Good Grief, Friday

il_340x270-897371198_rvyaYesterday, along with another young woman interning at my church, I carried a seven-foot-tall, thick wooden cross (literally an “old rugged cross”) down the aisle of the sanctuary.

Today, I have a scrape on the palm of my right hand to show for it. I wash my hands, and the scrape stings just a little. I see it standing out from the smoothness of the rest of my hand, and I remember that I’ve carried a cross.

“Take up your cross and follow me” is an awfully painful command, friends.

It’s a painful command in our religiously and politically charged culture, in which a great many people think we’re taking up our crosses and following Jesus — and we all mean something different by it. When crosses hang around our necks as we reject, insult, gossip, curse, betray, threaten, or abuse.

I wonder if many of us who have come in close contact with religion have a scrape or two to show for it. If we, too, try to wash our hands of it, and the scrape still stings just a little — or more than a little.

I wonder these things especially after reading Jen Hatmaker’s vulnerable blog post yesterday, entitled “My Saddest Good Friday In Memory: When Treasured Things Are Dead.” Hatmaker writes:

“Good Friday is about death – even a necessary death – and that makes more sense to me now than maybe ever. It speaks of a dark day and broken hearts, unmet expectations, mob mentality turned brutal. When I consider that day now, in 2017, it all feels insane, blood-thirsty, the punitive result of being on the wrong side of religion.”

Jesus knows about those dark days and broken hearts. Jesus knows about unmet expectations. Jesus knows about the punitive result of being on the wrong side of religion.

So, maybe Good Friday is about good grief. Because good grief is exactly what Jesus knows. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:5). Grief over the loss of a loved one, a home, a job, a way of life, a way of thinking. Grief over whatever it is that once brought comfort — and now brings only a cross.

I think of the 5 stages of grief famously identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and as I go through the sacred days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, I hear signs that Jesus understands this grieving process:

DenialJesus might not have denied his fate. But everyone else, notably Peter, sure did (Matthew 26:31-35).

Anger. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Bargaining. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39).

Depression. “I am deeply grieved, even unto death” (Matthew 26:38) and “I am thirsty” (John 19:28).

Acceptance. “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Did Jesus check off each of these stages as he moved through them, neatly and in order? No. Do we? Not at all. The point is that Jesus knows about grief.

Truly, blessedly, Jesus knows about hope too. But, honestly, in the death of Good Friday, in the silence of Holy Saturday, and for some of us lasting onward into the foreseeable future, grief is where we’re at.

Grief that is fully understood by Jesus, fully carried by Jesus all the way to the cross and tomb and through to the impossible dawn of resurrection.



Foot Washing for the 21st Century

This Holy Week (specifically Maundy Thursday) reflection was originally posted on the blog of Church of the Incarnation. I don’t think I ever posted it here, so here it is!

It was Holy Week 2014 and I was hungry.

I had decided to fast on Good Friday from the time I woke up until I received the Eucharist (at a midday service, because honestly I’m no good at fasting for long). But, before I could get to the bread and wine, I had agreed to spend the morning delivering Meals On Wheels to homebound elderly individuals in an impoverished Dallas neighborhood.

One by one, I knocked on dilapidated doors and held out a boxed meal. By the third stop, my car smelled like lunch – a meal I wasn’t having that day. By the eighth stop, my stomach grumbled so loudly that the gray-haired man at the door laughed in my face. I was ready to be done.

Final stop. Finally.

“Door’s open,” Ms. Louise called from inside. “Come on back to the kitchen.”

She said she was hungry, so I handed her the lunch.

“No, no,” she said, waving it away, “set that on the counter. I’m hungry for some sugar!”

Ms. Louise held out her arms for a hug and kissed my cheek several times.

“I can’t get my slippers on,” Ms. Louise said, suddenly sad. “Could you help me, sugar?”

So, kneeling on the hard kitchen floor, I picked up one frail, little foot and then the other and eased it into a pair of snug pink slippers. My mind transported back to the Maundy Thursday service just the night before when Bishop Burton had washed the feet of 12 parishioners. He had reminded us visibly that Jesus, on the night before he was betrayed, humbly knelt down and washed the dirty feet of the disciples.

Upon doing this, Jesus said: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).

By the time I got to church on that Good Friday, I was hungry and filled – physically hungry, yes, and somehow spiritually filled with the flavor of a Servant King who knelt down to be with us all, serve us, wash our feet, and teach us to go and do likewise.

Rarely do we literally kneel down and wash (or even put snug pink slippers on) someone’s feet. But one of the challenges of Christ’s life and death, which we consider during Holy Week, is Christ’s call to kneel down and follow the example of Christ, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).

It looks like kneeling down to play with a child. To pick up a fallen friend. To scrub desks or plant shrubs at North Dallas High School (like many of us did last Saturday during Day of Service). To pray God’s peace be known in a hurting world.

So what about Holy Week this year? Are you hungry? And how could you be filled by following Christ this week?


Jesus, Tired Out

If you’re a lectionary user, you know this morning’s gospel lesson (about Jesus and the woman at the well) was a particularly long, rich passage. There’s much that could be said about this story as it unfolds — but my spirit barely made it past the second verse.

“Jesus came to a Samaritan city called womanatwellSychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.” – John 4:5-6 (emphasis mine)

Jesus? Tired out by his journey?

It would seem so. 

As if that’s not enough, verse 6 observes: It was about noon. Mid-day. As though Jesus took a lunch break in the middle of his work day. A spring break in the middle of his semester, so to speak, as I’m currently wrapping up doing.

Jesus, tired out by his journey.

As I heard this Scripture read aloud, a little girl in the pew behind me brandished her sippy cup in the air and asked quietly-ish: “Does Jesus want some water?”

I’m not sure what her parents said. But, I hope they said yes.

Fully God and fully man, Jesus wants water and is water (John 4:10). Especially as we journey in the coming weeks to Holy Week, recalling Christ’s sacrifice of death on the cross, we will recall that Christ said so powerfully: “I thirst” (John 19:38). Our Savior gets thirsty. Our Jesus gets tired.

And, when this happens, he takes a lunch break not just to watch Netflix and eat pizza as I would probably do. He takes a life-giving break, not a mind-numbing break (a distinction which, when I realized it existed, revolutionized my life and my use of time off). Jesus takes a break to be fed, to feed another (the woman at the well), and to be fed by feeding — a spiritual dynamic that’s remarkably replicable as we share life with others and find ourselves blessed by that sharing.

So, today, I’m encouraged by the empathy of a Jesus who got tired out by his journey (just like we do by ours). And I’m inspired by the compassion of a Jesus who got rejuvenated by serving others on his journey (just like we can on ours). Self-care is important, Jesus says to me here, and so is caring for others. You can’t have one without the other.

On This International Women’s Day

On this International Women’s Day, I am blessed to be in a divinity school where around 50% of my classmates are women and, coincidentally, this semester 100% of my professors are women. This year, I have seen some great women (and some great men!) teach, preach, administer sacraments, and lead all manner of things. As Sarah Bessey has written, I needed to see these women.

Because, on this International Women’s Day, I am sitting here trying to write a sermon for class — a task which a lifetime of experience (in the American Bible belt, to be exact) has told me I probably shouldn’t be doing. I’m telling myself this sermon thing is like a speech, a story, a long blog post (anything but a sermon), because I know I have permission to write those other things. I’m reminding myself of all the Christian women leaders  I know of ranging from medieval to modern, hanging a painting of the apostle Junia by my desk, even asking myself WWJD?

But it’s still hard to comprehend that I’m allowed to do this. Because here’s the thing: Actions speak louder than words. Experience speaks louder than knowledge.

I can know in my head that theoretically, in many denominations including my own, I am allowed to perform all the same functions as men, including but not limited to ordained functions as deacon, priest, and bishop. At the same time, I can sense in my soul that really, throughout encountering multiple denominations in multiple places, I’ve rarely experienced that egalitarian functioning to be reality.

Psychologically, it goes something like this:

Tell a child who’s never been allowed, say, in the basement that they’re suddenly allowed to go there, and they might — after throwing their parents a quizzical “Are you serious?!” kind of look — understandably proceed with caution.

Release a bird from life in a cage and it might be hesitant to fly.

“Freeing yourself was one thing,” Toni Morrison writes, “claiming ownership of that freed  self was another.”

Since actions speak louder than words, since experience speaks louder than knowledge, it is imperative for women and men to act in an egalitarian manner. To actually, repeatedly place women (who are legitimately called and qualified) in pulpits, professorships, boards, and offices. That’s the only way that women like me can truly conceive of — much less claim ownership of, in Morrison’s terms — a calling that might draw us into those places.

Why do I share all this? To offer just one story of how bias against women (particularly in ministry, and even more particularly in preaching) is alive in 2017 and how weighty the psychological effect of this bias can be. Because I don’t think I’m the only one carrying that weight. And, let’s be real, letting other people carry around a societally-imposed weight is called oppression.

So, on this International Women’s Day, I am praying, writing, and — dare I say it? — preaching toward an end to oppression.

I hope you will too.

Finding Freedom From Shame

This was originally posted on the blog of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA.

A therapist once pointedly suggested that I was experiencing shame. I promptly suggested she was wrong.

Shame is for people who’ve done egregiously terrible things, I thought (which is kind of all of us, I now realize, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” according to Romans 3). Gradually, I had to admit that the therapist was right and that shame is buried in the hearts of so many people—people like me and you.

shame_resizedShame happens when you fail a test and fear you’re a failure. It happens when you lose a competition and label yourself a loser. When you tell a lie or hurt a friend or drink too much and let the guilt consume you. When every bone in your body wants to not tell anyone—or at least not make eye contact when you tell someone—about your secret shortcomings.

So, how do you possibly find freedom from such a burden as shame?

Named in Confession

Since shame is experienced largely by a desire to hide, it follows then that freedom from shame can be experienced largely through a coming out of hiding. In the Christian life, this looks like naming our sins as specifically and honestly as possible through the practice of confession.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing about confession in his classic work Life Together, says this:

“You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are. He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Thank God for that.”

Put more succinctly, I’ve heard it said that “shame is broken when it is spoken.” So, consider sharing what you’re ashamed of with a Christian brother or sister, campus minister or counselor, priest or pastor. It feels frustrating at first, like ripping off a Band-Aid to expose a wound, but so freeing in the long run. I promise.

Renamed in Christ

If you fear that naming your shame in confession will change what people—and God!—think of you, then consider this: If you are a Christian, your identity has been renamed in Christ. Take a look at Colossians 3:1-17, for example, and meditate on the adjectives you find there. You might even read the passage manuscript-style in true InterVarsity fashion and underline, highlight, or circle these adjectives. The apostle Paul writes to the Colossian Christians, who had fallen into heretical teachings and sinful behavior, and tells them that in fact they are:

  • “raised with Christ” (3:1)
  • “hidden with Christ in God” (3:2)
  • “renewed” (3:10)
  • “chosen” (3:12)
  • “holy and beloved” (3:12)
  • “forgiven” (3:13)

In Christ, you too, when you sheepishly open your shame to God and others, can have full assurance that God sees you as holy. Beloved. Forgiven. Where you have been hidden in a mask of sullen shame, God sees you as hidden in the cleanest cloak of Christ.

Because of God’s grace, I could eventually name my shame to that therapist I mentioned earlier and could slowly learn, with her help, to receive the truth that I have been renamed in Christ as his child, holy and beloved.

And you can too. I pray you can. Hidden in Christ, I know you can.