On Being Soft

5716AC7C-6335-4D5F-8440-52F82A5C320F

Lent for me was quiet this year. I was sick through most of it, and I spent it pretty much alone, except for the sweet presence of my husband. I didn’t write much. I didn’t paint or craft anything. I was just quiet, and as the forty days passed, I was aware at times of being led by still waters.

Still waters was a spiritual and emotional space I discovered after I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease and throughout my lengthy hospital stays in 2014. So today, I am thinking about some life-sustaining words that were a part of my recovery —  the words of the Twenty-third Psalm, my own version of it.

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. I have around me and within me everything that I need.

The Lord invites me to stop and to lie down in lush, green meadows.
He leads me beside still waters, 
He restores and refreshes my soul.

He guides me along good and safe pathways for his name’s sake. And for my sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, 
the valley of death’s shadow,

I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.
Your grace and your care comfort me.

You prepare a place for me, even in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with the oil of gladness.

My cup overflows.

Surely your grace and and your love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell with you forever.

We know the words of this Psalm far too well. We skip past it as a common text we memorized when we were young. We recite it easily. But the Psalm came to life for me during my year-long illness. It was in my heart, and often on my lips, during long, sleepless nights in the hospital. I experienced the Psalm’s comfort as never before.

As we near the beginning of Holy Week, my thoughts are of the resurrection that comes after the passion, for Christ, yes, but also for me. I’m not thinking of “us.” My thoughts tonight are focused on me, how I experienced my illness in 2014 as my own kind of passion, the passion of confusion, grief, worry, fear. I experienced an expansive and disconcerting view of my mortality, and I did not take to the stark reality of it.

I cannot, of course, even begin to compare my passion to the passion of Christ. Yet in some tender way, I experienced suffering. Palm Sunday comes this Sunday, and in Christian churches everywhere, the people of God will celebrate Christ’s “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. We will raise our palm branches and shout “hosanna,” as well we should. But Palm Sunday moves us abruptly into the week of Christ’s passion, every pain-filled, grace-filled moment of it. We must not skip that part.

But back to my own passion story, the one that happened the year I thought I was going to die. First you must know a bit about me before the illness. I was persistent and stubborn, a fierce advocate for abused women and children. I did not flinch in a courtroom. I did not shrink when I faced-off with an abuser’s defense attorney. I did not cower standing between a woman and her batterer. I searched the nation to find legal advocacy for abused women and their children. I stood my ground against court-ordered child abuse that would consistently place children in the custody of an abusive parent. I railed against a system that refused to protect children. I was hard. 

The illness came and went over the course of a year. I did not die. Resurrection did come to me, in bits and pieces, slowly, but with the certainty of faith. I was no longer hard. I was movable, malleable, able to be blown about with good and gentle, life-giving breezes. We settled into a new home in a new state, and mostly, I embraced it over time. I fed hummingbirds, listened more deliberately for birdsong, and discovered the way of mindfulness.

When I recovered — slowly — from my illness, I remember the feeling of being soft, though I was not sure what that meant for me. Most certainly, God granted me the patience to move into my resurrection, to embrace it in God’s time, and to wait for it gratefully.

My family said that I emerged from my illness with a change in personality. I was quiet, they said, not like me at all. Inside myself, I knew that they were right. I felt the change. I sat in my own quiet for months. And even now I sense a quietness that wraps me softly as if it were a warm, light blanket. It’s a good place for me, this soft, warm, comforting place.

It’s a good place to continue my resurrection, to learn more about what it means to be soft. As it often happens, I stumbled upon this quote as I wrote this piece. I love the thought it expresses. It resonates with my soul.

Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard.
Do not let the pain make you hate.
Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.

— Iain Thomas

These days, I am sensing that a kidney transplant is imminent for me. So to go through that process, I will lean even more into my soft side. That will be a good emotional and spiritual space for me. Soft! Soft facing change and fear. Soft facing uncertainty and new, scary medications. Soft facing the hope of a healthy kidney bringing me a new beginning, a resurrection.

May God continue to lead me beside these still waters. It’s a good place for me to greet resurrection.

 

 

 

 

How Do You Live When You Know What’s Coming?

ABD2C8E4-5AA9-49EC-B771-A85BCDFBBD90How do you live when you know what’s coming? Jesus might have asked himself that question when the crowds were shouting “Hosanna!” and making a big deal of the fact that he was riding into town on a donkey. The Gospel of Mark tells the story well.

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

— Mark 11:8-11 New International Version

So how do you live when you know what’s coming? Jesus went to the temple as was his custom and then set off to Bethany with his disciples. He knew what was coming, yet he did nothing very earth shattering. He sent his disciples into the city to prepare for for the Passover meal they would share. They ate the meal together, Jesus told then they would all desert him, and each one declared that they would never do such a thing.

They did. But life went on as life does. The Gospel then continues the sorrow-filled story as Jesus goes on with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane.

. . . And Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”

He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated.
And said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.”

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him.

He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.

Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.”

So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him.

Then they laid hands on him and arrested him.

— Mark 14:33-46 New Internation Versioned

So now life is earth shattering for Jesus. How do you live when you know what’s coming?

Right now in deep Lent, this is a question we probably should ask. I don’t know about you, but as for me, I know what’s coming, at least some of what’s coming. There’s aging and illness, separation from children and grandchildren, the inevitable loss of loved ones, waning energy and more loss of independence. It happens to persons of a certain age. What’s coming for me includes things that are not so positive.So how do I live when I know what’s coming?

The preacher in me wants to offer a religious platitude that minimizes the troubling reality and lifts up abiding hope. The preacher in me wants to proclaim with a great deal of passion that all will be well. The preacher in me wants to declare that whatever happens to me, God will be glorified.

How do I live when I know what’s coming?

Right smack dab through the middle of it! Living strong in the face of fear. Holding tightly to hope. Summoning my inner courage. Standing steady through the winds of change, depending on the inner resilience that has always sustained me. That’s how I live in the days I have left in this world.

But, by the way, there really is a religious word that upholds and sustains me. The preacher in me is still alive and well, so I can proclaim with great certainty the comforting truth I find in my favorite passage of scripture

You have searched me, O God,
and you know me. You know whenI sit down and when I rise;

You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways . .

You hem me in behind and before, you protect me, and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful, too lofty for me to comprehend.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall your hand guide me and your right hand will hold me fast.

— Psalm 139:1-10 New International Version (paraphrased)

With that sacred promise and with the strength that has grown in me over many years, I really do know how to live when I know what’s coming. Thanks be to God.

Pay Attention

Design

Pay attention. Pay very close attention. For the day we call Good Friday brings us face-to-face with the trial, crucifixion, death and burial of Christ. We are placed within the awesome mystery of the extreme humility of a suffering God. This day is at once a day of deep gloom as well as a day of watchful expectation, because the Author of life is at work transforming death into life: “Come, let us see our Life lying in the tomb, that he may give life to those that in their tombs lie dead.” (Sticheron of Great Saturday Orthros)

Christ’s death is the final and ultimate revelation of His perfect love. He suffered the excruciating pain of absolute alienation when he cried out to God, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me!” (Mark 15:34). And finally, Jesus accepted the ultimate horror of death with the agonizing cry, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

In my memories of what we called Great and Holy Friday in the Greek Orthodox Church, I understood, even as a child, that the profound event of the death and burial of God in Christ Jesus was marked by an eerie kind of silence. There was no eucharistic celebration. In fact, Great Friday and Great Saturday are the only two days of the year when no eucharistic gathering is held.

On Great and Holy Friday, we commemorate the sufferings of Christ: the mockery, the crown of thorns, the scourging, the nails, the thirst, the vinegar and gall, the cry of desolation, and all that the Savior endured on the Cross. The Friday afternoon Vespers left an indelible mark as I remember the un-nailing of Christ from the Cross and the placement of His body in the tomb.

Great and Holy Friday. Pay attention!

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

– Isaiah 53:4-5 King James Version (KJV)

Pay attention.

Pay attention to what goes on around you and within you. Pay attention to the water on your feet and the roughness of the towel in your hand. Pay attention to the softness of the bread and the sting of the wine in your throat. Pay attention to the brusqueness of the kiss and the splinters of the cross. Pay attention to the coldness of the tomb and the terror that clutches your heart. Pay attention to the brightness of the dawning light and the life that bursts forth.

– Br. James Koester
Society of Saint John the Evangelist