Holy Week from Hell

For Christians, this week is a big one. We began with Palm Sunday, a story of Jesus entering Jerusalem in royal fashion. But things go downhill pretty quickly. Friends fall asleep in spite of his pleas for them to stay awake and pray. Friends betray him and deny him multiple times. He’s tried, convicted, tortured, humiliated, and killed. That’s one hell of a week.

I know there are many layers to the week’s events, and we hold the hope that in spite of all the shit Jesus goes through, God has a plan and purpose. Perhaps the use of holy is to remind us of that. But I wonder what my non-Christian friends think of a week that’s identified as holy yet filled with all of these terrible events. No wonder they are not signing up. The use of holy does seem a little off, as if it’s in denial of the full reality of the week. Jesus anguishes. He prays about wanting to give up.

I know Jesus didn’t give up or walk away. I know what comes on Sunday. But do we miss something if we jump ahead too early to the resurrection? Do we miss the depth of betrayal felt? The fear? The disappointment? The overwhelming despair that must have been always whispering in Jesus’ ear? I wonder if our impulse to skip the tough stuff or to deem it holy then causes us to ignore, wish away, or deny our own tough stuff. Do we assume we should call all things holy, even when they are in fact quite awful? And what about people whose lives never seem to reach Easter? Do we give the subtle (or not-so-subtle) message that those folks somehow missed God or didn’t get “it” right – whatever “it” is?

This week is about being well outside of our comfort zones and pondering tough questions as we navigate the dark. If not one of mine, consider a question that haunts you. We might convince ourselves, on the surface at least, that we are already living in an Easter reality. Based on human behavior, I suspect that is more often the exception than the norm. We have been hurt and rejected, suffered pain and loss, and our behavior often reflects our past wounds. A sanitized faith isn’t going to help us learn to live it better. And it’s certainly not going to get us to a true Easter any faster.

I find many people, not just Christians, want to put a positive spin on something before the dust even settles. By doing so, we might avoid some of the overt pain, but we also avoid maturing emotionally and spiritually. My challenge this week is for us to resist the impulse. Live in the dark with Jesus for the rest of this week. Let’s fully engage the Holy Week from Hell. Let’s assume we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and see what happens. Let’s navigate our fears and disappointments and failures as Jesus navigates his. We’ll have to be more attentive, more honest, and more vulnerable. We’ll need people who can walk this journey with us. We might discover a faith that is able to travel with us wherever life might take us, even to hell and back.


“Who Do You Say I Am?”

“Christ, though, is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying ‘I am here’, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how ‘ungodly’ that clarity often turns out to be.”

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

I grew up with a whole lotta Jesus. Jesus saved me. Jesus heard and interpreted my prayers to the Big Guy in the sky. Jesus related to what I was going through. Jesus would eventually be the one to usher me into heaven. Jesus had the starring role of my religious life. Jesus was that fair-skinned-white-robed portrait, looking kind and clean like a tour guide who wouldn’t roll his eyes when I strayed away from the rest of the group.

As a child, I remember several occasions where I was up in my room and very upset. My dad would come to me and listen for a bit while I ranted and cried. In the height of my emotional upheaval, he would say, “Let’s pray.” I know my dad wanted to be helpful, but it wasn’t. I would sit next to him anyway while he prayed that God would help and that blah blah blah, in Jesus’ name, Amen. This continued until the day arrived when a combination of courage and rebellion came over me. In the midst of my rant when dad asked me to sit down to pray, I yelled back, “I don’t want to pray! I want to be angry!” It felt so good to say, so liberating. I think that was the beginning of the end of my interest in tour-guide Jesus.

I don’t mean to pick on my dad. He has several wonderful qualities. But I don’t think it’s coincidental that in my mind Jesus was like my dad. We do it all the time with anything relating to God. We base our image on something we already know.  Have you ever heard someone first, make a mental picture based on the voice, only to be shocked by how the person actually looked? We hear something about Jesus and in time have Jesus firmly pictured in our minds which may or may not be based on much more than an impression someone else had given us. When my life became increasingly complicated, I didn’t need the Jesus I thought I knew. I benched Jesus and forged ahead.

In my 20’s, I began to study Jesus from a Jewish perspective. I learned more about the context of the bible, the gospels in particular. And I found a whole new Jesus. This Jesus was gracious, loving, forgiving, AND confrontational, offensive. He was aloof, witty, sarcastic, and often asked more questions than gave answers. He got under one’s skin, that “shard of glass” as Christian Wiman writes. This was a Jesus I could relate to, learn from, and be helped by. This was a Jesus worth following.

Throughout the gospels and even beyond, the question is continually raised about who Jesus is. Is he the son of God, meaning that he is also divine? Is he the Messiah, rescuer of the Jewish people? Is he the Christ, bringing restored life for all? Is he a good teacher worth our time and attention? Jesus claimed all of the above. But there are occasions where he instructed people NOT to tell others who he is. When given the opportunity to properly introduce himself to a big audience, he chose instead to stay silent. While Jesus seemed to be clear about his identity, he didn’t spend a whole lot of time explaining it to everyone else. This, I believe, is crucial. Jesus is more concerned about what you think about him, than he is about telling you what you should think.

If we believe that Jesus was sent by God, we are given a window into the Great Unknown of God. Early in Luke’s account, Jesus goes to the synagogue, opens the scrolls of what we know as the Old Testament, and reads from Isaiah:

The Lord has put his Spirit in me, because he anointed me to tell the Good News to the poor. He has sent me to tell the captives they are free and to tell the blind that they can see again. God sent me to free those who have been treated unfairly and to announce the time when the Lord will show his kindness. (Luke 4:18-19)

After reading, Jesus sits down. The place is utterly silent and all eyes are on him. He says, “I’m that guy.” These are ancient words that the Jews had been faithfully reading for years while anticipating its fulfillment, and he quietly announces that it is done. What??? So maybe he is crazy. But when you look at the life of Jesus through the lens of this passage, his words and actions take an interesting turn. He’s not being ambiguous or aloof, but rather working to bring good news, to set people free, to help them see what they have been unable to see. And that requires his being present with each person he meets, confronting them with where they are. “Who do you say I am?” The gospels are full of these stories.

There’s no formula for experiencing God in spite of what religious people keep saying. It’s work. Others can’t answer the question for you. If they try to, ignore them.  We often start with a big question: Why am I here? What do I want? How do I find contentment? What fear is holding me back? What if I die? The questions are great. But Jesus compels us to take an additional step. Who do we think he is? Jesus then becomes not the parameters of the exploration as some Christians might suggest, but the rudder of your exploration as you move ahead. The rudder helps you stay your course, reminds you that you are loved, exposes your self-centeredness, draws you to something beautiful and complicated and totally worthwhile.

This is the Jesus I am getting to know, reminding me that I am loved by God and challenging me to be increasingly awake to the reality of God. It is work, frustratingly so. But as I continue to wrestle with who he is, I find my life becoming increasingly focused and meaningful. I am getting to know peace and contentment. Love is more compelling. Some people want easy answers, but easy answers rarely bring lasting change. “Who do you say I am?”



Friday Favorite, 3.20.15

I found this prayer a few years ago and I keep coming back to it. It meets me right where I am, regardless of where I am. Like a gem,  I continue to find new facets that draw me in and hold my gaze.

Prayer for Today

by Francis of Sales (1567-1622)

[Our] God, we give you this day.

We offer You, now, all of the good

that we shall do and we promise to accept,

for love of You,

all of the difficulty that we shall meet.

Help us to conduct ourselves during this day, during this time,

in a manner pleasing to You.



“Move It, Lady!”

I was in a store pushing my cart behind someone else with his cart. We both came to a stop because a woman had her cart in the middle of the aisle, blocking traffic both ways. She was looking at the contents on the shelves and oblivious to our presence. The guy ahead of me stood there for awhile and waited. I do not know if he stood there patiently, content for her to take her time, or if he was becoming increasingly impatient. Based on his sighs which were increasingly getting louder, I think he was annoyed. But I found myself standing there thinking, this is easily fixed with a gentle “excuse me” to get her attention. I figured she would then move her cart to allow us (and others) to pass. Instead, he stood there becoming increasingly annoyed with a woman who had no idea she was being annoying. Just as I was about to say “excuse me” she noticed us and apologetically moved her cart out of the way.

I have had countless situations where I was quite aggravated by what I thought was stupidity or insensitivity on the part of a stranger. I was the one standing there annoyed and sighing loudly as if to say, “Move it!” or “Get in the back of the line!” or “No you can’t leave to get a loaf of bread while the cashier and I wait!” But one day I thought I would make a concerted effort to give others the benefit of the doubt.  I would remind myself that I didn’t know what the person might be dealing with. What if the guy with 17 items in the “12 items or less” line had just learned that he had cancer, and was too preoccupied to count the items in his cart? Not that I think every person who has done something seemingly thoughtless is suffering, but it did give me pause to be kinder when I decided to say something.

And so began my new social experiment. When someone acted in a way that seemed unfair and it was appropriate for me to speak up, I would. For example when a person cut in line, I would politely say “excuse me, the end of the line is over there.” To my surprise, I would often receive a response like, “I’m so sorry! I didn’t know!” Where I had often presumed willful disrespect, it was more often a case of misunderstanding. I have periodically gotten a scowl in return, indicating that the person knew exactly what he or she was doing. Since what I said did not include condemnation, the situation was easily resolvable for those who meant no harm. For those who actually were jerks, they rarely got confrontational because my tone lacked anger or annoyance, and I had the people around me on my side. I also found that my outings became much more enjoyable now that I was no longer judge and jury for public behavior.

I started to see how applicable this learning could be to the rest of my life. In the past, if someone said something hurtful, I would think about it, process it, and sometimes let it fester. I would condemn the person for hurting me, but rarely would I let that person know. What if, when something felt hurtful I spoke up? Not with condemnation that the hurt was intentional but rather to give the person the benefit of the doubt and simply articulate how it felt. What if I didn’t worry about whether I should be hurt or if the person meant to hurt me? What if I assumed the situation would be easily resolvable rather than believing I would be wise to sit with and process my hurt? It’s almost ridiculous how hard we work to make things way more complicated than they need to be.

This kind of authenticity is much easier said than done, particularly for those of us who haven’t practiced it much. When we get hurt, we want to protect ourselves, thus the go-away-and-stew-about-it technique. Speaking up can be risky.  But rather than seeing the articulating of our perspective or feelings as conflict, maybe instead we should say what we need to say and then listen in response. Not defensively or ready to argue, but to simply be present with the other person. Conflict will occasionally happen, but we don’t have to start a conversation with our fists up, ready for a fight.

Interesting how all of this began with a woman blocking the aisle.

Friday Favorite, 3.13.15

Spring is beginning to show itself here in Lancaster, PA. Whether you are experiencing spring or dreaming of it, I think you’ll enjoy this poem. Read it, aloud and multiple times if possible. A full life requires at least a little bit of poetry.


by Billy Collins

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house
and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,
a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies
seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking
a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,
releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage
so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting
into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.



interjection, noun

1. an expression of one’s good wishes for a person’s success and safety


Letting go is rarely easy, whether it is a person, relationship, job, state of mind, a dream, or anything else that we have become accustomed to. Godspeed became my prayer to help with the process. It started when my son started first grade, the first time I experienced his being away from me more than he was with me. Although I would miss him, it wasn’t so much a thought of missed time together as it was a matter of influence. I might not have been interacting with him for the full 12 hours of each day, but I had a say as to how those 12 hours were spent. Now there would be 7 hours, five days a week, that would be out of my control. I am not a micromanager nor am I a fearful person. And so I didn’t expect my initial reaction to be one of struggle. But as I sent my firstborn off to school, I realized that this was just the beginning of letting go. And that this step would be the first of many to come.

And so began my “sending off” prayer. As I watched him walk towards the school, little backpack over his shoulder running toward his friends, “Godspeed” would fall from my lips. It was a quiet prayer that I whispered typically with my breath held. Letting go… Trusting he would be alright… Hoping the day would be a good one… Some days it felt more like a plea because I knew the day ahead would be tough for one reason or another. Other days I would boldly say my prayer as more of a threat to God, as if God might need the reminder to watch over my kid.

When my daughter came along, my transitions went more smoothly, but the prayer stayed the same. It was the prayer used on my most confident days, on the days I felt utterly out of control, and each day in between.  When I knew what the kids were facing and when I didn’t have a clue, it was my way of letting go of what wasn’t mine or couldn’t be mine to hold onto anymore. As a parent, I needed to let them go little by little so that they could navigate life on their own. I knew this was my job as their mom – not to protect them indefinitely but rather to equip them to navigate their own lives. When the time is right, I have had to consciously move from leading them to walking alongside them.

As my son’s high school graduation approached, I found myself increasingly nostalgic about the momentous occasion. I couldn’t believe my first born would soon be a high school graduate. In the week leading up to his graduation, I would periodically tear up as I thought about the era that was coming to an end. One morning, I lingered in bed awake but not wanting to get up. I was thinking about how hard this was going to be, the biggest “Godspeed” yet. As I said my prayer silently, I heard myself whisper, “Stay…” It caught me off guard. I said it before I even consciously thought it. I didn’t want to let him go. I wasn’t ready. Like Elliot saying goodbye to E.T., I had to let him go even though it was breaking my heart. I stayed in bed and wept. I wept for the time that had passed so quickly. I wept for the man he was becoming. I wept for the journey ahead and I wept for the room that would soon be left empty. I wept both my joys and sorrows in one, long cry session.

For the rest of the week, I indulged in crying from time to time. There is a song the Dixie Chicks had done several years prior called “Godspeed”. I had always heard it as a lullaby to a young child. Suddenly a new meaning emerged. I played it several times, singing this lullaby to myself as a prayer for my little man. My little boy had grown up.

Graduation day came. Surrounded by family and close friends that evening, I toasted my boy by sharing the story of that prayer I had used for so many years, and about the morning a few days prior where I found myself whispering, “Stay.” Knowing I couldn’t nor shouldn’t ask that of him, I raised my glass and toasted him with “Godspeed.” I cried as I had shared my story. And I think I saw my boy tear up too. It was a beautiful moment to celebrate the 18 years we had spent together. He was my firstborn. He was my little buddy. He was now my man-child. And I couldn’t have loved him more than I did in that moment. All those years spent helping him to become the person he was and we had arrived at this day, a day to celebrate. The work had been hard and frustrating at times. But we made it. And I knew if he was going to be a healthy adult, he would need to go.

It has been nearly three years since that graduation day. And it will be a short three years until I have to do this again with my baby girl. There will always be a part of my heart that whispers to my children, “Stay.” But there comes a point where we just know that it is time to let someone or something go. For me, in that moment, there is sometimes only one thing to say. Godspeed. 

(Click here to listen to “Godspeed” by the Dixie Chicks. And if you have never seen it or haven’t watched in awhile, click here for the clip from E.T.)


A Companion Called Grief


The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Ellen Bass

 I find myself inundated with loss. A new loss occurred last Thursday with the sudden death of our cat. She had been part of the family for more than a decade. On Monday, we received a terminal diagnosis for our dog, and are now preparing ourselves for losing her. Thursday is the anniversary of a most difficult loss, the death of my beloved friend. It will have been one year since she was painfully taken from us. I was ill-prepared for a loss like that. Maybe we are never prepared. But up to this point, I had been able to visit with Grief for a little while and then move on.

I have experienced loss before. My parents’ marriage ended. I have moved. I have been left behind. My grandparents died. My son’s close friend died at 14. All of these experiences brought Grief into my life, and painfully so. But I somehow managed to avoid getting to know Grief. I kept her at arm’s length. I remained a stranger by moving on as quickly as possible. This time Grief unrelentingly took up residence. She would not be ignored. And her presence brought up not only the loss of my dear friend, but previous losses. I thought I had successfully navigated Grief in the past, but it turns out she had left quite a mark. She forced me to sift through pain that was residing deep within me.

Physical pain can be a sign that something is wrong, and it can also be a sign of healing. Emotional pain is similar in that it is not always clear what is going on. It is never an easy journey to take. And pain can be with us for years without our even realizing it. Instead we numb our pain. We eat our pain or spend our pain or sift through relationships always blaming the other for its failure. We think maybe this next accomplishment will assuage our pain. If only I am this size or have this title or drive this car. If only I have this many friends or support this many causes or collect this much stuff. But the If Only’s are just smoke and mirrors. Pain is pain, and lasting pain cannot be addressed until we welcome the presence of Grief to learn what has caused the pain. Only then are we able to adequately deal with it.

As I sat with Grief to feel the loss of my friend, I became aware of other stuff that I had buried: relationships that will never be what I wish they could be, the unsettling of my faith, feeling the consequences of failures and regrets. Even though this was terribly difficult, I chose to stay with Grief in spite of the exit ramps that regularly came. I welcomed Grief, not as my friend but as a needed companion. And rather than be offended by her presence, ignore her presence, or attempt to move her along as quickly as possible, I have learned to sit with her and learn from her. I accept her when she is here.

It is important to point out that there is a difference between acceptance and desire. To desire Grief is to take on an almost masochistic approach. I know people who are like this, who seem to relish their losses and be defined largely as victims. This is not a healthy relationship with Grief but rather a codependent one. My relationship with Grief is undergirded by the reality that she can consume me rather than help me. This is what prevents her from being my friend. I never forget that she is capable of destroying me, and that helps to keep my relationship with Grief a healthy one.

Last week in a blogpost, I advocated for hope over knowledge. I had some great conversations with people in response. For some, it resonated. For others, it was too easy. I have come to the conclusion that authentic hope is anything but easy. Hope is the ability to grab life like a face between the palms of my hands and say, “I know what you are capable of, and yet I choose you anyway.”  To give space for friendships when you know what its loss might cause takes courage. To choose love when you know it will disappoint is living. To try again when you know what failure feels like takes guts. Surprisingly it has been my time spent with Grief that has deepened my hope. Grief allows me to accept what is, and hope enables me to see what is possible. Grief and hope are teaching me how to be both alive and free.

I have been deeply moved by others who know Grief. Experiences with her can vary greatly from person to person. To be with someone who intuitively understands her complexity and respects her is comforting beyond words. For those of you who feel alone, overwhelmed, or nearly consumed by Grief, know that you are not alone. Find someone who listens well, listens deeply, and doesn’t try to fix what is wrong. Those people will be invaluable to you as you learn to walk with Grief. And hope will come. Eventually. For we are told and I have learned that troubles produce patience, patience produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:3-4).