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Salvation From Serpents

18 Sep

One of the things I love about the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is that I don’t have to believe that any of it is factual to see the truth in it. Do I really believe that the Red Sea actually parted just like it did for Charlton Heston? Does it even matter whether or not I do?

Fortunately my faith in God has never depended on blind belief in any particular translation of an ancient text. It’s based on experience; mine, of course, and also the experiences of others. So when I listened to this weekend’s Old Testament selection about Moses and the seraph serpents, it wasn’t with a literal ear, but with an ear longing to relate my own experiences to the story, and I was rewarded with an interesting interpretation.

The story takes place well into the Israelites’ wandering in the desert after fleeing Egypt. They’d starved and thirsted. They’d been fed with manna and quail. And they were weary from wandering in circles and living the Hebrew version of the Groundhog Day movie. They grumbled against God.

How many times have I done the same thing? I beg God to save me from whatever mess I’ve gotten myself into, and no sooner does He provide a way out and I’m complaining about my new circumstances! My discontentment will follow me wherever I go, if I allow it.

So in the story, God punishes this discontentment with serpents to bite the people, killing some of them. This does not sound like the God in which I believe! My God is loving and compassionate and would never deliberately harm me! This is why people reject Christianity, I think to myself.

And that’s when I ponder, maybe God didn’t send the snakes. Maybe the Israelites attracted them, and God simply chose not to stand in the way of a crisis.

And maybe they weren’t literal reptiles. They are called “seraph” serpents. The word means “burning.” Most people interpret this to mean “poisonous snakes.” But a seraph was also a sort of angel in the book of Isaiah. What if they were spiritual “serpents” who were attracted to the Israelites who were “feeding” them with resentment after heaping resentment? (I do believe in spiritual beings, both light and dark. Again, based primarily on personal experience.)

How many of my own resentments grow when I feed them until they turn on me, poison me, and bring me to death’s door, spiritually speaking? How often does my anger at God bite me? I’m a figurative snake handler.

God provided Moses with specific instructions for a remedy. Make a serpent, mount it on a pole so everyone can see it, and instruct the people to look at it, so that they will be saved. Christian theology interprets this as foreshadowing of the Crucifixion of Christ, as the words of Jesus in this weekend’s Gospel clearly state. But as a stand-alone story, it is also an analogy for how I can be saved from the spiritual serpents that plague me when I am grumbling against God.

I need to take a good, hard look at my resentments.

For me, this takes the form of a written list. In one column is the name of the person I resent. In the second column is why. It’s a freeform exercise, like brainstorming. I don’t judge myself, and I don’t censor myself either. I write it all down. I don’t consider whether resentment is justified or just a selfish indulgence. I just get it out on paper. Like mounting it on a pole. Then I look at it, hard.

Making this list is kind of like drawing out the poison from a snake bite. Sometimes I have to make a little cut in the skin of my pride and suck the poison out. It can be painful. I have to be careful not to let it get into my spiritual bloodstream while I’m doing it. I have to sit still.

I also have to consciously make the decision to let go and forgive. Like Jesus on that cross, I have to say, usually out loud, as much to myself as anyone, “They didn’t know what they were doing. They were sick. They were poisoned. They were hurt, and hurt people hurt people.” I don’t believe it yet. At this stage it’s just an intellectual exercise, but it’s a start.

Then I have to look at myself. In what ways have I engaged in the same behaviors I’m resenting? If I’m being honest in my search, I will find an absolute gem of a gift – compassion. I will find my own dark side, and I will sit with it. I will ask, where did that dark side come from? What payoff do I get by indulging it? Is my dark side just one of my talents or survival skills taken to an extreme?

And I go back to my resentment list and recall that anger is nothing more than a mask for fear. I fear these people on my list, and in fearing them I give them power that isn’t really theirs. Why? I name the fears. I remember that fears and worries are like prayers for a negative outcome. That fear is the opposite of love, that it will destroy me as certainly as any physical harm. I take the power back. I look in the mirror at my own darkness and find compassion for myself, and for them, and I cut the strings that bind me to the pain they may have caused me. I forgive. For real.

I look at my darkness and ask, what gift is there in this negative trait? There’s always a gift. Maybe I’m overly critical; that’s just the extreme form of being discerning. Maybe I’m competitive; if I tone that down I’ll discover a healthy drive to achieve excellence. As I look at every negative thing about myself and search for the positive within it, I find gratitude. Gratitude for all these wonderful gifts I never realized I had, and gratitude for that pain that drove me to look in the first place.

I ask God for help to see the patterns, and I ask Him to remove whatever of these characteristics keep me from being of service to others, and to help me stop hurting people. And I ask Him to show me how to repair the relationships that have been harmed by my poisonous resentment. Maybe I was only 10 percent of the problem, but I want to clean up my 10 percent.

Then a miracle happens. When I accept my faults, and when I start to take responsibility for them, no one can use them against me! I walk secure in the knowledge that I’m human and that God loves me.

This weekend’s gospel included the most well-known, often-quoted verse in the whole of scripture. Even atheists know it. John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

It’s too bad that’s the verse everyone knows, because John 3:17 is even better. I wish Christians of all denominations would display this at sporting events and on their license plates and church billboards, because most have them seem to have forgotten it.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

The seraph serpents, the resentments that eat away at us – they are not a condemnation. They are the gift that compels us to look within and then turn to the source of salvation.

This Too Shall Pass

12 Aug

I struggle with depression. It’s been an on-again, off-again companion since I was about ten. Sometimes it is triggered by a situation or a disappointment, other times it appears to be hormonal or the result of physical or emotional exhaustion. Anger and hunger make it worse. It has never completely overwhelmed me; after all, I’m still alive to write this reflection. But it has yet to permanently go away; as many times as I’ve gotten a temporary reprieve, it is only ever temporary.

I was 20 the first time I sought help; I made an appointment with a counselor in college, I had to wait two weeks even though I was on fire inside, and by the time I was to see her, I felt better. I didn’t seek help again until a few years later, when something dramatically painful happened that I couldn’t ignore. Therapy helped a little. Pharmaceuticals were not worth the side effects. Marriage and pregnancy and motherhood brought steeper peaks and valleys. But eventually I found a spiritual solution that works for me if I do the work. It doesn’t stop the depression entirely, but keeps it from overtaking my life, and for that I am grateful. Today when it rears its ugly head, I have some strategies for coping, and it usually passes quickly.

I’m not sharing this from a place of self-pity or sympathy-seeking. I was in the thick of it when I started writing this piece a few days ago. I’ve been in a pretty dark place for about a year, sometimes deep within the cave of sadness and despondency, but most of the time at the mouth of the cave, desperately listening for God. I know other people (maybe you?) are too.

I’m writing this because it needs to be written. This weekend’s readings were all about depression. Elijah in the cave, Paul mourning his Hebrew heritage, Peter sinking when he tried to walk on water – each of these stories has a special message for the person who struggles with depression like I do.

Scripture scholars have written some wonderful commentaries about Elijah’s well-documented depression, and some less-than-wonderful “bible-based” depression advice, too. The basic gist goes something like this – Elijah suffered from depression because he lost his focus on God, and right after he’d had a great spiritual victory, no less! He got out of the depression by doing God’s will. So it stands to reason, if you put God first, you won’t get depressed. And if you ARE depressed, it’s because you aren’t putting God first, you miserable sinner. So go beat yourself up some more – that should cure you!

This weekend’s selection from Elijah’s depression story takes place just after he begged God to take his life, because he couldn’t see the point of going on. Yes, he had just experienced a spiritual victory, but demonstrating God’s power and showing up the king’s worthless gods had done nothing to convert Ahab or his horrid wife Jezebel. Sometimes our best is not good enough, and that will trigger anyone to get depressed, even a prophet. Why bother?

If you’ve never entertained suicidal thoughts, this will probably make no sense to you. You probably just shake it off and move on. Someone with depression can’t do that. It’s not a matter of will power. I ask you to kindly suspend your judgement and desire to fix it with advice while I tell you what it’s like for me. It’s a place of utter hopelessness, of being overwhelmed by my imperfections, inadequacies, insecurities, and failures. Ironically, it is especially poignant after an exceptionally good day, because I know it’s only temporary. It’s being unable to see past my shortcomings enough to believe that I am or ever will be deserving of love, affection, companionship, or understanding, no matter what I accomplish or what fleeting joy I might have felt yesterday. It’s a desperate desire for complete and total reprieve from the compulsion or expectation to do my best, because mostly I’m just tired of trying.

But it is not surrender. No, it is the ultimate act of self-centered rebellion. It is the place where fight meets flight. For me, this awful place will be my destination, sooner or later, if I don’t accept myself or reality, or if I entertain the voices of self-pity and resentment. Some people respond to these voices with drugs or alcohol. I respond in other less obvious ways that can be just as deadly, but slower. Yes, I do believe in demons because I have experienced them, first hand.

God didn’t take Elijah’s life, nor did God lecture his servant. He sent the prophet to a cave. That’s where we who experience depression often go when we need to hear the “still small voice.” But first, while we are in our caves, we have to experience what God is NOT – the storms, the wind, the earthquake, the fire. God is not destruction, of course. God is the quiet, still knowing that all manner of things will be well. But not everyone can weather the illusion of destruction that God is not. Light eternal shine upon them, for they rest from their labors.

This stuff is not something I like sharing. It’s something I’m deeply ashamed of. Which is why I share it. If I share it, I diminish its power. I’m afraid that if you know about my bouts of depression, I will scare you away, or that you won’t want to have anything to do with such a person. Like I have a contagious disease or something. Or worse, you’ll try to comfort me so that you can feel more comfortable. (FYI, when someone is depressed, they don’t need someone giving them advice or telling them how wonderful they are or how great life is or how much they need to get help. They need to be held. If not physically, then in prayer. If you have to say something, say I love you. Say I’m here. That’s it.) I have this completely ridiculous belief that I have to be sweet and happy and pleasant all the time or you won’t love me. Which is crap. I know some pretty miserable people, and their shitty moods don’t stop me from loving them; if anything, I love them more, because I know what it’s like to feel that way.

I have a really great life in the best country in the world. I’m healthy, and my kids are healthy, and I have friends who care about me and the absolute best parents anyone could ask for (unless you’re disgusted by potty humor). I have a job, a house, two cars, no debt, and food in the pantry. Life is good. But those feelings creep in, and it’s all I can do to keep them from dominating the space in my head.

I do whatever it takes to get them to stop. I’ve learned that strenuous physical activity and being outside in the sun does what prescriptions can’t. (For me, that is. There is nothing wrong with seeking pharmaceutical help!) I’ve learned to take these feelings one day at a time, because there’s a better than even chance they will be gone tomorrow as capriciously as they arrived today. I listen for the still small voice in everything. Everything. If I can just hear God, I will know I’m not alone.

Depression feeds off isolation. The cave is a necessary part of the process, but Elijah didn’t stay there. Ultimately he went back into the world and even found a helper in ministry. We can’t battle depression in isolation. Community is essential to keep it at bay.

Community is what Paul spoke of in this weekend’s epistle to the Romans. Paul often spoke of a thorn in his side; some “wound” that kept his pride at bay. I don’t know if that is what he was hinting at when he confessed, “I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.” Paul went on to describe the cause of his sorrow – being cut off from his beloved Hebrew community. Paul sacrificed his whole life, including his relationship with a proud culture and heritage, for a relationship with Christ, and he was apparently not always happy about the trade.

This, too, I can relate to. Depression has spurred me to seek help, and I’ve found it in a place that works for me. I’ve found help in a spiritual (but not religious) path toward acceptance. I can feel God changing me, but sometimes these changes have required me to let go of behaviors and friendships I miss very much. I’ve even had to let go of aspects of my religious faith, certain teachings that may be well-intended but actually compound my guilt and shame to the point of debilitation. God didn’t die on a cross to create a bunch of new rules to strangle the people He saved.

When we grow closer to God, we often have to let go of relationships and attitudes which served us well but are no longer compatible with the new life God gives. If that kind of letting go took such tremendous faith for a spiritual giant like Paul, why would it be any easier for me?

Grief is not exactly the same thing as depression. Grief is a natural healing process. Depression is what happens when we don’t grieve. In my case, I often avoid the pain of going through the grief process and wake up to find I’m in a full blown semi-suicidal depression. Like Paul, I have to feel the loss, write about it, talk about it, and make the decision to accept the loss, whether it’s a death, a divorce, a friendship, an unmet expectation, or a stage of life that has come to an end.

Sometimes the grief over what “might have been” or what “should or could have been” is even worse than a loss of what really was – it is much more difficult to let go of a fantasy because you can’t let go of what you never truly had in the first place. The Hebrews were “supposed” to be the chosen people, those who were predestined to receive to first fruits of God’s blessing. It broke Paul’s heart that it didn’t work out that way. It’s ok to feel heartbreak. In fact, not feeling it will push that pain deeper, where it will fester and poison us slowly. Paul teaches me to feel my feelings, or suffer long term pain that leads nowhere but a slow death.

One of my feelings that almost always accompanies loss is fear. Isn’t it ironic that fear – of loss, of death, of losing myself to the apparent overwhelming demands of life – actually causes the very thing of which I’m so afraid? Enter Simon Peter, who had just enough faith to jump out of the boat in the middle of the storm, but not enough to walk to Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if we who strive to live lives of faith and service aren’t especially susceptible to the sinking that happens when we take a leap of faith. Many of us are conditioned to believe if we have enough faith, we will be protected from pain – like some kind of emotional prosperity theology. We throw ourselves into storms, in the name of faith. But believing in God doesn’t make us invincible. Having faith doesn’t inoculate us from losing our faith, either.

“Why did you doubt?” This is what Jesus asked Peter, not as a parent scolding a child, but as a healer who wants to get to the root of the problem. Why do I doubt? It’s not a rhetorical question, and my answer may be different than yours.

I doubt because I know I’m not capable on my own. I’m just not. Faith in myself will fail me every time. I can’t. God can. I gonna let him. It’s a mantra I can say any time I jump out of the boat.

When Jesus asked Peter why he doubted, it wasn’t about walking on water. Peter’s doubt happened before he ever got out of the boat. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” Peter said. Lord, if it is you. Jesus indulged Peter’s doubt and commanded him to come out on the water. But if Peter had had faith, he would never have said, “Lord, if it is you.”

I don’t ever have to jump out of the boat. I don’t have to “fight” the depression demons; it’s a losing battle anyway. I can wait on my God and let my God do the fighting. I can rest. I can eat. I can call someone or text someone and ask for prayers. I can go to the people who hold me in silence at the mouth of the cave and let me cry cleansing tears.

The walking on water gospel story is not about keeping our eyes in Christ in the midst of the storm and expecting ourselves to do the impossible. It’s about accepting our own humanity and our limitations. It’s about knowing He’s there with us in the storm, hunkering down, trusting He will come to us, and having the faith to wait.

This too shall pass.

Mustard Seed Faith

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The summer before I turned two, my grandmother inadvertently gifted me with my most valuable piece of jewelry. We were visiting her house in Pennsylvania, and my wee toddler self needed entertaining, so she pulled out a decorative box filled with costume jewelry and I was in heaven. Colorful flower pins, long strands of beads, chunky bracelets, and clip-on earrings preoccupied me for at least ten minutes, I’m sure, along with Grammy’s signature phrase as I rummaged through the box pulling everything out.

“Now wait.”

She was always saying that. When I was impatient to go uptown to Uncle Russell’s 5 & 10. When I wanted to go down in the basement to get her box of crayons. When I wanted to explore the attic.

She’s been gone almost 6 years, but I can still hear her voice when I’m feeling impatient. I’ve even heard it coming out of my own mouth when my kids are running around.

“Now wait.”

Ultimately she gave that big jewelry box and its contents to my mom, who still has it. My girls have played with the same costume jewelry. Among its contents was an unusual pendant to which I was always drawn. I always thought it looked like a lightbulb. Inside a tiny glass ball about half the size of a marble there is a hole, and inside the hole, a seed.

A mustard seed.

I’m sure the monetary value of this odd pendant is minimal, but I consider this talisman my most valuable because of what it represents to me – faith and possibility.

Most of us know the biblical parable of the mustard seed. The tiniest of seeds produces the mightiest of bushes that can shelter all the birds of the air. Christ said that faith the size of a mustard seed was all that was needed to move mountains.

Grammy was the paragon of faith in my family. She was widowed as a young mom of three teen and preteen children, and making ends meet in their small town was a daily act of faith. But she never doubted that The Lord would provide, and He always did, up until the time she died at almost 92 years old. A woman of few financial resources, it was nothing short of miraculous that she got to live out the best of her final years in a lovely assisted living apartment community, after achieving her dream of traveling to Russia at age 70. Her post script to every mealtime prayer we shared was, “Thank you Lord for many blessings.”

For the past year or so, I’ve been wearing her pendant regularly, especially on the days when I struggle to let go of a person or situation that is causing me to worry. I just hold the pendant in my fingers, close my eyes, and remember that God has the person I love in His more-than-capable hands. Having a tangible object on which to focus is helpful.

The pendant broke last week. The ball fell off and the mustard seed came out. It was a miracle that I found the glass globe part; I’m pretty sure the seed is not going to turn up. But it’s not the seed that magically soothes my mind when I get all worked up. It’s my conscious act of letting go and trusting that all the people I love are exactly where they need to be, right here right now. If I’m uncomfortable about where they are, that’s my problem, not theirs. I can take my discomfort, and my accompanying desire to “fix them” and share it with a girlfriend or write it in a journal or say a prayer. I can accept and love unconditionally. I can remember that no act of faith on my part has ever resulted in anything but my ultimate good.

A friend of mine recently described faith this way – being in free fall and deciding not to panic until you hit the ground, only you never hit bottom. That’s not to say that faith is a remedy for all pain, sadness, or natural consequences – it isn’t. Faith is all about having an attitude of trust instead of an attitude of fear, anger, defensiveness, justification, and selfishness. Faith may not prevent pain, but it eases self-inflicted suffering.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Tiny. Inconsequential. Yet within it is the potential to shelter “all the birds of the sky.” Not just the blue birds. Not just the robins. Not just the cardinals or doves or hawks. Faith isn’t limited, and neither is the kingdom.

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Good Ground

14 Jul

Today’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel has never sat well with me. It’s the parable of the sower. The sower (presumably God) casts out seed (the Word of God) which falls in a variety of hostile places and fails to grow to maturity or bear fruit. Except when it falls on the “good” soil. Then it flourishes. Even today’s psalm selection hammers home the point – the seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.

How nice for the “good ground.”

This parable smacks of the kind of predestination-minded theology that makes my stomach turn. What about free will? What about “blessed are the poor?” What about hope?

I’ve always related to the “good soil.” I liked going to church from the time I was a little child. I thrived in my Catholic school. I loved pondering the scriptures, and I took the Word to heart, literally. When life gets hard, I turn to God, not away (usually). So why should I even care about the path, the rocky soil, the thorny ground?

For one, I’ve always had a special place in that “good” soil of mine for atheists and agnostics – the seekers, the questioners, the doubters, the deniers. When you love someone who wants to have faith but is too worried about their life circumstances to truly let go and let God, that parable brings little comfort. When you love someone who is a fair-weather follower who falls off the faith wagon after a beautiful conversion, that parable stings to the core. When you love someone who flat out rejects the one thing that brings you peace, that parable breaks your heart. And when that person is a child, a parent, a sibling, or a spouse, it’s almost more than one can bear.

If you’re someone with “good soil” reading this, you know the feeling. No amount of self-righteousness can ease that pain.

I don’t know about you, but I believe in a God of hope. I don’t believe in lost causes, nor do I believe in writing someone off. I believe the words of the prophet Isaiah: “My word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”

I also find comfort in today’s epistle from Paul to the Romans. “Creation was made subject to futility . . . in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

Yes, comfort. Some people might see that phrase “subject to futility” and throw up their fatalistic hands. Sometimes it seems as if nothing we do can change the overpowering tide of pain and suffering (often self-inflicted) that plagues the world. I can think if several news stories just in the last three days illustrating some of the worst that humanity can throw at itself. Human justice is an uphill, losing, futile battle.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying, “Power is the ability to effect change.” In a world subject to futility, there is but one who has all power to change the soil, the soul. May we find Him now.

God throws the seed, and it does not return to him void. Even when it falls on the path to be eaten by birds. Even when it sprouts in shallow soil and withers. Even when it is choked out by weeds.

I know that in my heart, there is good soil. But there is also a well-paved path of self-will that doesn’t receive the Word. There is a fair-weather garden that isn’t suited for deep roots. And there are thorns of worry and doubt, in the darkest shadows, where the Word is all but lost. And if there can be such places in me, then there can be rich soil, if only a tiny patch, in the stoniest, weediest, shallowest heart of another. If only one seed sprouts and bears one small fruit there, that is enough to make angels rejoice.

The focal point of any parable has to be God. What kind of farmer sows seed anywhere but a well-tilled field? The kind of farmer that loves it all – the roads, the rocks, and the weeds. He showers every one of us with His Word, and His word is nothing more or less than hope itself. He litters every imperfect part of our hearts with it, because He knows hope isn’t wasted. And He challenges us to love like that when our harvest is ripe, whether we yield a bounty of a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold, or just one humble apple. Our soil is “good” only by God’s grace, and our harvest is in spite of our own futility.

God alone has the power to change the landscape of our hearts. I know that seed will only yield a harvest in “good soil;” why then do I insist on repaving the same well-travelled roads? Why not turn over the shallow, fallow fields? Why not allow the Master Gardener to remove the weeds and thorns? God doesn’t just want our “good” soil. He wants the whole damned package. He has the ability to effect change there. This is what the psalmist understood when he wrote this poetry of praise:

You have visited the land and watered it;
greatly have you enriched it.
God’s watercourses are filled;
you have prepared the grain.
Thus have you prepared the land: drenching its furrows,
breaking up its clods,
Softening it with showers,
blessing its yield.
You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
The fields are garmented with flocks
and the valleys blanketed with grain.
They shout and sing for joy.
The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.

And it’s all good ground.

United In the Body and Blood

22 Jun

I was all set to write a different reflection today. It was already half-finished this morning. Then I went to church at St. Elizabeth’s.

My regular parish is St. Michael’s in Richmond’s well-heeled, mostly upper middle class West End. It’s a parish that boasts more than 2,000 families, including our former Republican state governor.

St. Mike’s shares a pastor and parochial vicar with St. Elizabeth’s – a tiny African American Catholic parish in Richmond’s northeast community of Highland Park, which couldn’t be more different from the West End, demographically, economically, or otherwise. St. E’s boasts a fantastic gospel choir, and one of Virginia’s most recent Democrat governor’s has been a member there since his days on city council 20 years ago.

Today both parishes celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ. I was not familiar with the gospel music at St. E’s, and that made me feel a bit out of place. But then we got to the part where we all recited the Creed, and suddenly I was united with strangers and it struck me: this is what it means to be the Body of Christ.

In today’s brief reading from his epistle to the Corinthians, Paul says, “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” Two politicians who have both held the highest executive office in the state of Virginia hear the same homilies from the same priests and are fed at the same table along with the rest of us. Wealthy and humble. Black and white. Conservative and progressive. United in the Sacrament.

It was a powerful reminder of why I am Catholic when there are so many reasons why I could seek religious expression elsewhere. I certainly am not in lock step with the faith I profess by any stretch. But as I was taught in Catholic grade school, the word “catholic” means “universal.” It means that whatever it is that makes us diverse is not nearly as powerful as what makes us the same – the need for community, and the need for a Savior.

At communion, we sang “I Am The Bread of Life.” It’s my generation’s version of the quintessential Catholic hymn. To unite in song with strangers who welcomed me was deeply moving. I can’t wait to return.

Reflecting on Pentecost

13 Jun

Almost as soon as I got married I came to a heartbreaking realization: the man to whom I had pledged my entire future did not speak my “language,” figuratively speaking. I constantly felt misunderstood. I felt totally let down, and at times I even felt betrayed – not by my my husband, but by God. Hadn’t He called me into this marriage? Hadn’t we said the vows in a church blessed by a priest and witnessed by a supportive community? Was this not a Sacrament? Where was the magic that was supposed to turn two into one? Where was the unity?

God is just. He has seen to it that I have a diverse cadre of male friends, and because of them I have learned a great truth: men and women rarely speak each other’s language, and when we do, it’s only by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s not a foregone conclusion that women understand each other, either. All of us are walking around doing the best we can to translate our native tongue into something others can understand.

In fact, this inability to communicate seems to go beyond our individual relationships. Whole groups of people seem incapable of finding common ground. People throw out words like “compromise” from their respective corners, demonizing each other while we dig ever deeper trenches of defensive self-justification, focused entirely on what makes us different instead of what makes us the same – our human dignity and the feelings we share.

What if, instead of demanding that each other compromise, we put our energy into the goals we have in common? Is it too much to ask?

I can’t help but think of the communication deficits we all have when I meditate on this past Sunday of Pentecost. The scripture from Acts detailing the coming of the Holy Spirit talks about wind and tongues of fire and the apostles speaking about God in many languages so that all the foreigners in Jerusalem could understand the story of Jesus in their native tongue. I’m pretty sure it was literal linguistic language to which the evangelist was referring. But what if it was applied to emotional language?

There are many “languages” we speak – poetry, ritual, mythology, theology, analogy, sport, music, art, humor. Self-expression comes in so many forms, and experience teaches us to interpret and appreciate all those forms. We may even become “multilingual,” but each of us has a native tongue, and when we meet someone who speaks it back to us, magic happens. We no longer have to translate ourselves into a common language. We don’t have to compromise to fit with the person on the other side of the street. Instead, we feel understood, and united.

That’s Pentecost. It was about God’s story being shared in a way that each person could intimately understand, in his or her own language. Pentecost wasn’t just about talking and being understood. It was about hearing and understanding. It was a demonstration of the powerful uniting force of love. As in the words of the St. Francis prayer:

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

If Jesus’ death and resurrection are the climax of the story of salvation, Pentecost is its conclusion. It’s the summation of all the Old Testament tales and New Testament parables that preceded it. It’s our marching orders as believers in a God who raised His Son from the dead. Speak in ways that others will understand. Share our experience of God’s love in ways that unite rather than divide. Let the foreigners know they are not so foreign after all.

Pentecost is the feast of unity.

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.

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