Out of My Hands (VII)

Whenever we can, Phil and I walk our daughter to school. It’s a half-mile walk down streets of ranch-style and split-level houses and apartments. Most of the homes belong to strangers, but over the past few weeks, I’ve had the chance to meet some of these neighbors.

One morning, a woman in a housecoat and slippers popped open her screen door and yelled, “Excuse me! What day is it?” Unsure if I’d heard her right, I ventured, “Friday?” She nodded and retreated behind the screen door.

Just last week, my daughter and I met an elderly woman scooting her metal walker down the street, tennis balls dragging dead leaves with each step. We said hello, then she whispered the reason for her walk: people trying to kill her. She squinted warily at each passing car. I offered to call the police, but she explained that the police were in on it. Trust no one.

(I called the police. The officer who came was already acquainted with her.)

Most recently a woman stopped me and asked whether I go to church. When I answered yes, she told me a tale of woe, from health problems to being exploited by her landlords, Tina and Steve. She then asked me to pray for her by name—and to pray against her landlords.

(I agreed to pray for her but made no promises regarding Tina or Steve.)

I don’t know why strangers have been approaching me lately, but I feel helpless in the face of confusion and woe. And while I’m willing to give someone the day of the week when asked, I tend to be wary and stingy with my time. Still, Jesus’ words ring in my ears: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?

So, I was thinking: what if Jesus had avoided strangers? There’d be fewer stories of healing, no account of the woman touching the hem of his garment, no record of noisy Bartimaeus regaining sight, no pesky children to bless. Yet Jesus had no qualms about strangers—maybe because he was one.

Some people are powerless and desperate; some of us hold our precious illusions of control in a death-grip. Some people live life; some people have life done to them. Jesus not only aligned himself with the powerless—“he made himself nothing.

Father Henri Nouwen writes, “The mystery of Jesus’ life is that he fulfilled his mission not in action but in passion, not through what he did, but through what was done to him” (from Love, Henri).

Jesus had lived his earthly life in deference to God; most things were out of his hands—willingly. In his seventh Last Word, Jesus musters his last bit of energy to pray one final prayer: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

I imagine Jesus’ body collapsing into deathly stillness, his spirit tumbling into the waiting hands of God.

I envision Jesus—dazed and exhausted and relieved—asking: “Father, what day is it?”

“Friday. Not long until Sunday.” And with that, God shuts the screen door.

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Finished (VI)

When Phil and I went through the medical procedure of conceiving our children, the doctor handed us a packet of photocopies with ART terminology, diagrams, and illustrations of human embryogenesis. The page I remember best had a drawing of the morula, a 16-cell, early-stage embryo. I remember it well because it looks like a blackberry (and gets its name from the mulberry).

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From Henry Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body. The morula stage is letter e.

After our first IVF attempt, we counted ourselves extremely lucky to have an extra handful of those berries to put on ice. (The correct terms are embryos and cryopreservation, but the image of berries in a freezer is more pleasing to my non-scientific imagination.)

It had taken some time, but we’d finally crossed the starting line to become parents. Grateful and thrilled, we had a baby girl several months later, born on her due date. Then, after a few years of getting the hang of parenting one child, it seemed like the right time to revisit our frozen berries.

As we’d hoped, most of the embryos survived the deep freeze. However, by the day of the scheduled procedure, only two were alive—still a pretty great number. The doctor implanted those last two survivors, and we waited.

Neither one lived.

We were abruptly done having kids. It was suddenly time to face reality: we had one miraculous child, and probably would have no more. Dazed and disappointed, we were finished.

Father James Martin writes, “So one day you say to yourself, with infinite sadness, ‘It’s over,’ or, ‘It is finished.’ Jesus is with you on this. We cannot be sure, but it’s reasonable to think that as he hung on the cross—abandoned, bereft, and in pain—he may have wondered what was going to happen to his disciples after his death. . . . Almost as difficult as the physical and spiritual pain is the pain of lost possibilities.” From Seven Last Words

How well I understand this phrase, the pain of lost possibilities. When we had embryos waiting, I held out hope. When it was suddenly over, I grieved their loss–as well as their lost potential. And for too long, I dwelled on what I couldn’t have.

It is finished”: the sixth Last Word from the cross is so simple yet loaded with significance. Just the night before, Jesus had prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me,” not at all eager to endure the suffering that awaited him.

He might have said, “It’s not fair,” or “It’s not what I wanted,” or even “It’s not worth it.” Instead, he said, Father, it’s not my will but your will that I came to do.

Notably, Jesus’ statement can also be translated, “It is accomplished.” That is, at his last breath he’d finished his tasks. He must have felt both relieved and totally vulnerable. His arrest, the trial, the crucifixion—it all happened so fast. And now, it was over.

For Jesus, it was finished—already. (Let’s not rush to the sequel just yet.)

You and I–as long as we’re still breathing–we’re not finished. Don’t let anyone tell you the pain of lost possibilities is not real, but recognize that life has other possibilities in store. As long as we’re alive, God has work for us: loving, giving, helping, all the while burning off our despair as fuel for the mission.

Even when it seems to be over, it’s not over.

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The Fifth Word is Thirsty (V)

Time moves faster than ever, I’ve noticed. Until a decade ago, my life moved to the rhythm of the academic calendar: work hard until spring or fall break, then work hard until the end of the semester.

When I had my daughter, life took on a less predictable rhythm. No longer was time divided into fall, spring, and summer terms. Raising a child doesn’t come with a handy end-point every four months; she was not a stack of papers to be graded. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night, just trying to remember what month it was. Since she’s in elementary school, I’m back to the predictable comfort of a school calendar again.

Still, something strange happens every April. Things fall apart. Library books go unreturned, payments slip my mind, appointments are missed, laundry piles up, and my phone is misplaced even more than usual. April is the new May. So, as the calendar soon turns to April, I can only brace myself. Having buckled down since August, by late April, my ability to remember stuff is depleted.

Used up.

Drained.

Emptied out.

My word for the year is kenosis, a Greek word meaning “self-emptying.” Lately I feel fairly kenotic by 9:30 p.m. every night. But the only reason I know this word is from Paul using it to describe Jesus becoming human: “he emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

From the cross, when Jesus says, “I’m thirsty,” his willing emptiness is dramatically manifest. Imagine, the source of living water dangerously dehydrated. When the soldier pierces his body with a spear, a stream of blood and water flow to the ground. Thus the self-emptying–a divine depletion that began with birth in a lowly manger–culminates here on a humble cross.

In “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” eighteenth-century psalmist Isaac Watts wrote:

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

This outpouring, Watts seems to say, isn’t just blood and water but sorrow and love, love and sorrow.

When Jesus says he is thirsty, he just needs a sip of water. Bystanders give him a sip of sour wine instead. In this self-emptying he gives up so much—water, lifeblood, glory—and dies with needs unmet.

While constraints and obligations of daily life can feel draining, Jesus’ self-emptying means much more. He relinquished his grandeur to become one of us, then poured out the rest in mingled love and sadness, blood and water. And though he did not die of thirst, he died thirsty.

the fifth wordNote from Em In January and February, I took a dive into a tradition that was, until recently, unfamiliar to me: Jesus’ Last Words from the cross, also known as the Sayings of Jesus on the cross. These seven phrases are taken from all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Woven together, they form a cohesive narrative of Jesus’ final hours. Books I read include Cross-Shattered Christ by Stanley Hauerwas, Echoes from Calvary edited by Richard Young, Seven Last Words by Timothy Radcliffe, In the Shadow of the Cross by Stephen C. Rowan, Seven Last Words by Fr. James Martin, and Friday Afternoon: Reflections on the Seven Last Words by Neville Ward. The seven posts I’m writing during Lent are my reflections on the Last Words. Enjoy.

Daffodils Know (IV)

Daffodils hang their heads, humbled by last week’s cold front. These were the first to bloom in my garden of not-knowing. Now I wonder if the other mystery bulbs will bloom, or if those bitter cold nights will bring only stillborn hyacinths and tulips.

Nonetheless, here we are smack in the middle of Jesus’s seven Last Words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As he lifts his head and shouts this Hebrew question, onlookers mistakenly guess he’s calling out to the prophet Elijah. But Jesus, who rode into town on a borrowed donkey and would be buried in a borrowed tomb, here borrows the words of David from Psalm 22.

Throughout the psalm David shifts back and forth between despair and praise. Just reading the first line of each stanza reveals a mind split in two: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”; “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One”; “But I am a worm and not a man”; “Yet you brought me out of the womb.” Back and forth, back and forth David vacillates until he lands on unequivocal praise for what he hopes God will do in the future, eclipsing both his past and present anguish.

When Jesus quotes David’s first line—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?—I hear only desolation and distress. I’ve read that some say Jesus’ choice of quotation implies the opposite—that he wants his listeners (and readers) to remember the end of the psalm with its hopeful, exultant conclusion—that Jesus transcends suffering by looking ahead to resurrection, mind over matter. After all, how could he really be forsaken? I’m all for creativity, but this seems like a stretch.

I think Jesus borrowed another man’s words simply because they fit what he felt. Deserted. Abandoned. Forsaken.

Maybe Jesus also borrowed David’s words to validate them, as if to say: It’s okay to approach God when your feelings don’t shimmer with piety.

It’s okay to ask God why.

It’s okay to be present and real, to feel rejected and disappointed.

It’s okay to express hurt and pain, to hang your disgraced head. Really, it’s okay.

David knew it.

Jesus knew it.

Daffodils know it.

I’m still learning.

 

Note from Em In January and February, I took a dive into a tradition that was, until recently, unfamiliar to me: Jesus’ Last Words from the cross, also known as the Sayings of Jesus on the cross. These seven phrases are taken from all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Woven together, they form a cohesive narrative of Jesus’ final hours. Books I read include Cross-Shattered Christ by Stanley Hauerwas, Echoes from Calvary edited by Richard Young, Seven Last Words by Timothy Radcliffe, In the Shadow of the Cross by Stephen C. Rowan, Seven Last Words by Fr. James Martin, and Friday Afternoon: Reflections on the Seven Last Words by Neville Ward. These seven posts I am writing during Lent are my reflections on the Last Words. Enjoy.

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Of Texts and Textiles (III)

One morning last week, I went to Ikea for fun. I got a new spatula, lanterns for my porch, a couple measuring cups, and some fabric. Now, there is no reason for me to buy fabric, since I already have stacks of fabric that I haven’t done anything with—yet. But I have a real weakness for patterned textiles.

There’s something magical about them, as if possibility is woven into them–the potential to become curtains or a throw pillow or art. And since “textile” and “text” come from the same root word, it explains my tendency to hoard both fabric and books. Kind of.

In the third Last Word of Jesus from the cross, some interesting weaving happens. John’s gospel depicts about a dozen people nearby. Soldiers, four men, are stationed there to guard the crucified bodies. Jesus’ friends and family are there, four women: his mother, his aunt, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. The disciples are nowhere to be found, except for John.

Jesus has just promised the repentant thief that he would be with him in paradise. He next takes care of his aging mother by placing her in the care of his best friend.

To Mary he says, “Here is your son.” And to John he says, “Here is your mother.”

Knowing that Jesus is tying up loose ends on earth, John confirms, “From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” Not only do Jesus’ words tie up loose ends, but they also stitch the two together, beloved mother and beloved disciple.

In the preceding verses, the soldiers have divided Jesus’ garments among themselves four ways, but a dilemma presents itself. Jesus’ long, tunic-like undergarment is seamless, “woven in one piece from top to bottom.” It would be a shame to tear apart a thing of such perfect wholeness—even a barbarian can see that—so the soldiers gamble for it.

This perfectly seamless textile is like Jesus, woven of fibers wholly man and wholly God, wholehearted in love. There from the beginning, this living Text was with God and he was God. And although his tunic was preserved in perfect unity, he gave his body to be riven for us, making a way to God.

See Mary and John, a widow leaning on the arm of her son’s dear friend, slowly leaving Calvary. They’ve been woven together, a garment of unity and wholeness to clothe the Church to come.

Note from Em In January and February, I took a dive into a tradition that was, until recently, unfamiliar to me: Jesus’ Last Words from the cross, also known as the Sayings of Jesus on the cross. These seven phrases are taken from all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Woven together, they form a cohesive narrative of Jesus’ final hours. Books I read include Cross-Shattered Christ by Stanley Hauerwas, Echoes from Calvary edited by Richard Young, Seven Last Words by Timothy Radcliffe, In the Shadow of the Cross by Stephen C. Rowan, Seven Last Words by Fr. James Martin, and Friday Afternoon: Reflections on the Seven Last Words by Neville Ward. These seven posts I am writing during Lent are my reflections on the Last Words. Enjoy.

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Be with Me (II)

Casimir Pulaski weekend was a long one, with no school on Friday or Monday. To celebrate, Phil took off work Friday and we walked around the zoo, taking in the fishy smells of penguins and puffins and polar bears. The next day, we caught the Orchid Show and warm, sunny weather for feeding enormous carp. Sunday, church and dinner at Grandma’s; Monday, lunch with friends.

It was a lot of togetherness. As an introvert, I’d say it was almost too much togetherness. By Tuesday morning, I was ready to send the child out to get her free appropriate public education, but she was sick and stayed home. My batteries were drained.

I love our little family—a lot—but it can be hard to be with people for days on end. The to-do list in my mind never goes away, so I often feel that when I’m just relaxing—just being with them—I ought to do something more productive.

My mind is very busy. I’m not always present. Still, it might be the best gift you can give.

This week in the second Last Word from the Cross, Jesus continues his conversation with one of the criminals beside him. Neither of the two criminals had big plans by this point, but one spent his last minutes on earth more productively than the other. One of them joined in with the crowd and mocked Jesus, but the other one defended Jesus, arguing that he (unlike them) had committed no crime.

“Jesus,” he turned and said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And Jesus said he would: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Be with me. Presence is at the heart of his promise. Christians believe that Jesus had work to do that day: suffer, die, be buried, descend into hell (as the Apostle’s Creed used to say), and redeem humankind. Clearly, this puts my to-do lists to shame. But Jesus wasn’t distracted by all that lay before him. He was all about being present to the thief.

While Jesus’ dearest friends had to wait until early Sunday morning to be with him again, this common thief received the gift of his presence that very day. Today you will be with me.

In the book Real Presences George Steiner writes: “But ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other.”

Yet it doesn’t have to be a dream. We don’t have to get stuck in Saturday’s limbo between death and resurrection. Rather, we can experience the presence of Jesus today—just by breathing his name and saying, be with me.

He’s already there.

Note from Em In January and February, I took a dive into a tradition that was, until recently, unfamiliar to me: Jesus’ Last Words from the cross, also known as the Sayings of Jesus on the cross. These seven phrases are taken from all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Woven together, they form a cohesive narrative of Jesus’ final hours. Books I read include Cross-Shattered Christ by Stanley Hauerwas, Echoes from Calvary edited by Richard Young, Seven Last Words by Timothy Radcliffe, In the Shadow of the Cross by Stephen C. Rowan, Seven Last Words by Fr. James Martin, and Friday Afternoon: Reflections on the Seven Last Words by Neville Ward. These seven posts I am writing during Lent are my reflections on the Last Words. Enjoy. be with me2

The Garden of Not-Knowing (I)

A friend gave me a five-gallon bucket of bulbs last October. It was a hodge-podge of flowers cleared out of her yard—tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, lilies, crocuses. I don’t know a hyacinth bulb from a tennis ball, so I planted them randomly along our fence, a sort of mystery garden to be revealed in spring.

The bulbs have been bursting with green for several weeks, and today the first daffodils bloomed. I can’t wait to see what the others turn out to be, since right now they are nondescript green spikes of different shapes and sizes. Not knowing certainly has its downside, but there’s a degree of freedom in not knowing. This garden of not-knowing is pretty intriguing.

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I’ve spent the winter months of 2017 reading about the Last Words of Christ from the cross. Not too long ago I learned about this tradition, which weaves together from the four gospels the words of Jesus from crucifixion to last breath.

The first Last Word is “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” The thing that catches my eye first is the amazing, over-the-top forgiveness—the magnanimity of Jesus forgiving the people who are killing him. Astonishing.

But it’s the second half that catches my heart—this giving the benefit of the doubt to people who have no idea what they’re doing. Even the ones in the crowd who seem most intent on inflicting pain, even the ones who are relishing the cruelty of their jobs. They just don’t know what they’re doing.

I don’t know what I’m doing. I wake up in the middle of the night in fear at all the things I don’t know. What if all this writing never amounts to anything? What if my daughter grows up and loses her way? What if I wasted ten years teaching college English when I should have gone into Elementary Ed? What if I get diabetes?

So many things I don’t know.

Yet I’m always reading, always studying, always researching and wanting to know more. The more I know, the more aware I become of all I don’t know.

The good news is there’s mercy for this kind of not knowing, this second-guessing, this nauseating combo-meal of regret and pregret. Jesus’ compassion extends to those who carried out his murder and those who just don’t know.

I don’t know how things will turn out. I’ve been crushed by disappointment before, and I know it can happen again. But I also trust in Jesus’ over-the-top compassion for me. And for you, if you also happen to be one of the unknowing.

The bulbs in my garden of not knowing will soon bloom into full disclosure. Someday, perhaps, I will know it all. Meantime, there’s nothing but grace.

Note from Em In January and February, I took a dive into a tradition that was, until recently, unfamiliar to me: Jesus’ Last Words from the cross, also known as the Sayings of Jesus on the cross. These seven phrases are taken from all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Woven together, they form a cohesive narrative of Jesus’ final hours. Books I read include Cross-Shattered Christ by Stanley Hauerwas, Echoes from Calvary edited by Richard Young, Seven Last Words by Timothy Radcliffe, In the Shadow of the Cross by Stephen C. Rowan, Seven Last Words by Fr. James Martin, and Friday Afternoon: Reflections on the Seven Last Words by Neville Ward. These seven posts I am writing during Lent are my reflections on the Last Words. Enjoy.

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