Homework Continued

I’m still working on my spiritual homework assignment from Deacon Ron. Yes, the one he gave me several months ago. This is the one where I’m supposed to figure out my journey on the road (a recurring theme in my writings). The barrage of questions went something like this:

What kind of car are you driving?
How fast are you going?
Are you on the highway or city streets?
Are you alone or do you have passengers, and if so who?
Where are you going?
Why are you going?
Do you know where you’re going or are you lost?
Did you plan out the trip or just get in the car and start driving?

It went on from there but you get the idea. I started writing a fictional short story in which the main character goes out for a drive and ends up in an encounter with The Gremlin and a Figure In White who may or may not be Jesus. I’m not really working and re-working this story the way I normally would. I’m editing for errors but not for content. I don’t want to over think the whole thing because there are so many important little details coming out in the raw version and I don’t want to risk losing them in re-writes. Writing usually comes easy to me but this one story has come in paragraphs or disconnected snatches of dialogue. I keep working on it because I have the sense that it may well be the most important piece I’ll ever write, at least for my own personal journey.

Two things strike me as I read my own crazy story. For one, I read way too many Stephen Kings novels as a teenager and for another, that this character is representative of me. That is more than a little disturbing to me because as she meets these two figures, she immediately recognizes The Gremlin. She knows him. She knows his voice and his movements. She knows he’s evil and that he’s very powerful. The Figure In White, she’s not so sure about him. This could be Jesus. This should be Jesus in the illogical logic of this story but she doubts that possibility. She hesitates to approach him or to seek his help. She also considers that he may be just some wacko. How can she tell if he’s Jesus or not? She’s trying to deal with The Gremlin on her own terms rather than crying out for help despite the fact that she’s faced with such a powerful evil creature.

I realize I do that in my real life all the time. I always know when The Gremlin in my head is working overtime. But Jesus is working overtime in my life too. I just fail to see it so often. I question what I know to be true. I discount what I should hold precious. Like Mary Magdalene at the tomb, I don’t recognize Jesus even when He is right in front of me, even when He talks to me. It’s not until He speaks my name that the veil of doubt is lifted from my heart. So many times I see His work in my life after the fact. Hindsight is always 20/20 I guess.

I don’t know how my vision quest-like story will end yet, but I do know I’ll be paying close attention to these characters. I know I still have much to learn from them.

The Salvation Cupcake

“I did this for you, Christine. Didn’t you know?”

My Holy Week journey this year began with reflecting on Palm Sunday as a starting point and recognizing that Easter was the destination. This is slightly flawed idea but for me it’s easier to take my journey to God a few steps at a time. I can’t drive from Connecticut to California without making a few stops along the way so why should my spiritual journey be any different?

Tuesday of Holy Week

I went to Reconciliation. I had been stalling, finding valid-sounding excuses to put it off since the beginning of Lent. I don’t why I do that to myself, but I do. As I talked with fellow sinners waiting to confess we all found common ground in our delaying tactics. God knows why we do that I guess. Part of my penance was to walk the Stations of the Cross. As I think back, I don’t recall ever having taken the time to walk the Stations alone. I’ve gone to communal Stations of the Cross for years but this was very different. I walked the Stations slowly but I was still processing everything that the priest has said to me in the confessional and I wasn’t really focusing. I knew I would be back to walk them again.

Holy Thursday

For the first time I gave in to the call of the Holy Spirit to have my feet washed. At St James it is an open invitation to the entire community to come forward to any of the 28 washing stations set up. The past three years I have resisted that pull for reasons I don’t really understand. Those nights I went home sad that I couldn’t step out of my little box for something so simple and yet so meaningful. This year I just let go of all my resistance and didn’t let myself think. It was a friend and sister in Christ who washed my feet, dried them, and kissed them. In my heart, it was Christ Himself who demonstrated such love for me. I had let my guard down, physically and spiritually. I allowed myself to be vulnerable.

When the service had ended, the church remained open for adoration. After taking my mother and younger son home, I returned with my older son to a quiet, dimly lit church that still smelled of incense. My son went off to pray by himself and after taking my shoes off, I went to spend some time with my favorite statue of Christ condemned. He is in the crown of thorns and purple robe, bleeding from the scourging but His eyes are full of peace and love. I skipped the kneeler, opting instead to kneel on the marble floor. It was my way of acknowledging His sacrifice. Bowing my head to the marble floor, I asked Jesus to let me hear His voice again. He’s been silent for so very long and it is getting so hard to ignore the gremlin in my head. I asked Him to get that miserable voice in my head to shut up so that I could hear His voice, even if it was just for one night. “Just let me know that You’re still there. I know You are, but I really need to hear Your voice.”

After just being quiet for a time, I got up and began to walk the Stations of the Cross. I walked barefoot on the cool marble trying to imagine the hot dusty roads of Jerusalem. At the very first one, where Jesus is condemned to death, I stopped and allowed myself to try to see what Jesus was really doing. He was allowing Himself to be condemned, knowing what was going to happen. As I stood there, there was a quiet whisper somewhere deep inside that said “I did this for you, Christine. Didn’t you know?” My soul was flooded with gratitude and relief that He was there with me. It took another few minutes before it sank in what He was saying. I’ve heard other people say they’ve heard that whisper from time to time but most are like me and are slow to comprehend.

I realized that I had never really accepted the idea of a one-on-one relationship with Jesus before. I always looked at Jesus as the Savior of the whole world, so that included me. That’s not the same thing as being my personal Savior. It’s sort of like being in grade school and bringing cupcakes in to share with the class on your birthday. You bring in enough for everyone, including your best friends, that weird kid you don’t hang around with, and the kids you don’t like but have to put up with because you all got stuck in the same class together. Unconsciously, I had the image that Jesus died for me because He got stuck with me since I was lucky enough to be born into a family of believers. My salvation was just a birthday cupcake that He had to give me because He was giving it to everyone else too. If I was lucky I wouldn’t get the one that got dropped upside down in the box and lost half of its frosting. Whether He wanted to do this for me as His Beloved Christine or not had never even entered the equation for me.

Walking the Stations of the Cross with that understanding of “I did this for you, Christine” at every step of that painful journey was a completely new experience for me. This was an unimaginable act of love. Who am I that my Lord would die for me? And yet there was no sense of Jesus saying, “Well duh! It’s about time you got it dummy!”

On some level, I’ve known He died for me and I’ve known it my whole life but over time it got lost. Like most people I’ve found that life layers loss upon loss and difficulty on top of challenges on top of stress. This one moment gave me a chance to look at the cross-section of my life. I could see the strata of good times, joyful moments, hard times and even the mundane times. I could see that life isn’t about what’s going on right now, it’s about adding another layer and all those layers coming together to create something new. My soul is not a simple thing like a brownie or a cupcake. It’s more like a seven-layer bar where some layers are sweet, some are soft, some are hard, and some are salty. It needs all those layers to come together to form something amazingly good.

The journey of Holy Week starts as a triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. There is preparation time, then quiet time with comrades. This is followed by solemn time of prayer and spiritual anguish. There is betrayal, cruelty, agony beyond understanding, and death. But from all of this comes new life and redemption. And it all happened for me. Wow!! That really changed the way I entered into my Good Friday and Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.

It has taken me over a week to even find the words to capture my week and even now I am struggling to do so. Have I fully taken in the understanding that Jesus did all this because He wanted to do it out of love for me? Nope. But that’s okay. Jesus knows that it’s beyond my ability to understand this entirely. He knows how many times I’ll forget and how many times I’ll begin to doubt it. He knows exactly how many times my faith will be challenged and even badly shaken. And He knows the exact moment when the knowledge of how much He loves me will finally sink in completely.

For right now, we’re celebrating that I am finally starting to see that this life isn’t a journey to God. This life is a journey with God. A road trip kind of journey where a friendship develops, deepens, and solidifies.

Journey With Me

If a total stranger walked up to me and asked “So what’s the big deal about Palm Sunday anyway?” – what would my answer be?

In the readings for Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem triumphantly. The people hailed Him as the Messiah but by the end of the week He hadn’t lived up to what they wanted, expected, even demanded of their Messiah. Then they turned Him out, handed Him over to the enemy and had Him murdered.

But Palm Sunday isn’t about re-creating history. It’s not intended to be a simple re-enactment to teach a lesson that needs to be re-taught year after year. It’s meant to be a new experience every year. It’s real, new, and happening now in the present, not the past.

So many times in my life, I have welcomed Jesus as Lord and Savior. The great Messiah has come to set me free and save me in my distress. Yes, it’s the “knight-in-shining-armor” Jesus for me. But before too long I realize that Jesus doesn’t come on a white horse to rescue me and He isn’t wielding some magic wand to poof away my troubles. He has granted miracles in my life but they are not every day occurrences, nor are they meant to be. And when He doesn’t instantly provide relief from my struggles, I often grow disenchanted, even sulky. Jesus isn’t living up to my expectations. I had accepted the relationship that He so freely offered but now I want to renegotiate that relationship on my terms. For me this is what it means to be a “spiritual spoiled brat”.

How quickly I will turn my back, deny, and even betray His love for me. Once again I hand Him over to be nailed to the cross of my sins. But once again, He is willing to accept me and forgive me in my ignorance and brokenness. Having been fully human, He understands my failings and forgives me, even when I would condemn myself.

Year after year, Palm Sunday reminds me of my rejection of His love. But the important thing for me to remember is that the story doesn’t end on Palm Sunday. This is just the beginning of Holy Week. This is a time set aside to reflect on Jesus’ great act of love and forgiveness that culminates on the glorious Easter morning in His triumph over sin and even death itself. Palm Sunday is not a call to condemnation, but an invitation to examine my deepest relationship with Jesus. It’s a chance to take time out of my crazy life to look at all the glorious moments of true connectedness during the past year but also to look at all the saddest, darkest moments of doubt and betrayal. It’s an invitation to journey through all of Holy Week and to be reminded again of Jesus’ amazing, unfailing love for me.

The rituals of Holy Week are a guide for me to walk through those darker moments, not to remain stuck in the darkness, but to break through into the light of His love, again. Some times those will be big, dramatic soul-flooding breakthroughs. But most years, it will be in small quiet revelations that could easily be missed if I didn’t take the time out from life’s insanity to look for them.

So what’s the big deal about Palm Sunday? Nothing – unless it’s part of the journey of Holy Week.

May God bless you this week, however you choose to journey with Him.

Peace & Blessings,

The Almighty Silent Treatment

Picture, if you will, Alex Trebek as God…

This is Jeopardy…

“I’ll take ‘Spiritual Struggles for $1000’ please, Alex.”

“Answer ‘You get silence’”

“Oh – you didn’t ask the right thing!”

“I’m sorry you didn’t phrase the answer in the form of a question.”

Okay, I watch too much Jeopardy. I just never thought my closet game show addiction would ever help me in my relationship with God but, hey, He works with what He’s got in front of Him right?

As I mentioned in my “Spiritual Homework” blog post, when I met with Deacon Ron in February he asked me to read through my writings and look for some common themes. Incessantly searching for answers that I can’t seem to find has become one of my constants. It’s probably the most disturbing thing in my relationship with God. I already deal with trust issues and fear issues in all my relationships. The Almighty Silent Treatment doesn’t help matters any.

As Deacon Ron and I met last week we delved into this Silent Treatment a bit further. He suggested that perhaps instead of seeking answers that I start searching for the questions. Now, I have to say, my initial response to Ron’s statement was a bewildered, “Huh?”

He went on to explain that maybe the reason I’m not finding the answers I’m seeking is because those aren’t the answers that I need. Maybe God is trying to get me to ask an entirely different set of questions.

“Okay, so how do I know what questions to ask?”

Ron’s assignment for me this month is designed to help me figure that out. He told me to sit quietly for a time, be still, then write a list of questions that I feel like I want or need to ask God. Is there enough paper on the planet to cover that? After that I’m supposed to put the list away and “hand it over” to God for a few days. Once I’ve been able to do that, I’m to come back to the list, turn it over and write “Dear Christine,…” and allow God to answer the things He knows I need answered as opposed to the ones I want answered.

Ron also pointed out that there may be questions I’m not ready to ask yet. I know for a fact that if I’m being really honest with myself, there are a few such questions lurking in the darkest hidden corners of my heart.

“And what if I’m not ready? Then what?”

“Then you probably already have the answers my dear.”

Ouch, that stung a bit.

I’m preparing for Palm Sunday and Holy Week and this assignment is tugging fiercely at my soul. As much as I’d like to be “busy” with all the beautiful rituals of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and, finally, the joyous Easter Sunday, I know my soul is being called to enter deeply into quiet time alone with God. If the very Son of God could struggle through His own Agony in the Garden, who am I to try to deny my painful struggle?