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 only 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 me 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 is 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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Another Forty Days, Day 33–Laid Bare By the Storm

I have listening to an epic fantasy audiobook on my evening commute. At one point, one of the main characters is tied outside, hanging upside down, to be “judged by the StormFather,” being exposed to the equivalent of a hurricane. If he lives through the “high storm” he will be considered to have passed the StormFather’s judgment. Of course, because he is a main character and it is a fantasy, he lives through the storm after having been ravaged by the winds, his skin flayed and scoured by the rocks and debris kicked up by the storm.

As odd as it sounds, I have at times felt as though I was lashed to a tree in the middle of a pounding storm. My clothing stripped away, I too survive the storm, bruised, breathless, and sodden, holding on for dear life so as not to be blown away. Naked and exhausted there is nothing left of anything material. It is just me there. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.”

Anyone who has read my blogs on the regular knows that I am a big fan of metaphors. So while it sounds dramatic to have been laid bare by a metaphorical storm, internally I have felt that way. There have been times in my life when I felt like the external trappings of life were stripped away from me. While I always knew theoretically that my life and worth were not defined by things like my job, my home, a loving relationship, etc., in practice it was much more difficult to feel my value when all those things were lost to me within the span of  a few months. A storm had blown through my life, and with it any illusions about who I was in those particular contexts were gone.

Who am I now, if not associated with those things and am no longer identified by them? What is my true worth? I suppose life is a constant redefinition and reevaluation of one’s value when based in a particular context. There are things with which we are associated that shape and define how the world sees us and often how we see ourselves. When I was a single parent, I identified with that role. It became a badge I sewed on my sash of identities and identifiers (yes, another metaphor…picture here girl or boy scout sashes filled with merit badges). I had a lot of different badges, and at the point in my life when a particularly harsh storm blew through my sash was tattered and my badges scattered to the four winds. In short, I felt stripped down to nothing.

In such a moment, how does one define oneself? This is the struggle of the ego. When laid bare before the storm, when a number of significant the things with which I identified were gone, the question became, “Who am I without these things?” The ego answer might very well be, “nothing,” but the truth might be “Everything.” My wholeness cannot be dependent on things, no matter how wonderful and “deserved” those things may be. I must be whole without them because they are transient and not real. In one area of my life right now I find that I am in the midst of a storm. I have lashed myself down and am waiting to see what will remain when it has passed. I am not afraid, I am resolute.

This is another one of those posts when I wish I could more clearly convey what I’m feeling. When I feel myself in the midst of an epic struggle, I know I am letting go of things that no longer serve me. I’m untying them and letting them blow away. Things that the world tells me should matter, things with which I used to identify, I am attempting to unclench my hands, not grasp them so tightly, and see if I can let them go. I am not yet sure how to do this, but I’m hoping I get it sorted soon.

As we come into the last week of Lent, as we prepare this week to enter the passion of Christ, we know that Jesus is about to face his storm. He will be stripped bare, taunted, beaten, and tortured, brutalized physically, mentally, and emotionally, before he is crucified and killed in unimaginable ignominy and pain. In the season of Lent, as we find our way to the end of these 40 days, it is this week where–for me at least–the introspection and reflection deepens. And so we will see how it unfolds during this most solemn of times, Holy Week. And so it goes.

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Another Forty Days, Day 32–What Did He Know?

How much did Jesus know about what was going to happen to him and when? As I look at the calendar, I am aware that we are approaching “Holy Week,” the time that parallels the last days of Jesus’s ministry and life on earth.  Those of us who know the story recognize that this Sunday–Palm Sunday–marks the beginning of the end. It’s like watching a movie where you watch the protagonist as he moves unknowingly into danger. We watch the scenes unfold with increasing anxiety as we see the forces coming together slowly and inexorably toward a grim and inevitable conclusion. But what did Jesus know and when did he know it?

It must’ve been tough for him, balancing that whole “son of man/son of God” thing. I imagine there were times when he totally knew what was about to happen, when he could practically (or really) read the minds and intentions of the people around him and know what they were going to do. But what about the times when he was simply the carpenter’s son, the son of man, did he know about the scheming and machinations of the people around him? Did he realize how quickly the tides would turn against him?

He wouldn’t have had to be the son of God to know that things were bad. The heightened animosity between him and the religious establishment, the brutal oppression that the Roman empire visited upon the people of the region, and even the beheading of his cousin John, who had baptized him three years earlier, must have all been red flags that it wasn’t going to go well for him. Plus there were all those prophecies that seemed to point to a rather grim fate for him. Still, would it be better not to know? I wonder how much of his life did he spend knowing, perhaps not how exactly it would end, but that it would likely end badly.

Sometimes I feel as though I live in a bit of a bubble, walking through the days in a fog. I may have a sense here or there that something is happening around me, and watch with interest (and occasional amusement) the political maneuvering and posturing of people more interested in status and power than improving the lives and lots of people. But having an inkling is not the same as knowing, and watching the maneuvering is not the same as getting drawn into it.

Having never had the whole “child (son) of God thing,” I have spent my entire life as a “child of man.” I have not lived my whole life knowing I was destined for greatness, as well as great suffering. I may have had moments here or there, but they were mere glimmers of possibilities. I don’t know how he carried around any degree of foreknowledge of what was going to happen. I can barely get through the mini-dramas and disappointments that occur on the regular in my working life.

I always learn something during these 40-day explorations, sometimes I don’t realize it for some weeks after Resurrection Sunday has come and gone. The week ahead will chronicle the last days Jesus spent with his disciples and followers and the arrest, torture, suffering and death of a remarkable human being. While I can only guess at the mental, emotional, and spiritual strain he was under, these 40-plus days have provided an opportunity to think about and learn him, directly and indirectly, every day. And that is a very good thing.

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Another Forty Days, Day 31–The Essence of Faith

Sometimes I feel a stillness in my center that lets me know that in this moment all is well and that all shall be well. This is the essence of faith, I suppose. No one has to lay hands on my head, no prophet needs to speak words to or over me, no light shines down on me from the heavens. I simply know. There is nothing I have done to deserve this, no amount of fasting and prayer or attendance at religious services has granted me special access to this truth. I simply have to turn my attention to it and it is there.

I don’t mean to sound all deep and mystical; honestly, I am describing it as simply as I feel it. I have not had a particularly good day today, in fact, the past weeks have been a bit of a struggle and I have found myself in an exhausted funk most days. But that does not negate the fact that at my core I feel at peace, and in this moment that peace is accessible to me.

Lest I be accused of being atheistic or anti-religion, that is not so. I honor many faith traditions and support those who practice and live out their faith and serve their fellow humans even as they serve their gods. And I deeply believe in the Spirit, the spark of the divine that I believe resides in each of us. Perhaps that is what I am accessing when I feel the stillness at my core. I don’t really poke at it or try to explain it, I am simply and profoundly grateful that it’s there.

Like many people, I discovered my faith, I learned what I am made of, touched the spirit, not as a result of some kind of religious revival, but rather when pieces of my life had been stripped away from me. This happened at various pivotal moments in my life when, losing something tangible exposed something deeper and more valuable. I learned about the “grace of God,” at a time when I was so angry at “Him” that I was cursing at him at the top of my voice driving to work one day. “Eff you, God!” I screamed, “I hate you! Why is this happening?” I got control of myself enough to drive safely the rest of the way on my 45-minute commute. As I got out of the car and walked to my building, I calmed down with each step I took. By the time I had walked into my office, having greeted the people outside, I sat down and felt the peace.

I realized that even as I’d been walking I was praying and thanking God. It had not annoyed God that I’d gotten angry. There were no rumbles of thunder and lightening. God did not topple off his throne in surprise that I had sworn at him. I had done nothing to “deserve” the peace that descended on me. I realized that no matter what was happening in my life, my heart of its own volition always turned toward gratitude, toward whatever this notion of “god” is. I understood grace in that moment as I never had before when it had been told to me or preached at me. I felt the grace.

I have had my share of life drama. The storms and arrows of outrageous fortune strike every one of us, even the most privileged and fortunate among us. We are all touched by pain, sorrow, death. Suffering, as the Buddha (and countless others) observed, is all around us. When some years later I experienced a serious of significant losses, I once again learned what I was made of. There were times when I got depressed, approaching despair at the circumstances I’d found myself in. But as I had that day I cursed god, I found myself moved by and grateful for the simplest of things that I experienced all around me: birds singing, warm sunlight sparkling off water, the movement of the stars and planets and moon in the heavens. Life was challenging, but it was also incredibly beautiful.

Finding gratitude, connecting with all the things in my life that were good rather than constantly focusing on all the troubles saved me, kept me strong even when tears were streaming down my face. Fear and pain mingled with gratitude and joy, and appreciating the beauty around me kept me very present in the here and now. Friends and family stood by me, supporting me, encouraging me, loving me, and even protecting me from despair. All these things helped me stay connected to the peace at my center.

Nothing extraordinary happened to me today. And so I rest in gratitude that, here at the end of a normal day, I can touch the stillness and be grateful. And in this moment, all is well.

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Another Forty Days, Day 30–It’s Also Blessed to Receive

The other day I got to thinking about the phrase “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” While I fundamentally believe that giving to others around me is a good thing, I also believe that learning to receive is also good. There is some unstated implication that being on the receiving end of someone’s generosity is somehow not noble, and that people who give are somehow better.

I have known people who martyr themselves with high levels of self-sacrifice, constantly giving to others, and appearing so self-sufficient that anyone watching would think they didn’t need anything, and so few people offer to reciprocate and do anything for them. I have generally tended to be more on the martyr-like giving side, offering my time, energy, and financial means to a wide variety of people. In my personal life as well as at work, I would give and give. The problem with all that giving is that sooner or later you have to run out of something–time, energy, money–and then you have no choice but to ask for help, you have to learn to receive graciously.

The truth is, there’s a hefty amount of ego wrapped up in the whole giving thing, the saint-like righteousness of doing things for people and being praised for one’s selflessness. But after a while we live for the praise, for the kudos we get for being so selfless. We start doing things more for the kudos than for the person we were helping. Or we get resentful because nobody is doing anything for us. We look so self-sufficient and strong that it doesn’t occur to the folks around us that we ever have need of anything, and so they stop offering. And then when we really need something we don’t know whom and how to ask, and when we figure out that part, we squirm at actually needing something and asking for it.

At the end of the day it comes down to motivation. Some people truly are motivated to give of themselves and think nothing of doing so. They are genuinely delighted when someone does something for them in return, though that’s not why they do the things they do. Over time they come to understand the “give and take” of, well, giving and receiving and learn how to do so with grace and equanimity. I have to think a while before I come up with role models of a good receiver. Most of the people I know tend toward being givers. But I am optimistic that learning to receive is a skill I can develop, even as I continue to give of myself, hopefully without looking for something in return.

As we turn the corner toward the end of these 40-plus days, there are yet more lessons to learn and questions to ponder. This year’s journey has been more challenging for me than my first two years sojourning through the Lenten season. That somehow feels fitting for the season, given that Lent is very much about sacrifice and such. As I think back over 50 years to one of my childhood prayers about offering, “my prayers, works, joys, sufferings of this day” I understand that this blogging has become a practice, a discipline, something that I do whether it’s easy or not, and in fact especially when it is not easy. I confess I will be glad when next Sunday rolls around and I get my evenings back. Until then, this is my offering, my gift to whoever choses to receive it.

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Another Forty Days, Day 29–We Who Remain

I have continued ruminating on theme of grief that I began yesterday. After my mother died, I watched what happened to my father. I spent a lot of time in those early weeks after her death helping him pay bills, searching for all the hidden places my mother had tucked away money, saving for my younger sister’s wedding, and taking care of a variety of mundane tasks that needed to be done. My other siblings helped in other ways, but these were the ones I seemed to gravitate toward during those days.

I stayed with Dad on a number of weekends doing odds and ends like this. I did the bill paying in my mother’s workroom. It was part office, part craft space. A card table was set up with all the account books and bills, watched over by a dress form with a half-finished garment tacked to it. In another corner sat the knitting machine and other implements my mother used to work on any number of items all at once, now unfinished. My mother had been the queen of crafting projects, and always had way more fabric and patterns than she could ever sew, and dozens (and dozens), maybe hundreds of skeins of yarn. Being in the room was at once comforting and distressing, she was still so present in that space.

My father had left her voice on the answering machine for months after she died. I found it jarring every time I phone and the machine picked up. Once when I was staying there, I answered the house phone. “Dorothy?” the man on the other end asked, and I winced. I got that a lot, as did my other sisters. We sound a lot alike on the phone, and we all sounded like mom.

“Um no…” I stammered, “this is her daughter.”
“Oh, this is an old friend of hers, is she available to talk?”
“I’m sorry,” Why was I apologizing to him? “My mother passed away a few weeks ago.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”

I don’t remember what I said after that, only that it felt weird and surreal. I was glad when Dad finally changed the answering machine message, and for a time I avoided answering the phone lest anyone else confuse me for mom.

Dad was lost without her for a long time. He would go to the cemetery every day, sometimes two or three times per day. He would come home and putter around the house, fix dinner for himself (and me when I visited), then go to sleep with the TV on–I think he needed the sound to help him get to sleep. I think it was a long while before he changed those patterns.

I went to the cemetery more frequently in the early days, but over time I found it more and more upsetting, so I stopped going. As far as I was concerned she wasn’t in that patch of ground, and going there only reminded me that she also wasn’t present in a physical form anywhere. My brother goes very frequently. He and his family maintain the bushes and flowers and vigil lights that decorate my parents’ gravesite. Both are there now, my father living 15 years after my mother’s death before following her. It felt odd at the time to consider myself an orphan, which of course was a little silly as I was fully into middle age when my father died.

The time after a loss of a loved one can be a blur. We live in a society wherein people are often forced to go back to work a few short days after such a loss. We are expected to “get over it” and “move on.” But the world has changed for we who remain behind, and one doesn’t simply get over profound losses easily. We can feel adrift for months, perhaps even years, particularly if the person we lost was an anchor for us, keeping us firmly planted in the here and now.

When my mother died, I felt like I’d lost my north star. It wasn’t that she was a daily source of wisdom and guidance, it was simply that she was there. She was in my world, there for me to call her whenever I needed a recipe or something equally frivolous, or when I had something deeper I wanted to talk with her about. Although I was a grown woman (if 38 can be considered grown) with young children of my own, there were (and still are) times when I wanted my mommy.

After Jesus died, his disciples and dozens of his closest followers were bereft. They at least were fortunate enough to have him hang out for a few weeks (another 40 day period) after he’d died and popped back from the dead. Those days between his resurrection and his final departure to heaven were likely so precious to his loved ones. He spent time teaching them the last few things he wanted to impart to them, and in very gentle, loving ways prepare them for the time when he would be gone for good. And as the final goodbyes approached, he promised that his departure would make way for the “Comforter” or healer, counselor, to come and continue to guide and empower them for the work he was leaving them to do. And while the story goes that they were, in fact, empowered and emboldened to do great things, I guarantee you there were many, many times when his absence was a palpable feeling for them.

It’s awkward to say it this way, but those who depart this earth for whatever comes after death have it much easier than those of us who remain. Somehow we have to continue to exist, taking one small step at a time, day by day, to recover whatever sense of security, equilibrium, peace, ease, equanimity, and–god forbid–joy and happiness we had. Our lives are altered by their absence even as they were affected by their presence. We adapt and adjust to the new normal as best we can.

And so this is yet another lesson to take in during these forty days. How to go on in the face of loss. It is not only death, but any other profound loss–of a job, of a marriage, of one’s health. Many things have the power to affect the trajectory of our lives at any given time. But if we are fortunate, the Comforter, counselor, or some form of help emerges to guide us through the maze of grief and confusion until we can see clearly and function again. That has been my experience. May all who have experienced loss in any form be surrounded with lovingkindness and compassion. May they be held and sheltered. May they know equanimity and peace. May it be so.

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Another Forty Days, Day 28–Seasons and Cycles

The past few days I’ve been in a bit of a funk–sometimes cranky, sometimes sad, often distracted. What is wrong with you? I chide myself, judging and chastising myself for not being able to “pull myself together and get on with it,” whatever “it” is. This past weekend, the sun was shining and it was warm enough outside to work in the yard with only a light jacket against a bit of breeze that blew up from time to time. I worked outside, preparing soil and sowing grass seed in my front yard, stuff I normally love to do. But mostly I sullenly went through the motions. I accomplished my task, but was incongruously out of sorts, given the ideal conditions. What is wrong with you? I asked again, sighing.

And then I realized what it was. No, it couldn’t be, could it? I was suffering from my annual seasonal, cyclical affliction: my “mommy cells” were once again activated as they have been each spring since 1996. You would think I would recognize them after all these years, but they have grown more subtle. My mommy cells first developed in the year after my mother died from cancer in late May of 1995. The first months after her death were acutely painful and challenging, though I put on a brave face for my two young children and worked hard to function in a world where my mother no longer existed in the physical realm. The first year was tough, as I suppose it often is after one has suffered the loss of a loved one.

Over time, the grief eased ever so slowly until it was no longer excruciating, but remained painful. Eventually, over a period of a couple of years, I managed to “move on.” Three years after her death I began a new life odyssey as a single parent, my marriage having ended. Still, in my family we “soldier on,” when things get tough, so I did. But one beautiful spring day a few years after my mother’s death, I found myself dragging emotionally. I felt inexplicably sad, completely out of keeping with the beauty blossoming around me. And then it hit me: “I am grieving. I miss my mommy.” Once I had named it and confirmed that yes, that’s totally what I was feeling, I knew I had entered a new phase in my healing. Better to know the affliction and name it in order to work with it.

Every year in the spring, my mommy cells wake up. It is not the jarring, deeply penetrating sadness I experienced in the first year or so after she died. Each early spring the seasons and cycles of grief repeat. Some years it is the more muted, subtle, background music that plays so gently it is scarcely noticeable, and others it swells to a crescendo, unmistakable and obvious. Now as I approach the 22nd anniversary of her passage from the planet, I find that it took me a bit longer to recognize the change in my emotional seasons. The mommy cells lie dormant throughout much of the year, but they begin stirring in December, the month her illness was diagnosed and gain a foothold as the short, cold winter days begin to yield to the warming, breezy, rainy days of early spring.

As much as I would like to pooh-pooh the idea that emotions can be etched into one’s DNA and triggered, awakened at a particular time, it has been my experience these 20 years. I don’t actively think about it, plan or prepare for it, guard against it or any such thing that would require precognition. It hits without my my awareness of what is happening, often occurring to me weeks after I begin to notice my moods. “Well, duh,” one might say, but I would not be so unkind. For me it’s really a more gentle, “Ahhhhh,” and a self-soothing, “It’s okay. Now I understand what’s going on, and it’s okay.”

I just realized as I’ve been writing this, that one of the last times I remember being at Mass with my mother was Easter of 1995–April 16, 1995. This year, Easter is once again on April 16. I can remember what my mother wore (I have no idea what I wore…), I remember where we sat in church, and I remember some of the music that day. As I continue these reflections of the remaining days leading up to this Easter, I will do so with a new awareness of what they mean to me (and my siblings) personally, as well as what it means spiritually.

Grief, like so many phenomena, comes in seasons and cycles. Sometimes we catch what’s happening, and sometimes we don’t. And that’s alright. When you find yourself inexplicably sad, sometimes it may be grief cells that have been activated. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a marriage, or any other type of profound loss, be gentle and kind to yourself as best you can. Know that it may come around again, and that it might even sneak up on you, but when you recognize it for what it is, welcome it and accept the opportunity for a little more healing.

For me, the journey of these 40 days offers me the opportunity for introspection, reflection, growth, healing, and deepening of my thoughts about and understanding of many things. It is a gift. And even in the midst of awakening grief cells, I am grateful for the gifts they offer. And so it goes.

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