath to see what would happen.

We too wait, though for what I am not entirely sure. To see that promises and predictions about those things we are waiting for come to pass? While Jesus slept or did whatever it was he was doing after he died, the people who loved him waited. The people who feared him waited. The people who hated him waited. And so we too wait.

When we take a 360-degree view of the world around us, we see so much conflict and confusion and uncertainty around us. Few places in our line of sight are untouched by some form of drama, trauma, or difficulty. And, in a sense, as the followers of Jesus waited in their tiny hiding place to see what would happen, we too wait and watch to see what’s going to happen. The fact is that waiting is inevitable, but what’s important is how we wait.

As I wrote in a post from a short-lived Advent blog:

There’s a line from the Catholic Mass that captures this anticipation, “As we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” I’ve often pondered this notion—waiting in joyful hope versus what? Fearful dread? And yet, in fearful dread is sometimes how we wait. We wait for outcomes, for news of someone who’s been injured or seriously ill, for the results of a medical test. Or the more mundane waiting: being stuck in the slow crawl of rush hour traffic, sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, standing in the checkout line at the supermarket. We spend a lot of time waiting, but how do we learn to wait in joyful hope?

The last few weeks and months have been very challenging ones for the heart of a nation. How do we learn to wait in joyful hope for good to come? How did the Israelites do it two millennia ago as they waited for Emmanuel? How has any people waited who suffered in bondage or oppression? Perhaps for a time there is fearful dread, followed by grim determination and perseverance. I honestly don’t know what it takes to wait in joyful hope, but that is what I am reaching toward. It’s inevitable that we wait; what’s important is how we wait. What do we do during the waiting time, and how can we turn from fearful dread toward joyful hope?

And so we wait, not passively, but actively responding to the things we see around us. While we’re waiting for Jesus to wake up, rather than cowering in a room somewhere waiting to see if the promise is fulfilled, let’s find ways to make ourselves useful to calm the unrest around us, including the unrest that resides in us during these tense, intense times. What would Jesus have us do?

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Forty Days Returning, Day 39–Time for Mourning

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven…A  time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance. ~~Ecclesiastes 3: 1, 4

I never understood why it was called, “Good Friday.” From a strictly historical perspective, there was nothing good about it. But history and liturgy are two different things. And so we observe Good Friday, finding in it a time to mourn.  This post from April 2017 brings the issue of mourning to the fore as we commemorate the events and aftermath of Jesus’s persecution.

Another Forty Days, Day 39–And So We Mourn

What a 24 hours it must’ve been between the Last Supper and the removal of Jesus’s lifeless body from the cross. Imagine the urgency he must have been feeling as he dined for the last time with his closest followers, his friends. There was so much he still wanted to tell them, to teach them, and to reassure them one more time that everything that was happening and going to happen was all part of the plan. Perhaps he had to likewise remind himself that it was part of the plan.

“Okay, friends, remember when you take this bread and this wine and bless it to share with others, remember the sacrifice that I am about to make. When you do this, remember me.” So many things to tell them, so little time. And yet if the entire scenario was to play itself out, he was essentially out of time. He had to release Judas to go play his part by betraying him to the authorities, and he still needed a little time to prepare himself, because once it all started to go down, these very same beloved disciples would scatter and desert him, cowering in fear that the same fate that befell Jesus would likewise fall upon them.

And so when the conversation and dining was over, as was often his habit, he retreated to pray. He brought some of his disciples with him, asking that they keep watch and likewise pray. He walked a little deeper into the garden, before “falling with his face to the ground” crying out in agony to God. In the garden, the Son of Man agonized and fretted in such anguish that it was said that his sweat came out like great drops of blood. He essentially asked God if he really had to go through with it, the suffering and death he knew was coming. He really was, in those hours, the son of man, for what human being would want to endure what he knew was to come. And, perhaps the worst part of it was that through the ordeal he would be separated from God, the one constant voice, connection, he’d enjoyed throughout his entire life. Yes, I suppose I would also be lamenting and crying out and sweating blood.

At the end of a long day, and the end of a much longer week, one which began with triumph and adulation and would end with ignominy and rejection, he spent those last solitary hours in mental torment.

This evening I was talking to my friend about how I envisioned various parts of the “passion story.” We talked through some of the gory, painful details of what we imagined happened to Jesus from the time Judas kissed him and turned him over to the mob to the time he spoke his last anguished words that told of his disconnection from his father, “my god, my god, why have you abandoned me?” Such a heart-wrenching and excruciatingly painful story. Whether one is religious, agnostic, or even atheist, a story of such human suffering touches all but the coldest, deadest heart. And so we mourn.

I find my heart breaking for all the other innocent victims who are tortured, suffer, and die in agony, ignominy, and rejection. So very many, all around the world. Can we not see Jesus in them recognize their humanity? I have been on a news fast for many, many weeks. I simply could not turn on the evening news, even the local broadcasts, and take in the sorry state of the world. One cannot act if one is overwhelmed and depressed by the sheer magnitude of the problems we face in healing this planet. And so, I stopped watching, particularly the over-sensationalized stuff I had been dining with each night after I came home from work.

I have the privilege to simply turn off the television, stop reading the news on my Facebook feed, and engage my mind in mundane pursuits. But the passion of Jesus, commemorated today in particular, but every day in Catholic masses around the world, invites me to turn and face those things I find difficult to bear and ask, “What can I do? How can I serve?” I am not sure I have the answer in its entirety; perhaps I only have an answer for myself and we each must seek our own. As I wrote two weeks ago:

“How can we hope to make a change, given all the strife around us? And then a light goes on and I remind myself that it starts and ends with me, doing what I do where I do it.  If I focused on all that needs to happen in the world, my heart would go out of me at the near impossibility of the task. I have to remember that it is not my job to change the whole world, I need to work in my own back yard. That is the way to change the world: by changing my world.” ~Another Forty Days, Day 24

And so it goes. On this the 39th day, I bow my head in remembrance.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 38–Remember Me

Once again, without fanfare or preamble, here is tonight’s posting from March 2016.


The Next Forty Days, Day 39–In Memory of Me

By the time a person reaches a certain age, they have likely lost someone to death. They often go through a period during which time they engage in some ritual, wear an article of clothing, read and recite a poem, listen to a song, all of which serves to remind them of the person they lost. They commemorate in some way the life of that person. For many years, I wore a necklace that was my mother’s. The feeling of that enameled metal dove against my skin gave me great comfort, and reminded me that the spirit of my mother, in the form of the Holy Spirit, was with me. My sister still wears my father’s wedding ring. Others in my family commemorate and celebrate my mother’s and father’s lives in various ways. In short, we do things in memory of those we’ve lost.

In the Christian tradition, particularly in the Catholic tradition in which I was raised, Maundy Thursday, is a commemoration of the “Last Supper,” the last time Jesus broke bread with his disciples. During that evening, 2000-plus years ago, a number of significant things happened, the elements of which we still acknowledge and celebrate to this day. We learn about humility and offering service to one another from watching Jesus taking the time to wash the feet of his disciples. We learn that if such an action was not beneath Jesus, it was not any of his disciples, and it is certainly not beneath us to serve others, even those considered “the least of us” in our society. While service is a subject worthy of consideration in these last few explorations of the 40 days of Lent, that is not the focus of today’s reflection.

Among other rituals that have emerged from the last supper, one of the most important of these is the breaking and sharing of bread and the pouring and sharing of wine. In doing this, Jesus is creating a ritual that will be refined and passed down through the ages. And as he is teaching his disciples one last time, he shares the significance of the bread and wine, symbolic representations of the sacrifice he would shortly be making. He concludes this portion of the evening with the words, “Do this in memory of me.” So they did, and so we do, all over the world as we have through centuries and millennia.

When you think about your life right now, what are the things you will ask that others do in your memory? In much of our society we do not like to think about our own mortality, particularly if we consider ourselves relatively young. But what are those things you hope someone will do in memory of you, that when that thing is done, your friend, loved one, or colleague will say, “I want to offer this in memory of…”  For those who feel that thinking of something as being “in memoriam,” particularly if you’re still alive is a bit morbid, you might think of it as, “in my honor.” Even as I write that, it sounds a bit arrogant to say to someone, “Do this in my honor,” but it is meant more as a sincere expression of “please remember me,” that I want to feel like I passed this way and left a mark.

This is an inherently human trait–the desire first to be known, and then later to be remembered, to be favorably thought of, even after we’re gone. We want to matter, we want to be loved, we want to be remembered. This is difficult for some of us to admit; we’d much rather do the remembering, the honoring. I recognize in this my own human need to be seen and acknowledged, and this feels very basic and primal. I cannot say how I want to be remembered, I can only say that I want to be remembered.

As I near the end of these 40 days, I am grateful for the journey of these explorations, for the insights I’ve gained that deepen my understanding of the world, clarify my faith, and expand the compassion and love I hold for the people around me.  These words will fade into cyberspace and be forgotten, but in this moment, and for a brief time afterward they and I will have left a mark. And so it goes.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 37–Winding Down

For some reason, the three days after Palm Sunday aren’t celebrated or called anything. Today is one of those plain, Easter week days. To the best of my knowledge, there are no special activities that we undertake on Wednesday, which I pointed out in today’s post from March 2016. Perhaps we can call it “Waiting Wednesday,” as that’s what we seem to be doing on this “tween day.” Tomorrow is when the real action begins, at least as celebrated in various liturgies. And so we wait, as these final days wind down, for the inevitable conclusion to these 40 days. It is with advancing that quality of waiting that I invite you to read today’s post.

The Next Forty Days, Day 37–Nearing the End

There’s a certain satisfaction when one is nearing the end of an experience or process. Somewhere between now and Sunday, I will wind down writing the posts for this year’s Lenten season blog. After beginning with “Forty Days” last year and continuing with “The Next Forty Days,” I have no idea if next year I will work on “Yet Another Forty Days.” The good news is that I have more than a year in which to contemplate what I will do–Easter is not until April 16 of 2017.

Many of us have had experiences in which we were engaged in a long process that we could finally see coming to an end. Working on my doctorate was like that. It was on again, off again for over nine years before I finally saw the light at the end of a very long tunnel and completion was close at hand. It was an epic struggle that at one point I pondered quitting. But a number of factors motivated me to push past the exhaustion of working full time, raising children, and living life while attempting to write my dissertation. Through sheer determination and perseverance I managed to finish, and as I got closer and closer to the end, I gave a mighty heave to finish it. There comes this surreal moment when you realize that you have turned the corner and the thing you’ve been laboring over for hours, days, months, years is actually going to happen. It is a sweet feeling.

Of course, the inevitable completion of this blog series is not nearly as epic as completing my doctoral dissertation, but it does come with some measure of satisfaction and an equal measure of relief. The pressure of writing a post virtually every day, hoping for some wisdom, some theme to land on, some measure of insight to share has been exhausting. Doing so while also battling chronic sleeplessness, job stress, and other life issues increases the pressure. Still, I wouldn’t trade anything for it. It is beautiful to contemplate so many things during these 40 days. It has been an important time of reflection for me on the many subjects I’ve shared in these posts as well as a good disciplinary practice to challenge myself to write something coherent every day. While I will miss writing regularly after Sunday, it will be a relief to turn my time and attention to something else.

Over the past week I’ve spent more time contemplating how Jesus knew he was actually nearing the end of his days on earth. In religious tradition, we celebrate Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, but who knows what Jesus was thinking or doing that last week, in those last hours before his arrest. There is no “Maundy Monday” or “Holy Tuesday” or “Special Wednesday” celebrations during this last week of Lent. Those days aren’t of any particular spiritual significance. On these days, like any others, Jesus probably walked around the city greeting and healing people, teaching and preaching while he still could. Was he in countdown mode? Did he know?

There are times in our lives when we know we’re reaching an end–we are finishing projects, preparing for retirement, completing a degree program, putting the finishing touches on a painting, a novel, a song. There are other endings we do not know are coming, did not anticipate, and are left reeling in their wakes. Such is the stuff of life, and so we live and love and do our best as we count down our own span on this earth. So it has ever been, and so it shall be. World without end, amen.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 36–Embracing the Darkness

Many people are afraid of the dark. I am not sure I am one of them; I guess it depends on the circumstances. There are times when I actually find the dark comforting, as described in this post from March 2018.

Forty Days Revisited, Day 36–The Treasures of Darkness

And I will give you the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that I, the LORD, which call you by your name, am the God of Israel. ~Isaiah 45:3

Sometimes  I get distracted; in fact, I am often quite easily sidetracked. It is something I’m working on, and the first step is acknowledgment. So as I contemplated this evening’s post, I knew I was going to use this quote about the “treasures of darkness” as written about by the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is my favorite book on the bible–yes, I have one. I may no longer be a faithfully practicing Christian, but I do appreciate some of the reading I did back when I was. See? Distracted. Anyway, I got distracted by reading commentaries about what the meaning of this passage was, then after a while I realized that I don’t really care about the original meaning. I am going to make my own meaning of it for the purposes of tonight’s post.

Years ago, back in my “church days,” I wrote a newsletter article using this text as the foundation, very much as I am using it tonight (except back then there was no internet and I had to look it up the hard way: in the actual book, and then literally cut and pasted the article into my newsletter. But there I go, digressing yet again.) I knew even then that there were times when I preferred darkness; that in times of pain or confusion, I would retreat to my cave, a dark place in my mind where I was safe, though isolated, from everything around me that hurt or frightened me. In my cave I could hunker down until I could make sense or come to terms with what was bothering me. I would emerge, still somewhat tender, but a little more ready to reengage the world, if on a more cautious, more limited basis. The treasures of darkness.

During intense times in my church days, I would withdraw to the “prayer closet,” where I would pray, cry, and make sense of the world, and ponder the things I didn’t understand, until I came to some kind of resolution. I literally sat on the floor in the small closet in my small bedroom. It was dark and oddly comforting to sit amongst the shoes, my hanging close brushing my head and shoulders, enfolding me. I would wonder if it that was how it felt to have been in the womb–dark, close, muffled, oddly comforting. I would emerge from the literal closet back into the brightness of my room, my eyes readjusting to the light, and feeling better than I had went I’d climbed in. The treasures of darkness.

Those experiences were in my younger days. Now, I am not sure I could fold myself up as easily to fit in the closet, and I’ve permanently come out anyway. The cave, of course, has no such limitations, as it is a construct of my mind, but I’ve come to recognize that I can’t mentally fold myself up any more than I could do it physically. It was helpful back in the day, but I’m a grownup now, and we don’t run and hide in our caves when things get difficult…do we?

While I am technically a day ahead of when I should be talking about this, I find my mind going to the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus retreated to pray through the anguish he was feeling at his approaching arrest and ultimate execution. It wasn’t unusual for him to withdraw; as I’ve written about before he frequently withdrew when he needed to pray or simply to create space between himself and the throngs that so frequently shadowed him. This was different, however. Gethsemane was like my cave or prayer closet; Jesus went there to wrestle with his doubts, his fears, and to attempt to extricate himself from the situation he was about to face.

I can imagine the scene. This is what I love about Jesus the son of man. He is doing what I or any human would when confronting what was coming. He was pleading, bargaining with his father. Is there any way around this? Is there another way to accomplish what needs to be done? He had been quite brave throughout the evening, telling Judas, “Go do what you need to do,” knowing that Judas was going to fetch the authorities who would arrest him and set his feet on that final path, the via dolorosa. Now that he was up against it, he was afraid. It is written that he sweated great drops of blood, he was so anguished, but when it was all said and done, and he had poured himself out in prayer, he emerged having come to grips with his situation.

Jesus didn’t have a cave, he had a garden. And then he had the tomb, in the dark, muffled, quiet from which he emerged after three days later, back into the light and changed from how he’d entered.  The treasures of darkness. I for one am grateful for my cave, my closet, and perhaps someday soon, my garden. They are each representations of safety, and a quiet place to struggle and make sense of things. Perhaps when I next go in, I too will emerge changed from how I enter. May it be so.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 35–On Perseverance

Without fanfare or preamble, I offer tonight’s post from April, 2017.


Another Forty Days, Day 35–Bloodied but Unbowed

It would not be one of my blog series if I didn’t include, in some form, the poem “Invictus,” written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley. Although I had known of the poem for many years (remembered in vague childhood recollections as being recited by my father at some point, though I could be wrong) it wasn’t until I was befallen by a series of unfortunate events back in 2011 that it became a source of strength and inspiration that kept me encouraged, even when my life felt most challenged. At any given time in rereading the poem, different parts would catch my attention, giving me what I needed in that moment.

And so as these 40 days begin to wind down, this line stands out to me, “My head is bloodied, but unbowed,” reminding me that we can be bruised and battered–figuratively and literally–by circumstances, wounded by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and still be able to stand strong.We have all been through trials, challenges that left us wondering what was happening to us and when would it end (or when we would end.) It is in those moments that we learn what we are made of, we recognize our ability to withstand the storms no matter how hard the wind blows and how many times we get blown over. We somehow learn to get back up.

My life is so much better by far than it had been when things went sideways a few years ago. Every material thing I lost during those months has been fully restored and then some. The lingering residue from that time is that it left me with a keener understanding of who I am outside of the external trappings of social positions, jobs, relationships, and any tangible, material things. Those times weren’t easy, but they helped me to focus on what was important.

I think the line, “My head is bloodied but unbowed” implies standing strong in the face of adversity. On one level, it can sound like a lot of bravado; much of the imagery in the poem seems to focus on stoically taking a beating at the hands of life without crying out or bowing one’s head to it. I like to think there’s a sense of gratitude at having taken everything that circumstance had to throw at a person and coming through it stronger for what those circumstances had to teach. Life has it’s difficult moments. One can learn from them without being utterly shattered by them.

Sometimes it isn’t the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but small winds of discontent may blow through our lives…nothing that causes the serious damage of a tornado or hurricane, but enough to stir up a variety of smaller irritants. It’s much harder to learn what one is made of when life is slowly eroded away by these winds and rains rather than blown quickly away by a powerful storm. The good thing about the storm is that the damage is immediate, and you know how to assess it and take action to repair the damage. The slow erosion is much more difficult because of the gradual leaching away of essence and energy. It sort of makes the brutality of the storm sound  preferable to the achingly slow, glacier like movement that grinds rocks and boulders into soil. (Oh dear, mixing metaphors again…)

In either case, the task is to stand strong as best we can, and persevere. This last week of Lent is filled with drama, of agony and ecstasy, but mostly agony. Jesus’s head and entire body was battered and bloodied as he went through the various trials and ordeals on his last day. His head wasn’t bowed either; for though he stood laid bare and humbled before the masses, even as he was beaten beyond recognition and paraded through the city streets headed to the hill of crucifixion, he still reached out and spoke to and comforted people around him, especially to those whom he loved. To the moment he died, his head was bloodied, but unbowed.

When people say, “I want to be like Jesus,” they need to be careful and mindful of what they’re asking for. Nevertheless, there is a lot to learn from the examples he set not only about how to be loving, kind, and compassionate but also how to suffer physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually and somehow remain intact. There is so much more to learn, and so we go on.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
~William Ernest Henley, 1875

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Forty Days Returning, Day 34–The Beginning of the End

We are drawing to the inevitable conclusion of the life of Jesus and to the beginning of his end. I wrote a Palm Sunday post a few years ago that still resonates with me, so I am bringing it back for your consideration. It speaks to the confusion one must have felt during that last week, from adoration on Sunday to crucifixion on Friday. What a wild week. While I have had unpredictable things happen to me in my life, I can’t recall them ever taking the rapid turn that they did during Jesus’s last week. And so we begin this week watching as Jesus walks into his destiny. And so it goes.

Another Forty Days, Day 34–From Hosanna to Hatred

How does one get from “Hosanna!” on Sunday to “Crucify him!” on Friday? What a week it must’ve been–people who adored and cheered and praised you, giving you a hero’s welcome to the city only to turn into a jeering, taunting vigilante mob a few days later.  Today is Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem as the “Prince of Peace.” Imagine crowds of people cheering and waving palms and branches, laying them before Jesus as he rides in on the back of a donkey, humble and regal at the same time.

My mind keeps going back to the question, “Did he know then? When did he know?” Did he know as he was riding in on a wave of love and worshipful approval, that in a few short days, masses of people would once again be assembled, only this time it would be to witness his arrest, his trial, his sentence, and the long and agonizing hours of his torture, punishment, and death. I can remember as a child being horrified and angered at the behavior of the crowd. I also found it confusing, when attending Good Friday service to be one of the ones calling out “Crucify him!” when the part of the service that required audience participation came around. “Give us Barabbas!” we shouted, which I also didn’t understand or like. I felt like we were turning on Jesus.

It’s been many years since I’ve been to church on Palm Sunday, or Good Friday services, or even Resurrection Sunday itself. But the stories, the experiences, the feelings that I learned all those years ago remain with me. And I find myself admiring anew the fact that one human being who lived millennia ago can still have the impact that he does. As with the Buddha and other ancient teachers of note, Jesus’s impact remains as strong today as it has throughout the centuries.

But what captures me most these days, as I contemplate various aspects of these 40 days, is not his divinity, but his humanity. So often throughout these days I find myself reflecting on what Jesus the son of man might be thinking or doing as he walked through his days. How did he feel, for instance, riding through the crowds on that Sunday? This right on the heels of having raised his good friend Lazarus from the dead. It had to have been an awesome couple of days. Still, he knew, even as he arrived in the city and spent time teaching and preaching to the people around him that tensions between himself and the religious establishment were strained at best, antagonistic at worst.

I don’t know if on the day the crowds were cheering him that Jesus knew that some of the same people would, days later, call for him to be crucified. It goes back to the metaphor of watching Jesus’s life unfold as one would watch a movie where we see the protagonist walking blindly into danger. We want to holler at the screen saying, “No Jesus, don’t trust these people! Don’t let yourself get arrested, speak up for yourself. Call on your disciples to protect you. For heaven’s sake, do something!” But we know how the story goes, we know how it’s going to end. But for today, we acknowledge and accept Jesus as King. We wave our palms and sing his praise. And for his part, Jesus must have felt wonderful, even if the shadow of impending doom hovered right behind him.

Holy week will offer the opportunity this week for the final days of reflection and solemnity as we wait for what we know is coming. It provides a space in which we are both cheerleader and taunter, where we offer praise and scorn.  The confusion of a people who are emotionally pushed and pulled between the forces around them result in this kind of split personality that we will watch unfold in the days ahead. From Hosanna to hatred in a few short days is a stunning and breathtaking reversal of moods that likely caught the people themselves off guard. Until, at the end of it all, Jesus stood alone and without support.

From Hosanna to most hated, from King to criminal, so too the fates of Jesus turned sharply. We will experience the passion with him this week, whether we follow the basic tenants of any particular faith or not. As we close out another 40 days, we will go through these last days gleaning what final messages we can before we close the book once again. And so it goes.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 33–The Real Jesus, Revisited

We are in countdown mode. Palm Sunday is coming and after that Holy Week, and this year’s blog will be history. When it’s all done, this 40 days has been a compilation of previous posts, returning, as the name suggests, to earlier pieces written in commemoration of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I, a “spiritual but not religious” former Christian spend time thinking and writing about various aspects of life in relation to the season of Lent. I am grateful to have once observed the season in a more faith-based, traditional manner, and while I no longer associate myself with any particular faith tradition, I do not forget from whence I came.

And so as we prepare to enter Holy Week, I will find myself thinking a lot about Jesus, and how he perhaps spent the last few days on the planet. So I offer this post from 2016 that speaks to the humanity of this man who is considered by many to be the son of God. Thank you for reading.

The Next Forty Days, Day 34–The Real Jesus

I bet Jesus farted, probably a lot, depending on his diet. Back in his day it was probably less socially unacceptable to fart, have body odor, and other things that most people in today’s society would raise and eyebrow over, if not scoff at and comment about, a person who smelled bad or farted out loud. Perhaps I would scoff too. But as I put myself in Jesus’s sandals and look through his eyes and walk in his body in the last of these 40 days, I prefer to see Jesus as he probably really was: a regular human being like me.

You see, my Jesus is not the clean, handsome, blue-eyed, muscular man depicted in so many paintings and films and made-for-TV movies, who glides gracefully through the crowds, gently touching people on their heads, smiling beneficently at everyone. My Jesus is sweaty, grimy, unshaven and unkempt. He does not always speak in calm, melodious, dulcet tones, or the powerful, booming voice of the son of God. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, my Jesus is more like me. I don’t mean physically like me; I’m not going to get into the various arguments about Jesus’s hair color, skin color, eye color. What I mean is that my Jesus is human and real and frail, as I have felt so often in my life. My Jesus is a person I can relate to.

Jesus traveled from place to place, teaching and preaching and speaking to people, sometimes–I imagine–for hours at a time. I bet he got sore throats. I wonder if his disciples give him hot tea to ease it. I wonder if he got laryngitis. You see, even though Jesus was the son of God, he was often quoted referring to himself as the “son of man,” meaning, in my mind, that he was acknowledging his humanity, not his divinity. So when he got tired, he rested. When he was hungry or thirsty, he ate or drank. He went to the bathroom. He perhaps even got sick on occasion. When he was overwhelmed by the masses of people hovering around him, he withdrew himself to quiet places to pray and refresh himself. These are things a regular human being would do.

During these last few days of Lent I can’t help but spend time inside Jesus’s head and heart. On the liturgical calendar this Sunday is Palm Sunday, commemorating when Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the roar of appreciative and adoring crowds. Of course a few short days later some of those same people were shouting, “Crucify him!” What must that have felt like, to know that these things would happen, that he would go from the pinnacle of popularity and being embraced by the populace to public humiliation and suffering days later?

Jesus was happy. He was grief stricken. He felt the sting of betrayal, the separation from loved ones, abandonment and loneliness. In those last days he fretted about what was going to happen to him, trying in vain to get out of it, but in the end accepting what was going to happen and pulled himself together enough to go through with it. Jesus was just like you and me.

The vast majority of we ever read about, hear about, and see are about Jesus the son of God. How are we supposed to see ourselves in him? He is so far above us, so much more capable of forgiveness, of gentleness, of patience and peace. But the son of man? Now there’s someone I can get behind. I recognize myself in that Jesus and recognize him in me. I can aspire to do the simple things he did–love others, be kind to the people around me, give of my time and resources to help them–and feel a kinship to him rather than being intimidated by his godliness, his healing people’s diseases, transforming water into wine, walking on water, and quieting storms.

The real Jesus loves me. He does not expect me to be perfect by some impossible standards created and upheld by a religious establishment that might not recognize him if he walked in the door. He expects me to do my best with what I have, to show up and be real. The real Jesus knows all, not so much because he was the son of God and had access to all knowledge (which I imagine he did), but because he was the son of man and experienced some of the same things I do. Yep, I bet Jesus farted and burped too. Maybe he was even a little embarrassed by that. I will never know for sure, but it make me smile just to think about it.

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Forty Days Returning, Day 32–Just Be Yourself

Have you ever been about to go into an interview or give a speech or meet with someone you don’t know? “Just be yourself,” a friend helpfully suggests, but if you’re like me you may wonder, “What’s that supposed to mean?” Which self should I be? So many of us have fragmented ourselves into various versions of ourselves that we “put on,” depending on the circumstance. It can take a lifetime before we realize that it is a whole lot easier to be one self. Easier said than done, and perhaps it takes some people more than one lifetime to get that. The educator and author, Parker Palmer in his wonderful little book, “Let Your Life Speak,” has a chapter titled, “Now I Become Myself.” It’s a quote from May Sarton. I love the sentiment, because isn’t life in part about learning to become ourselves?

That’s the theme of tonight’s post from April 2015. It’s about becoming who we are and being happy with ourselves. I still have a lot of work to do to pull the scattered pieces of myself back together into some semblance of a whole. But I am making progress. Just be yourself, as best you can, and know that is enough.

Forty Days, Day 37–Being Who You Are

It has taken me over 50 years, but I finally like myself. Don’t get me wrong,  I still occasionally have times when I don’t treat myself very well, but for the most part I have developed an appreciation for who I have become. It has taken me a long time to get here. For some of us, self dislike begins at an early age. As a brown-skinned person who grew up in northern Indiana in the early 1960s, it didn’t take much for me to realize that many people didn’t like me simply because I had the nerve to live in the “wrong” neighborhood. The next door neighbors, kids at the Catholic elementary school where the only other “Negroes” in the school were my older siblings, and other people around me made it very clear to me that I was different and that those differences were not good.

You learn that to be a “tomboy,” was not a good thing–girls are not supposed to be good at basketball and baseball, enjoy climbing trees, or outrun the boys on the playground. People don’t necessarily say it, but you can feel that somehow they don’t approve. You know it in how people react to you when you’re the “only” of something in a classroom, in a restaurant, on the job. You realize that to be shy is to be misunderstood as aloof, antisocial, or less intelligent. Too fat, too thin, too dark, too masculine, too anything. If you’re it, you know it. No one has to tell you, though sometimes people do.

I’ve attributed a statement to my father that I don’t know if he actually said, though I seem to remember that he did: “Be who you is.” He used to say this half in jest, but the sentiment was clear: there are all kinds of people in the world who will take great pains to tell you the many ways in which you don’t measure up and therefore need to take some action to improve yourself, to become someone else. Your task is to ignore them and go on about the business of being your own, true, authentic self. Easier said than done, I’m afraid.

For many years I was people’s fix-up project. My hair, the way I dressed, how I carried myself came under scrutiny and corrective measures were taken to make me over. I was made up, dressed up, cleaned up in an attempt to turn me into something that was more acceptable and pleasing to the people around me. Unfortunately, many of these people were church folks, making me over for my own good. The very clear message that I received was, “You are not good enough as you are, you need to be remade.” The deeper implication was, “You are not good enough to come into the presence of God as you are. We need to fix you on the outside thereby effecting changes on the inside.” Needless to say, it didn’t fully take, although the damage that was done to my internal sense of worth was significant and I still suffer some of the side effects wrought by that period in my life.

Some folks who are damaged in this way come out hating God, the church, everything about it. And while I was really angry for a long while, cursing and fussing at God, I eventually realized that it wasn’t God with whom I had the issue, it was the people who used God and religion as the justification for trying to make me over. The words of Jesus come to mind in this moment, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I have spent many years forgiving people, and I still have some work to do in that regard, but I’ve come a great distance and it has brought me to where I am today–a place of deeper self acceptance and self appreciation (dare I say self love?) than I’ve experienced in my life time. And while I still have yet more distance to travel on the journey to truly becoming fully who I am, I am grateful for this space I’m in.

As I ponder these various themes I’ve explored during these 40 days and thought about the life and times of my friend Jesus, I realize that he hung out with all kinds of riff-raff. I think perhaps I would have been safe spending time with Jesus; I’m not sure he wouldn’t have felt the need to make me over so I could hang out with him, be seen with him. That is a very good thing. I hope we all are striving to become who we really are. We receive so many messages constantly bombarding us that we are somehow less than the magnificent, wonderful beings that we are. Remember that is not how God sees us. I want to look at myself and everyone around me through the eyes of love and compassion as best I can. I want you to know that you are beautiful and to believe it. I want to know this for myself.

May all beings experience and know true happiness and peace and taste, savor, and enjoy the fruits thereof. May it be so for us all.

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