Why I Believe

17 Apr

I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through sixth grade. I know a lot of people who claim to have “survived” that experience, but for me the positive far outweighed any negative, especially this time of year. Lent and Holy Week in particular is the climax of the Church year, both spiritually and liturgically, and being able to experience the stations of the cross in an age appropriate way as part of my formal education was a gift I appreciated as much then as I do now. For some kids, art class or music class stirs their imagination. For me, it was theology.

Every year at this time all the students would gather in the church to read the passion play. The priest always played Jesus. Older students played the roles of Peter, Pilate, and the other characters. And we, the young students, played the crowd. At the beginning of the story, our “part” was to cry out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of The Lord!” Later, we shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

It was like whiplash. It totally baffled me. How could the same people who hailed Jesus with palm branches and cloaks on the ground turn around in just a few days and demand this guy’s death? Even as a child I questioned this, especially since I was being asked to recreate this drama. It made me uncomfortable.

As I listened to the stories at this weekend’s Palm Sunday liturgy, I once again pondered this, and it occurred to me – it was not the same crowd.

The crowd that welcomed Jesus were the fearless throngs of poor, marginalized people who had heard of Jesus’ miracles and had the guts to show up en masse in the Holy City Jerusalem to welcome the man who had courage to confront the hypocrisy of the Jewish elite and whom they believed would liberate them from the literal oppression of the Romans and the spiritual oppression of the Sanhedrin.

But then Jesus practiced what he preached. He turned the other cheek. He was captured, questioned, and didn’t resist. At all. The man who made a blind man see and raised someone from the dead did nothing to stop the injustice being done to him. For a poor person who had very little to sustain himself and his family, this must have been terrifying to witness; if the Sanhedrin and the Roman leaders of the city could do this to a man who had personally demonstrated the real power of God, what could those oppressors unleash on them, the most powerless people in society? If their King couldn’t be bothered to save Himself, they had better take cover. And I think that’s exactly what they did. I don’t think they wanted anyone to be crucified. Especially themselves.

The crowd that called for Jesus’ crucifixion were the social elites and the religious fundamentalists. We tend to think of all the sects who wanted Jesus dead as a unified group. But actually, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the cruel Roman soldiers were strange bedfellows. It would be the modern equivalent of “big business” lobbyists joining with the “religious right,” the media, Occupy Wall Street, and law enforcement to bring down a whistle-blower who threatens them all.

Jesus was a spiritual whistle-blower. He threatened everyone’s way of life. It’s no wonder such opposing political forces would join together to kill Him, while those who had everything to lose by defending Jesus would hide in the shadows, afraid they might be next. We cannot appreciate the abject fear in which these people lived every day of their existence under the dual oppression of the cruel Romans and the religious leaders who routinely turned their backs on the poor, blaming their poverty on some kind of moral failing.

These people were not turncoats.

They were human. And they were very, very afraid.

They were also the very foundation of the Church, the Kingdom of God. And Peter was the cornerstone.

~~~

Why do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead?

Don’t tell me it’s because the Bible says so. I think the Bible is a great book filled with wisdom. I believe it is the inspired Word of God, and I seek guidance from its pages regularly. But I don’t believe in Jesus because the Bible tells me to, any more than the Pharisees believed He would really be raised from the dead simply because He said He would.

The Jewish leaders were concerned about Jesus’ claim that He’d rise on the third day; they were so concerned that they had a guard posted at the tomb and a seal placed on the stone so that no one could rob the body and make false claims that Jesus has risen.

That’s what most doubters think happened, you know. They can’t deny Jesus was a compelling historical and religious figure, but this business of Him being raised up is just a bunch of wishful thinking on the part of the man’s friends and followers. It just makes sense.

Except that it doesn’t make any sense at all. Not in light of the fact that cowardly Peter, who denied knowing Christ three times, would become the Peter who braved stoning and persecution to share the news that Jesus had risen. And not just Peter. Thousands of Jesus’ nameless followers who had been so scared of the authorities that they didn’t even attempt to secure justice for the innocent man they followed were transformed into witnesses and even martyrs, almost overnight.

If not for the dramatic and miraculous transformation of a rag tag group of misfits, destitutes, prostitutes, lead by a well-intentioned but spineless, weak-willed denier, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection claim would have faded into history like so many other implausible myths. In a twist of irony of biblical proportions, it is the disciples’ shortcomings during Holy Week that make the miracle of the resurrection plausible.

I believe in Jesus because the Bible demonstrates how He transformed people. The woman at the well was transformed from the village slut who avoided contact with her neighbors to a vocal witness for the messiah. The man born blind and assumed a sinner was transformed from a beggar to someone with the chutzpah to lecture the Pharisees who questioned him when he was healed. Lazarus was literally brought back to life. And awkward, craven Peter became the eloquent spokesman for a movement in the face of certain death. Only God can change people like that.

The crucifixion was supposed to put these would-be revolutionaries in their place through the force of terror and intimidation, and it worked. The martyrdom of Jesus did not embolden the people. It terrified them; even the apostles were hiding behind locked doors. Jesus appeared to them. His resurrection is what changed them, and it’s that change that will always be the best evidence for the truth of the Bible.

I believe Jesus rose because I’ve seen first hand how He continues to transform people. If you haven’t seen God work miracles in the life of someone who has hit bottom, perhaps you are spending a little too much time with the modern day Pharisees and too little time with the broken, hurting people who are most in need of Jesus’ message of hope.

I believe Jesus rose because I’ve seen how he is transforming me. There are private internal battles that I’ve been waging for almost as long as I can remember, unsuccessfully, and when I turned them over to God with just a mustard seed of willingness, God transformed me. On my own I was a well-intentioned failure full of shame. With God, I don’t have to be ashamed of my darkness because the lower I get, the more visible His glory will be in me.

I believe in the resurrection because I’ve died and come back to life, too.

Tending the Closet

8 Apr

Spring has sprung, and when the seasons change, I feel an uncontrollable urge to change my wardrobe. There’s something so exhilarating about pulling out the short-sleeved tops that have been in storage for six months. Spring is also a great time for me to go through my closet and drawers and purge. Actually, I started this year’s purge on one of our many snow days, and I have a huge pile of old stuff to go to Goodwill.

I have way too much clothing, and purging is not something that comes easily for me. Some of those t-shirts have sentimental value even if I haven’t worn them in 10 years. Some of the pant suits may no longer be my style, but they are good quality and actually fit me, so it’s difficult to justify getting rid of them.

But there’s a side benefit to letting go of the old. It makes room for the new.

This spring I’ve added several new “basics” to my wardrobe. I’ve been wanting a jean jacket for several years, and this year they are finally back on the rack! I haven’t worn a jean jacket since I was in eighth grade! I got this one at H&M for $20. Click on the image to go to their website.

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You know what I love about this jacket? It goes with just about any outfit. Right now I’m wearing it with my cream colored khakis, long-sleeved tee, and dressy necklace. It looks great with my simple black tube dress from TranquiliT.com, or just about any of my other spring and summer print dresses. I have a feeling it will be my “signature accessory” until Richmond’s hot, humid summer days (and nights) kick into full gear.

My clothing snow purge resulted in a startling lack of pants for work. Most of what I had  did not fit, was woefully high-waisted, stained, or had holes in the knees due to 11 years worth of kneeling on the floor playing with babies, picking up toys, or folding laundry. I have a hard time finding pants that fit, partly because I’m 5’1″, partly because I have the hips of a 13 year old boy, and partly because being size 2 doesn’t mean you can’t have a muffin top. Flattering pants that fit are a luxury I can’t find, much less afford. I’ve tried the pricey stores, with no luck, and  the big box stores rarely have petites, unless you count the “old lady pants” with the elastic waist bands.

Last weekend I was doing some window shopping at one of my favorite stores, New York & Co. Not every store carries petites, but the Short Pump location does, so it’s worth braving the Broad Street traffic for clothes that fit me. On Friday I hit the jackpot. Everything in the store 50% off! One of my cardinal rules is that if it fits and it’s on sale, I buy it in every basic color. Well, I already have plenty of browns and khakis, so I got the 7th Avenue Pant in blue heather, light gray, and chocolate. There are no words to describe how good it feels to wear nice clothes that fit perfectly.

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I recently learned about something called a “modular wardrobe,” which is basically having just a few pieces of clothing to mix and match. Having a modular wardrobe makes fashion less stressful and less expensive, and I’ll be exploring how to downsize my clothing collection even more over the next few months as I continue to purge and purchase more versatile pieces.

Why the Weeping

6 Apr

This weekend’s Gospel reading contains two of the most moving words in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”

It is the story of Lazarus. We hear it every year as Lent draws ever closer to Palm Sunday and the spiritual journey of the cross; after all, raising Lazarus from the dead was the tipping point for the Jewish hierarchy and set in motion the events that lead to Christ’s crucifixion. Today the story is so routine that we cease to be amazed at the miracle. Maybe that’s because with today’s medical technology, we see miracles all the time.

But not for everyone. And not all the time. Some people do die and stay dead. One such person was pastor Hutch Hutcherson. He played for the Dallas cowboys and was a self-professed racist before becoming a pastor and ultimately marrying a white woman. I recently watched an internet TV series that he’d filmed just weeks before he succumbed to his disease – prostate cancer. He talked about faith, family, and cancer. He also talked about this piece of scripture, with a perspective I had never heard before.

Most of us are taught that Jesus wept because he was human, because he had compassion for the grieving Mary and Martha, and that he himself was grieving even though he knew what God was about to do through him. Perhaps he was having doubts himself when facing the reality of death, we are told by well-meaning spiritualists.

Read the Gospel of John. The whole thing. Read the Passion narrative, and the crucifixion narrative. The Jesus of John’s Gospel never wavers in his faith. He is the picture of emotional detachment. There was a time I would have used the word “arrogant” to describe this version of the Messiah. This is not the Jesus who says, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Nor is it the Jesus who utters the ultimate in compassion while hanging from the cross, “Father, forgive them.” John’s Jesus knows exactly who he is and what the ultimate outcome will be.

Weeping is the last thing you expect John’s Jesus to do.

Hutch said (more eloquently than I) the reason Jesus wept is that he knew raising Lazarus from the dead meant he’d be depriving him from living in God’s presence in heaven.

I’ve never been in a hurry to get to heaven. I remember the first time I gave this any serious thought. I was about nine years old. I was walking to the refrigerator to get ice cubes for my drink, and I point blank asked God, “Why would I ever want to go to Heaven? It would be so boring to no longer have to work for something, or to already know everything and not need to learn.” I had conversations like this with God all the time in the silence of my mind, but this is one of the very few I remember so vividly.

God did not answer, at least not with words. But I felt His love – His personal, fatherly love – showered over me, and the distinct feeling that He was trying to communicate that I’d understand after I had a little more “life” under my belt. This is one of the reasons I know God is real. And probably one of the reasons I wasn’t in any hurry to die. I didn’t need to go to Heaven to be in God’s presence. I invite myself into His presence regularly, and that has been more than enough!

But not really. Yes, there is a certain amount of joy that comes from learning something new, and from working diligently. God made me in His image, so it only makes sense that I am happiest when I’m creating and trying to improve the world around me and learning how to love. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

But it did fall. It’s not attached to the tree. No matter how wonderful earthly life can be, it is a terminal illness. No one is immune, and some of us die a hundred spiritual and emotional deaths before we experience the final physical one.

Jesus wept because he knew he was about to bring Lazarus back to death, not back to life.

I wonder what happened to Lazarus. The scriptures are silent, although apparently the Pharisees talked of killing Lazarus along with Jesus because of the threat he represented. Church traditions have varying stories about his ultimate post-resurrection life.

One thing is certain – he did not live forever, at least not on earth. Lazarus died twice. Catholic tradition holds that he died a martyr’s death. Perhaps this is why Jesus wept.

Something else struck me when I read today’s Gospel. It is another Martha and Mary story. In the earlier story, Martha was the picture of busy bitterness, hustling about to prepare for Jesus, while her sister Mary did nothing but sit at His feet. Jesus gently scolded Martha and assured her that Mary had chosen the better part. In today’s selection, it is not Martha who is bitter, but Mary. Both of them greet Jesus with the words, “If you had been here our brother would not have died.” But Martha didn’t stop there. She went on to proclaim her faith in God and in Jesus, God’s son. Unlike Mary, her faith was stronger than her grief.

What I know now that I didn’t know at nine years old is that life is grief. It is a process of letting go – of people we love, of dreams we cherish, of expectations. Life is a wonderful gift filled with great joy and pleasure, too. But it is terminal every day. In the King James translation of the bible, the phrase, “it came to pass” can be found 453 times (according to one source, anyway). Nowhere in scripture do you find the phrase, “And it came to stay.”

I think this is why the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is so powerful and enduring, even in the modern world where we have the power to make miracles every day. On a daily basis I need Jesus to assure me, “I am the resurrection and the life,” because every day, I have to let go of something. Every day, grief lingers in the background. And every day, Jesus calls me out of the tomb of my self-absorbed bitterness and says, “Come forth!”

I’m still not ready for Heaven, but one day I know that Jesus will say, “Come forth!” and call me into life that is beyond description. Until then, it shall simply come, to pass.

Feeding Her Feelings

14 Mar

Yesterday my eight year old daughter came home from school crying. She made a snowman out of sand in a latex balloon as a craft at school, and it didn’t survive the trip home. She was pretty heartbroken.

Now, it is common for the kids to ask for a cookie when they get home from school, and it is also common for me to say yes. This happened yesterday. Then I went upstairs to write while they started working on homework. A few minutes later, a very weepy eight year old came to me and said she was so sad, she “deserved” another cookie.

Insert teachable moment here.

Insert fears about my daughter’s relationship with food.

Insert guilt about my own destructive habits to avoid feeling my feelings (i.e., fast food, donuts, flirting, etc).

Insert God’s undeniably ironic sense of humor and timing.

Insert that we learn best by teaching.

I held my crying daughter as I explained that a cookie would only maker her feel better for a few minutes. I told her that we all feel sad at times, but that all our feelings, even the sad ones, are a gift from God, and that they pass.

I told her that when we use food to avoid feeling sad, it doesn’t work. It makes us feel worse, and then it becomes a habit we can’t stop, and then we get sick.

I gave her tools for handling the sad feelings – talk to someone, ask for help to find a solution, wait, and do what we would do if we were not sad. In this case, homework.

Can I tell you how grateful I am that I could give her that comfort? Because a few years ago, I wouldn’t have had those tools. A few years ago I was so sad, I didn’t even want to get out of bed in the morning.

But someone took the time to teach me that feelings are like thunderstorms. They rage, and they pass. Sometimes a lot. But they pass with less pain if I don’t compound the pain with my own doomed attempts at avoiding them.

I cannot control whether my daughter develops an unhealthy relationship with food. I can model good behavior though. I can educate her. And I can give her healthy solutions. Even at eight, it’s up to her to make her own choice.

But just to be safe, I ate the rest of the cookies when she was asleep.

Just kidding!

Fast Food Fast

13 Mar

I gave up fast food for Lent.

Yes, this really is a sacrifice for me. I eat a lot of fast food. Too much, I know. I eat fast food because I can feel full after spending less than $5, sometimes less than $3. I eat fast food because I eat so little that I can get away with all those empty calories and it doesn’t show – at least, not on the outside. I eat fast food because it takes no time at all out of my busy schedule. It’s instant gratification.

So, when it came time to pick a Lenten abstention, one that I would really feel, I knew what it had to be. 40 days without Taco Bell. Without McDonalds. Without Popeyes or Chipotle or Hardee’s. No, I will be making lunch, buying from the local sandwich shop, driving to the grocery store salad bar, or eating a sit-down meal.

Except yesterday. Yesterday I went to Krispy Kreme for a donut and coffee.

Is Krispy Kreme fast food?

It’s not a burger, I rationalized. They have nothing but donuts on the menu. I did not give up sweets or caffeine, I justified. Yes, they have a drive-thru window, but I walked in. Starbucks has a drive-thru, but no one would call Starbucks a fast food restaurant. It’s a coffee shop. So is Krispy Kreme. Lenten promise kept.

Except that Krispy Kreme was cheap, fast, and ultimately empty satisfaction. It kept me full enough that I didn’t eat anything else until dinner. It was all about instant gratification, cheap fulfillment, and temporarily feeling good to keep that nagging hunger at bay.

I can justify and rationalize all I want, but the truth is the truth, and the truth hurts.

I was meditating on this when I woke up, and started thinking about my emotional fast food binges. You see, I’m not just a closet Taco Bell aficionado. I am also a shameless flirt. Flirting is my emotional fast food.

It’s cheap, it’s fast, it gives me instant gratification and that feeling of being connected with someone without all the investment of being in an actual relationship. Never mind the fact that I feel as bloated and uncomfortable after indulging myself as I do after that seven layer burrito (shredded chicken makes it healthy, right?).

I did not go into Lent with the intention of giving up flirting. In fact, I joked with my favorite mutual flirt on Ash Wednesday that I wouldn’t! But flirting is emotional fast food. Empty calories. I don’t want love on the run. I want to sit down and enjoy a meal prepared with love. And a Krispy Kreme donut on the side, supplementing something that is real, not a substitution for the real thing.

God is laughing right now. I inadvertently gave up flirting for Lent. 33 days to go. Perhaps I’ll try praying for the men in my life, instead. And being real instead of the cheap imitation of me. I’m nervous about how that will be received. But in the long run, I don’t want a cheap imitation of love. If I want the real thing, I’m going to have work for it, pay for it, and wait for it, and go to healthier places to get fed.

I bet I’m going to feel this sacrifice a lot more than I felt the fast food fast.

God’s Care

8 Mar

Teaching third grade religious education at my church had done more for my spiritual growth and understanding of scripture than I could ever have imagined. Our weekly lessons are focused on the same scriptures that us “grownups” hear at Mass. Sometimes I wonder if we might better evangelize the adults if our pastors gave us the simple lessons I give my students.

Last weekend’s Gospel was packed with several well-known sayings of Jesus, most notably being, “You cannot serve God and mammon,” as well as “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” and “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” Great stuff to launch us into the 40-day purge known as Lent.

I posed a hard question to my third graders at the beginning of class. Better to get the elephant in the room out in the open. “If Jesus promised that God would take care if us and that we would have everything we need, why is it that there are some people who are really poor and have nothing?”

I know, they are only eight and nine years old. That’s a question with which adults grapple, and here I throw it out in rhetorical fashion at unsophisticated little children? What was I thinking?

I was thinking they knew the answer intuitively, without even having to verbalize it. Later in our lesson I handed out hard candy. There was enough for every child to have one piece, and they were various different types – peppermints, butterscotch, cinnamon, those little ones wrapped up to look like strawberries, and even something that looked like a Werther’s. I gave three pieces to one child, two to another, one piece each to a few of the children, and nothing to at least two of them.

“Does everyone have what they need?” I asked. I wasn’t sure how they’d react. Would those who had more hoard theirs? Would those with none make a big fuss?

No on both counts. The ones with none had no time to make a fuss before their neighbors were throwing the extra pieces at them. Those who didn’t like the flavor they’d been given traded with their neighbors until everyone had what they needed.

Some people might say these children have been brainwashed by a progressive public school system that teaches redistribution of wealth and radical social justice. But I think they just intuitively “get” being Christian. And they clearly have good parental examples in their homes.

There were no discussions of fairness. No discussions of the morality of a teacher who would give two or three pieces to some children and none to other children. They saw that there was enough to go around and they equalized themselves. It was heartwarming.

The candy wasn’t earned. It was a gift. Perhaps if the candy had been an award for performance, my budding little Christians would have felt differently about sharing. I may have to do some more candy experiments to see if they really are just that kind to each other, especially if I create scarcity.

But in the Kingdom of God, there is no scarcity.

In the Kingdom of God, the commodity isn’t candy. Nor is it food, clothing, shelter, or gasoline for the minivan. In the Kingdom of God, the commodity is love, and there is more than enough for everyone, in the flavor we most desire.

After our little candy exercise, I reminded the kids of my earlier question, and I told them that we are God’s hands and feet. It’s up to us to show God’s love and care. It really is that simple. If God gives me more than I need, it’s because He wants me to give the excess to someone who does not have what they need.

God has blessed me with the opportunity to be like Him – a gift-giver who gives unconditionally, with no strings attached. We humans have been wanting to be like God ever since Eve ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden. How like God to give us exactly what we want, and we don’t even see it!

We are now in Lent. The 40 day purge. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For Lent, I’m fasting from fast food, I’m praying for God to reveal to me the harms I’ve done to other people so that I can make amends, and I’m looking at the material excess in my home and giving it away so that people can trust God’s divine providence.

Happy Lent!

Held

24 Feb

Christians ask the question. Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu people ask it. Atheists and agnostics ask it, a lot. Despite all our difference and diversity, this one question unites humanity.

Why?

Why cancer? Why depression? Why alzheimers?

Why death?

I’ve asked that question many times, in tones of anger, confusion, sadness, hopelessness. I’ve never gotten an answer. But when I quiet my heart, I do hear the still, small voice whisper, “Wrong question.”

I’m not sure what the right question is. I may never know.

But I do know how humbling it is to watch communities come together in the wake of tragedy.

There is a Natalie Grant song which encapsulates these feelings far better than anything I could write. I hope that it brings comfort, even if it doesn’t answer “why.”

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