Tag Archives: death

A passion: Deaths and wonders

At times last year, my spiritual director must have felt he was riding a bucking bronco when we met. We sold our family home of 25 years, totally rehabbed the new condo, which was probably the most disastrous rehab we ever experienced, then said good-bye to my hired role in Circle of Hope – mostly during a pandemic and an election circus! Maybe my director was fine, but I still feel like I may have hit the dirt a few too many times. Fortunately, I have some rodeo clown friends and a cowboy family to pick me up.

When I drag in, looking a bit dusty and dazed, my director will often respond to one of my stories with, “It’s a ‘passion.’” He does not have a ready definition for what he means by “a passion,” and I am not much for defining spiritual experiences anyway. But I think I might understand what he means more all the time as I experience the little deaths that lead to new life. As I endure the indignities that accompany the joys of transition, my life keeps teaching me. Like Paul says:

And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:30-32)

What Paul is doing is a “passion.” He writes with a passionate heart about risking it all on the hope of resurrection.

Facing death is normal Christian life. It is so wonderful we can face it in the distant future with confidence. Most most of us think we’ll be alive a lot longer, so that confidence is easier and no less comforting for being so. It is also wonderful we can face the “wild beasts” in the present with confidence. That’s usually more difficult and often feels comfort-challenged.

In Paul’s story above, the enigmatic reference to “wild beasts” probably refers to the riot started by the silversmiths in Ephesus who thought Paul’s gospel would wreck their lucrative trade in honor of the religious power, Artemis, who ruled the area. I wish I were more like Paul, but at least I know what it is like to face power struggles with blinded people who think Jesus is no more than an alternative fact, at best. You undoubtedly have such struggles, too, at whatever level you struggle.

In facing what seem to us like death-dealing forces, we are like Jesus being attacked in John 10. His opponents are ready to stone him, and he says, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” I think my director would call that moment “a passion.” In the face of the violent, judgment-wielding world, we speak the truth in love. If we die that day, just a little or for the last time, we do.

The Elements of Holy Communion — Jacques Iselin

The death and wonder in the communion meal

It does not seem accidental that bread and wine are central to how we understand the crucifixion and resurrection this week. They are symbols of transformation. The grapes are crushed and reduced. When they “die” their inner juice and flavor are released. Then in the darkness we wait for them to become new wine. Likewise, simple flour with a little water and salt becomes many variations of bread. Add yeast and the whole lump of dough expands and becomes new. In the transformation into the food that feeds us there is a death of the old and the wonder of the new.

When our own transformation passion is working in us it is a bit more traumatic, isn’t it? It is painful for us to feel crushed, even when we know the newness is being released. And we don’t like being expanded, or stretched, even though it is the process of welcoming that wonderful fullness for which we have been longing all along. And when it comes to being the bread of life with Jesus, that can seem like a bit much.

Last week, when I saw my director, I could not tell if I was stuffing my pain or dampening my wonder. Both actions would be good ways to try to avoid dying that day. Pain reminds us we are going to die – severe SMH. I want to shut pain out. And wonder reminds us of why we don’t want to die – severe FOMO. I want to keep wonder in. Yet I don’t want to wall off my heart. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings,  becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Paul actually said that in Philippians 3, but I say it too.

Our passion in the Holy Week

I don’t want to die. But I certainly want to live. So I always need a Lent to teach me about passion — the Lord’s and mine and ours. I keep learning that living is giving – whether Jesus is about to be stoned, or Paul is fighting wild beasts, or we are facing societal breakdown, or we face all those other breakdowns: mental, physical, and relational. I don’t mean we give because we are afraid to die, although that may be where we start. I mean we give because we know we are alive and will live forever. It isn’t, “If I give I will live.” It is, “I give because I live.” I like living. Giving is living.

This week is all about how dying leads to rising, how living is giving. As my Lenten guide, Alan Jones says:

We are made in the image of God who gives himself away. [We are made in the image of God who gives herself away]. The mystery of that self-giving is what Easter is all about. The closer we get to our destination the closer we are to the crucifixion. Holy Week and Easter are not the only times when we remember God’s Passion for us. They also invite us into our own passion. Lent is a long period of reality-testing that questions our view of ourselves and the world. (In Passion for Pilgrimage: Notes for the Journey Home)

That testing has surely been happening to me. Maybe we have all been experiencing a pandemic-long “lent” that is testing who we are and questioning the world in which we live. If so, maybe a big resurrection is about to dawn. I hope so. The Holy Week calls us to show up and endure the process, especially if we missed the rest of the season!

The situation in the country is giving us lots of opportunity for a reality test. But my experience seems more acute than an assessment of where society should be going. My daily dying won’t be something that works back on me from what is happening in the world.  I’m already happening. Resurrection is already loose in the world. My profound actions will not make it happen. To the contrary, my grapes are being crushed and the yeast of God’s Spirit is expanding me.

Some days I don’t think I can die any more or rise any more. Perhaps when I feel that way my wine is taking some time to ferment and my dough is resting. But by this time in my life, I often know that despair might signal Easter is coming. Ready or not, a resurrection is imminent, as surely as the daffodils are coming up to bloom and, as a church, we keep turning our faces into Spring.

There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it

I’m still savoring the memory of Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, Mystical Hope, laying in my lap, a tear trickling down my cheek and a smile broadening across my face in deep relief and joy. I had just reached the part in which she quoted a little piece of a Thomas Merton cassette (!) speaking to his novices.  As I read it, I laughed out loud, since he used an image that was very similar to one I had received in prayer during a rich period of my thirties — an image that has sustained me ever since.

“God is near to us at the point that is just before final destruction. Take away everything else down to that point of final destruction, and the last little bit that’s left before destruction, a little kernel of gold which is the essence of you–and there is God protecting it…And this is something terrific. …[We] don’t normally get into that center unless we’re brought to the edge of what looks like destruction. In other words, we have to be facing the possibility of the destruction of everything else to know this will not be destroyed.”

Merton sounds a bit like he is inviting his novices to jump off a cliff, doesn’t he?! And I suppose he is. I suppose I jumped. But he is also inviting relative beginners into a life of prayer, like my three previous posts have been doing. It is a life that leads to the place of surrender and revelation he describes in the quote above.

Meditation “puts us immediately in touch with that ‘little kernel of gold which is the essence of’ us and allows us to begin to recognize it and trust it.” So much religion these days relies on a “good offense” or a “good defense.” On the one hand we are taught to release our preoccupation with death and suffering in order to experience blissful, mindless oneness with all life. Then on the other hand, many Christians offer something equally deficient when they promise an overcoming hope that seems hollow in the cancer ward, or when the baby is born with disabilities, or when the house is destroyed and a lifetime of memories seems washed away. Deeper than having a good defense or good offense  and more in line with the Lord’s example, on the other side of suffering is hope. Bourgeault says, “Only if we are still hanging on…only in the measure that we fail to yield completely into the mercy of God, will hope fail us. If we are willing to take it all the way, it will take us all the way.”

Jesus went beyond destruction to hope.

Isn’t this the journey Jesus took all the way? When he was arrested he told his disciples to put away their swords because he, like us, needed to pass through his own powerlessness and hopelessness. He was not going to hope in some nuclear arsenal of angels or call on a victory-making God. When he was in the garden praying and meditating (as the disciples fainted), he found that “protecting nearness” at the center of reality. How he went “to the edge of what looks like destruction” is an example for us. It is the Lord’s death as well as his resurrection that is our salvation.

In the wonderful old movie Babette’s Feast, the wonder centers around a sumptuous meal that reveals many secrets. It is like another last supper, only this one is full of old Danish people facing death, gathered full of faith and full of their regrets. The General gets up and names the wonder that is happening among them, the same wonder that is seen when Jesus, the living truth, yields himself faithfully into the Mercy. The General says, “Mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace have embraced.” And all the joys and regrets become one in love as the Alpha and Omega is present in fullness.

There is hope

On All Saints Day, we look toward the people who have gone before us for the assurance that this wild thought is true: if I move over the edge of destruction, God will still protect the golden kernel of the true me. If I dare to meet the living God, my fallen, scarred, angry, abandoned, intolerably vulnerable self, my old self might die, but I will live. We get this assurance not only from our ultimate example, Jesus, but last week we celebrated Rosa Parks, who could have quoted Albert Camus: “In the middle of winter I discovered in myself an invincible summer.”

There is hope.

Or look much closer; look at Mike Escott’s covenant blog from the love feast last Saturday. He has gone through so much and is going through much right into life, right now:  “There had always been an emptiness inside me and after my mom passed, I fell into the grips of addiction. When I moved to Philadelphia to get sober, I was fortunate enough to meet Jimmy , in what will always be a “God shot” to me….I was immediately drawn to Circle of Hope and I now realize I was also being called to Christ. This journey brings me joy and deep connection. At times Circle Of Hope is all I felt I had, but the fellowship, my Cell, and my growing relationship with Christ have filled me and helped me to thrive again.”

There is hope.

God is protecting that golden true self at the heart of each of us, calling us to meet in that Spirit-open place where life moves us and draws us. The everyday way to living comfortably and securely outside our present-oriented injuries and fears and into our eternal now with God is the listening, feeling and releasing prayer of meditation. It is a new way, as Bourgeault says, “beyond linear, discursive thinking” into “inspired visionary knowing where Christianity finally becomes fully congruent with its own highest truth and its mystical treasures can be received into an awakened heart.”

If all that beautiful teaching from Merton and Bourgeault seem a bit much to you, just listen to Jesus and see where he leads. Or meditate on Rosa Parks when you pray. Or appreciate the love that guards Mike, even when he has just been called back from far away.

There is hope.

More on Mystical Hope
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope
Next: Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

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For those too broken to eat the bread and drink from the cup.

This Wednesday we begin the season of Lent. Some of us long for Ash Wednesday all year, this is for those who don’t.

Even though the discipline of imitating Christ’s 40-day fast is an old one, each year it is new, as well. Because each year we are called out into the wilderness as a year-different person than we were the previous year: a year wiser or a year weaker, a year more mature or a year more undone.

As a new person who is the “I am” we are right now,
we are called out to meet the “I am” who is God.

We go in search of our true selves as we meet the one who makes us new and whole in a whole new way.

 

Every year we gather around the communion table to share the Lord’s death so we can share in his resurrection. It is just as mysterious as Paul describes it to the Philippians in the letter to them:

“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

When Jesus, the great “I am,” welcomes us to the table, some of us will not want to go. This post is for you.  

The whole meal is about being broken by sin — being confronted with what we carry and being offered forgiveness, cleansing and freedom.

At the table we receive the body of Jesus taking on our sin and death. Some of us will not want to receive it.

The last thing some of us want to do is bring Jesus into our mess. We don’t want to sully Jesus with the defilement that poisons and taunts and drains the life out of us! As a result, some of us rarely join Him at the table — maybe never have. Maybe when the body and blood were passed to us and we were too embarrassed to refuse it, we took it feeling like imposters.

You will not defile the body of Christ with your defilement – the sins you have committed and those committed against you, your torments or your trials.

Where his wounds touch your wounds
you will be made clean again.

No one will push you to do it, but it will help to take your memories and face them at the table, to let your pain be touched, not protected, to die and rise again and again until you get there.

Lent might be a good time for the traumatized and despondent to confess the sin of mistrust and tell the stories of their past sin and present entrapments. Visit the therapist, tell the trusted friend, write it in the prayer journal, or tell the cell. Take it with you to the table.

As your miserable, sordid stories bleed out of you,
be wrapped in an immensity of cleansing, sheltering, ministering, healing love.

Look toward your resurrection as you eat and drink communion with Jesus at the table and wherever His people share his love.

God, in Jesus, is showing great love. I hope you already knew that. That love is vividly presented to be known and touched when we share the body and blood of Christ in the communion meal. It is not magic or a miracle we can dial up, but when we take into our bodies from the plate and the cup, we invite the presence of the Light and Life of all people right in to our very guts. No evil can co-exist with the presence of the living Christ.

If you eat the bread and drink from the cup, discerning the person of Christ, it will be life to you.

When you receive the elements of “I am”
let the whisper of your heart be “I am” as well.

The life in Christ is catching. It makes us. When it touches us, it spreads within us. It will purge all rottenness and decay. It will touch the sore places of our spirits. It will turn us toward life. Is this what you want? Is this what you ask of Jesus?

Then say it with Psalm 51: “Make me hear joy and gladness so that even my broken places join the song. Keep me in your presence when the sin in me and on me drags me away. Restore in me the joy of being saved. May your freedom to love be met by my freedom to be loved.”

Can you say it? “This is my sacrifice to you of a troubled spirit, Lord. I trust that you will not despise my hopeful but helpless heart.”

Jesus will lift away the sludge that has gradually covered over the lamp of Christ in our souls.

The “I am” who was given life by Jesus
will be restored by the great “I am.”

Pray it: “Dear Jesus, my brother, my leader, my friend, I have nothing to give you but my troubled spirit. I love you as I can. I have no where better to go than to you. I put my trust in you. Receive the offering of this broken heart. Unbreak me.”

False Comfort from the Capuchins

My uniform is pretty simple. In summer it tends to be shorts and indestructible Chacos. In winter I put on long pants and black sneakers. Perhaps I picked up the simplicity from Christians I admire. The Amish have a uniform from the late 1800s which continues to turn heads in Lancaster Co. And I love the Franciscans, especially the Capuchins (after whom cappuccino was named), who returned to the brown (hooded) robe of St. Francis in the 1500’s, including the rope belt with three knots to remind them of their vows.

But the Capuchins sent me the worst tract in the mail the other day! (We are on innumerable religious mailing lists). I don’t really want you to see it because you might believe it. I just want to complain. Complete with a picture like the one at the right, they intended to “comfort those who mourn” with a prayer from the “Roman Ritual.”

Almighty and most merciful Father, who knows the weakness of our nature, bow down Your ear in pity to your servants, upon whom You have laid the heavy burden of sorrow. Take away out of their hearts the spirit of rebellion, and teach them to see Your good and gracious purpose working in all the trials which you send upon them. Grant that they may not languish in fruitless and unavailing grief, nor sorrow as those who have no hope, but through their tears look meekly up to You, the God of all consolation. Through Christ Jesus Our Lord.

Since we don’t know how to pray, and since the Spirit of God is praying for us, we can say a lot of dumb things when we talk to God and it will be fine. So I am sure many people have prayed that prayer with no great adverse impact. But I want to object to two things in the tract that I think have driven many people right out of their faith, instead of comforting them.

1) As you saw in the prayer, their logic is: God laid the burden of sorrow on you, so you should stop rebelling against that and see your grief as something good.

God does do great things for us when we are grieving. Our losses are primary places where we change and grow and learn to trust God. But our sorrows are hardly God’s plan, like we should spend our days meekly looking up to God though our tears, waiting for him to send a trial! So many people I know have understood this logic and see themselves as the perpetual rebel and God as the perpetual sender of trials to keep them on the track of meekness. It is not a good relationship. If the Lord wanted to send me burdens it was kind of odd for Jesus to become like me to bear them with me and on my behalf.

2) In a part of the tract I don’t even want you to see, the friars tried to comfort those who have lost a loved one by convincing us that when people die we have not lost them, they are watching us from heaven and waiting until we join them. Considering that they are watching us from bliss should encourage us to live a good life so we can join them. They are praying for us, even if they are in purgatory.

I can only complain so much, since I know very little about the structure of the afterlife. But I don’t think my dead loved ones leave their bodies and become like angels in heaven or whatever they are in purgatory to pray for me to leave this life of tears and join them in happiness as soon as possible. My hope is in a restored creation, not a disembodied eternity. It is OK with me if God works this out any way he chooses (I’m sure he’s glad I’m OK with that!), but I don’t think he is populating  heaven with the ghosts of my loved ones to haunt me.  The friars want me to find comfort in the “real and continual presence of our loved ones.” No, I think they died. When the Lord says the word, they will rise to eternal life if he chooses. How the timing and physics of that works out is not my concern (at least not my prerogative).

I wouldn’t bring all this up, except that a lot of my friends have a secret: they don’t believe a lot of the stuff their religion teachers crank out, especially when it comes to heaven and hell. The Catholic Church, in particular, has accrued so much nonsense in their theology over the years that you have to shut off your brain to go with it; it’s like Mormonism. Just rebelling against the nonsense is kind of a cheap way out. So I thought I’d validate the process of trying to think things through a bit rather than just closing our hearts completely. So what if the Franciscans sent me a dumb tract? – they were trying to comfort me. They’ve got a lot of other things going for them, like St. Francis. Let’s keep talking.

Untrusting Death-prevention

From today’s reading: I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  (Jesus in John 12)

seed death
A seed “dying”

Lent is good for uncovering our untrusting death-prevention techniques. Unless we want them exposed, it is better to ignore the whole season. If we don’t ignore the season,  Jesus is going to say something like he does in John 12, above. He is going to keep saying it is best to go ahead and die and rise instead of just trying not to die. We should stop just trying not to die, which we have been perfecting since we were born, and stop neglecting our meditation on rising, as we usually do.

Death-prevention is the preoccupation of humankind. I think the world’s outpouring of love for Haiti recently is an example of the instinct working for good. Our country’s astounding investment in national defense and offense is the more common expression. Generally, people do not trust God for their lives, so they are quite preoccupied with preventing their deaths. I say “generally” because quite a few people practice death-by-anesthesia with excess calories, smoking, and other addictions, and with all the other inventive ways we use to avoid the subject of death altogether.

Holy dying

As Lent draws our eyes toward the cross again, we are reminded again about holy dying. Some people even give up their anesthesia for a while so they can feel what Jesus is talking about. During Lent we heed the call to try on death. We need to heed the call because trying not to die is what one does until she comes to understand that she will live forever. Death-prevention is logical until one realizes that staying alive does not produce love or cause transformation so well (the logic of “capitalism” notwithstanding).

It is better to be a seed. These examples of what being the seed that dies might mean all came up in the last thirty minutes:

  • Better to be a single seed than to make sure we don’t compromise about anything with our mates.
  • Better to be a single seed than to shrink back from asking gunshop owners to follow a minimal code of conduct.
  • Better to be a single seed than to make sure my hurt feelings are of paramount importance.
  • Better to be a single seed than to resist what Jesus teaches or turn his teaching into something controllable and relative.
  • Better to be a single seed than just keep doing whatever slavish thing the master requires.
  • Better to be a single seed than be accepted by those who have another god.

There are good ways to die ahead. That’s why Jesus’ metaphor is so important. If italics been available he might have said, “If a seed dies it produces many seeds.” Because he knew that even if they killed him, he would rise again.

If you are like me, a lot of things seem like they just might kill me. I can get kicked into death-prevention very easily. Lent is good for getting to the deep fears and desires that make us run for our lives or fight for them. It is in those very places Jesus has planted his spiritual seed so that everlasting life can spring up. I pray for our courage to nurture the seedlings struggling for light in the darkness.