Good Friday and a God who Weeps

Holy Week again. Good Friday again. I don’t envy those who have to preach tonight. How do you hit all the right notes in such a complicated story? How do you take everything you’ve learned about atonement and theodicy – who Christ is and how Christ saves, and what Christ’s suffering means to a God of love and a broken world – and make sense of it tonight? How do you stay in the sadness – in one of the only opportunities in our liturgical year to really reckon with suffering – without ignoring the hope that is on its way?

Every year there’s a different line of the scriptures or the hymns that sticks out to me. Sometimes it’s “I it was denied thee – I crucified thee.” Sometimes “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” This year I’m stuck at Calvary hill, with Jesus’ cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Working on my lament research, I kept running across the notion that Jesus’ cry was meant to evoke the whole of Psalm 22 – a lament psalm that starts in grief and ends in hope. “Why have you forsaken me?” asks the first line of the psalm, but the last line celebrates “the saving deeds that God has done.” Jesus knows his scriptures, these scholars say, so he must have meant his words to encompass hope as well as despair.

To which I say: If Jesus knew his scriptures that well, he knows that this psalm spends verse after verse describing the rock-bottom situation of the singer:

I am poured out like water;
all my bones are out of joint;
my heart within my breast is melting wax.

They don’t mince words, these lament psalms. There’s another one that has been stuck in my head this Lent:

I have come into deep waters,
and the torrent washes over me….
I have grown weary with my crying,
my throat is inflamed;
my eyes have failed from looking for my God.

Between last Easter and this one I figured out what those lines mean. This year I’ve wept harder than ever in my life.

And what I’ve got, here on this particular Good Friday, is that God knows what that feels like too.

If you, like me, are coming into Good Friday from an awfully shadowed place, maybe stay here with me for a minute. Forget the formulas that attempt to make salvation into some sort of cosmic chemical reaction, where a drop of Jesus’ blood is enough to purify the world from sin. Forget the problem of evil and the puzzle of suffering and all those rocks that God might or might not be able to lift.

Here’s where I am this year, here’s what I’ve got:
We have a God who knows what it is to weep.

At the very least we have a Savior, crying out from the cross; at the very most we have a God who was willing to become vulnerable and to suffer heartbreak alongside us.
For the moment, I think that will have to be enough.

The wheel of the year turns round, and there will be Easter tomorrow night and Good Friday again next spring. Maybe next Good Friday I will see something completely new in the midst of this multi-layered story. Maybe on Sunday I will see the cross in a new and joyful light (and if not on Sunday, maybe next Easter).

For now, though, I’m standing with the women at the foot of the cross, looking at a God who knows what it is to weep. And tonight that’s as much theology as I’ve got.

Singing in the Face of Death

Tonight my family is gathering in Minnesota to remember my uncle Ted, who died just over a month ago. He was too young – barely fifty – though people say he lived much longer than he expected. He loved the lake and the outdoors; he had a great sense of humor and was quick with a joke; and when I had just graduated from college and moved by myself to Minnesota for an internship, he made sure I was taken care of, whether by driving me to the grocery store or taking me to the movies on the weekend.

Ted was paralyzed in a diving accident when he was a young man, and apparently it’s very rare for someone with his degree of paralysis to live such a long and healthy life. Even so, it was a heartbreaking surprise.

Ted doesn’t have a “home church” with a priest or pastor on speed dial. And it’s Easter Vigil; all the priests and pastors we know are of course booked solid. So my family gathers in a funeral home tonight, leading the prayers themselves.

Grams & Ted, Christmas 2008

Grams & Ted, Christmas 2008

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Three years ago at Easter Vigil, I was on a plane to another funeral. My grandmother died in February 2012, and then (as now) we had to wait for the funeral until enough of us could make the trip. We waited for the holiday weekend. We waited for Easter.

It was the secular calendar that made us wait, trying to line up school schedules and leave from work. In some ways it’s not unlike winter deaths in cold climates, where folks wait out the winter until the ground thaws enough to bury their loved ones. And yet on the church calendar it is Easter, the highest of holy days, the most joyous celebration of new life and resurrection. It’s harder – no, stranger – to celebrate resurrection and death at the same time.

It seems so poetic, and yet for me it kind of just feels weird.

Sure, I know the theological rationales. Even before coming to seminary I’d heard over twenty years of Easter sermons. I can parrot back the main points: Christ’s resurrection is a foretaste of the resurrection that waits for us. Or a big, bold, decisive statement that God’s love is stronger than death—that no matter what darkness the world has to throw at us, it will always be less powerful and less real than the hope we have in Christ.

Which is easy enough to believe and to sing, most years. It’s easy to smell the lilies in the church or the honeysuckle in the garden and believe that this world has been and will continue to be redeemed. It’s easy to join friends and family around the Easter dinner table and believe that love is a force to be reckoned with. What kind of power could death have at this point? Where O death is now thy sting?

I love that line, part of a favorite Easter hymn. I usually love to sing those words in a teasing, snarky voice—take that, death! see how little power you have! When facing death right in the face—coming home from Easter morning mass with “alleluia” stuck in my head, back to my grandmother’s home where we were preparing for her funeral—it feels less mocking, more hollow, to sing. From where I sit, death has enough sting to go around.

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I can’t make it to this year’s funeral – since I have a full-time job now, and since Minnesota is a bit farther away than Arizona. What little I could do was send along a song. (Since all the church musicians are also busy tonight, they were planning a service without music.) So I agreed to make a few simple recordings.

I paged through the hymnal looking for old family favorites, but I also found myself looking in the Easter section. I found one that would be easy to play without much practice, and easy to sing along to if people wanted: “Alleluia, alleluia, give thanks to the risen Lord.”

Musically, it was the perfect song. But when I went to record it, I almost lost my nerve. Convenient timing or not, how could I sing this song for a funeral? One of the verses goes “We have been crucified with Christ; now we shall live forever.” How can I sing that for Ted, who lived so much shorter than forever?

It’s harder to sing alleluia now than it has been in other Easter seasons. I do know the song by heart though, from singing it in other years. And if Easter songs aren’t true now, what good are they? If now isn’t the time to sing loudly in the face of death—when is?

I spent my last year in seminary immersed in the psalms of lament. These ancient songs started with raw emotions—anger, grief, despair—but nearly always found their way back to hope. Even if that hope is hard-won. I was attracted to the psalms of lament because they’re acts of defiance. They contain curses and cries for help; they call God to account, reminding God to be the Presence of steadfast love that he has promised to be.

Maybe the hope is defiant too. Confident when there’s no good reason to be sure. That’s a song written on my heart as well: All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song…

Alleluia

Alleluia

Alleluia

Praise to his name.

Making Art in 2013

Tonight Neil Gaiman’s New Year wishes are making their rounds again. Every few years he writes a new wish (all of which are collected here) for his readers in the coming year. There’s no new wish tonight but his older ones bear repeating. This one has been sticking with me tonight:

I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.

Looking back over 2013, I did read quite a few fine books, and some not-so-fine ones as well: grad school will do that to you. I spent the bulk of 2013 reading and writing and trying to make sense of what I was learning, in two difficult semesters that pushed me to more clearly define my work and my voice. I spent the first semester immersed in the Christian story, and the second semester immersed in interreligious studies – learning how other religious stories intersect and collide with mine. 

This year I also made art – in the broadest sense: I wrote and created plenty of things of my own. I’m not sure if it was good art, of course. I sang in a requiem; I performed in a short play; and, most exciting for me this year, I got to create in new forms that I’ve never tried before: eucharistic prayers, short films, TED talks, speeches, sermons, and a full-length thesis manuscript that is, as of this writing, almost complete. Not to mention blog posts here and at State of Formation.

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And I kissed someone who thinks I’m wonderful, who sadly is hard at work several states away this New Year’s Eve. It was a good year for adventures together, including our trip to Vegas and the red rock hills of Nevada.

I’m not sure exactly what 2014 holds – it will be the year that the grad school journey ends and something new begins. I hope to keep making good art, and sharing it with others – and seeking out the places where things are being made new.

So I too hope – for myself and for you – to be surprised in the coming year. Surprised by beauty and by art and by adventure.

Advent Photo-a-Day: Holy

Advent Photo-a-Day: Holy

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

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Advent Photo-A-Day: Wisdom

Advent Photo-A-Day: Wisdom

I loved visiting this beautiful library with my sister last winter – they went to great lengths to make learning/wisdom beautiful!

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Advent Photo-a-Day: Ready

Advent Photo-a-Day: Ready

Ready to see my family and play in the snow!

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Advent Photo-a-Day: Hope

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Hope for peace to prevail on earth…

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