…then all the disciples abandoned him, and fled.
Light dawns on Holy Saturday, but the Sabbath rest has already long begun. The day before, the sky went dark far before the sunset, as Light himself was extinguished from this world.
The disciples, in whatever upper rooms or small homes they find themselves, are bound by the traditions of Sabbath rest: they cannot work or prepare food; cannot travel or buy or sell or kindle a fire. Sabbath, shabbat, demands that they cease, and sit, and pray.
Perhaps they remember another Sabbath … one where a crippled man, laying beside the miracle pool for thirty eight years, suddenly rises on two strong and healthy legs, and picks up his own mat and walks, runs, leaps for the first time in memory. And on another Sabbath, a withered hand — they see it themselves! — now whole and restored, a mirror of the other hand. And another: clouded eyes, blinded since birth, now clear and shining with sight.
A Man did these wonders – defied the Pharisees and brought healing and new life, even on the day of rest. And he had chosen them to follow him, to be his disciples.
And now he lay in a grave, pierced by Roman nails, finally defeated by the Chief Priests who had long been seeking his death.
And so this particular shabbat surely means no rest for these men, but worry, and fear, and unanswerable questions. Just two days before, they were sharing bread and wine with him. Should they now flee the city, also?
The women, too, observe the Sabbath, likely still reeling from the day before, when they watched their Lord breathe his last, agonizing breaths. They remember the Rabbi who had taught them, accepted them, received and honored their service among the followers … a Man like no other they had known, now brutally murdered before their eyes. Tradition lies heavy on them: it is the Sabbath, yet their hands and hearts long to work, to prepare the burial spices, the traditional anointing … to do something, anything, one last act of honor and reverence for their Teacher. But it is shabbat. And so they wait, and sit, and pray.
It is no small comfort to me that our God knows and understands the very human experience of Holy Saturday; that on this day we honor and commemorate the fact that at times in our lives we must simply do nothing, and wait. It is like those brutal days after a loved one passes away: we are wrecked with sorrow, yet finding ourselves at some moments dried out of tears; in shock, yet hands shaking for something, anything, to do, to keep busy with; uneasy, yet sitting still for hours on end, numb.
He knows. He walks in this moment with us, even though we feel so sharply his absence. He has conquered death and the grave, yet ordained that we sit in this moment and wait.
Wait, for the Lord is working. Wait, wait, and trust in Him, the Man you saw heal, the One who makes all things whole and restored … for a new day will dawn tomorrow, an impossibly bright and glorious resurrection, one that we cannot in this dark moment even fathom.
I’m not a morning person by any means, but I’ve been moved during this Lenten season to try to spend a few moments of peace in the Word and in prayer before rushing out the door to work. If anything, I get from this time a brief sense of grounding, a gentle reminder of who I am and the God I serve, before I have to face my students, or my coworkers, or any of the brokenness and despair that comes with teaching where I do.
So after last-minute printing of lesson plans and packing my lunch this morning, I found a brief few minutes to sit down with a cup of coffee and read the lessons for the Wednesday of Holy Week, when this verse stopped me with that sudden, wrenching moment of awareness that scripture often brings.
The Lord called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
Isaiah is talking about Christ, of course – and you shall call his name Jesus – but it reminded me, here, of what it means to be so deeply called and known – named – by our Father. We are not accidents or arbitrary coincidence, but “knit together” with purpose, as the famous psalm reminds us; we were “called from the womb” into this world, broken and hungry for redemption; we were named and known and loved even before our bodies and spirits were fully formed. And even now, with our bodies and spirits both a little worse for wear of this world – we are still named, and known, and loved by the Great Shepherd.
What has marked this season of Lent for me has not been the fasting, or the morning quiet time, but rather moments of deep conviction about my own depraved and wretched heart. A few weeks ago, with my small group gathered around the firepit, we were talking about what God is doing in our lives (because I am overwhelmingly blessed with a small group that is willing to be intentionally vulnerable around a firepit!). And I said a few words without really thinking through them, but knew immediately that it was one of those moments where the truth comes to you with sudden clarity; your words form without conscious thought what your soul has only been aching, in wordless lament.
“He’s been teaching me about my own woundedness, and how that reverberates in the lives of the people around me.”
I said it, and I realized that it was true. So much of this season has been seeing anew the deep wounds of my heart, and the waves they stir up that spill over into every other little piece of my life – my relationships, my work, my communion with the body of Christ. It’s been a time of new and deeper uncovering — more layers, more rawness. He has been gently and firmly shepherding me into these times of contemplation and insight, as wound upon wound is opened.
And, I hope, beginning to heal.
One immensely comforting and helpful resource in this process has been Kyle Strobel’s book Formed for the Glory of God, about the spiritual practices of Jonathan Edwards. In particular, Kyle mentions the notion of soliloquy: “holding open the truth of yourself and speaking into that truth … a way to pray ‘without You I can do nothing’ with a specific aspect of your heart that needs healing … ”
The Spirit prays from our spirits about the truth of our brokenness, depravity, and sin. The Spirit is not mistaken about who you are. You are the one who is ignorant of your heart. Soliloquy is a practice that acts in faith that the Spirit is searching and praying from your heart, and that, particularly in prayer, he will unveil your own heart to you.
Not the most pleasant of spiritual practices — but certainly revealing. New upon new depths to my heart; and new and overwhelming confidence of God’s grace, covering even this, and this, and this. I did not know my heart held these things. I did not know You would redeem them, also.
And so, out of this season, it was not without a measure of comfort that I encountered those words in Isaiah this morning. No matter what the Spirit dredges up from my heart, I am even still the beloved, named, called-forth daughter of a heavenly Father. I named your name — you and all that you are. I know you and I see you, and I forgive you, time and time again. Words of infinite and unknowable grace.
Oh Father, lead me further into the great depths that only You can bring to light.
It’s not happiness that makes us grateful; it’s gratefulness that makes us happy.
-David Steindl-Rast, TEDGlobal2013
I absolutely wasn’t intending to write a cliché gratitude post this Thanksgiving, but driving home this evening I had a startling realization that changed my mind.
I was thinking about travel — about how, as a teenager, I obsessively pined over traveling to Europe. Every year, they advertised two-week summer European trips in the halls of my private college prep high school, a kind of pseudo-educational vacation for teenagers, but it was something I knew my family could never afford. But still, I deeply longed to go, every year; seeing the posters start popping up in the spring only intensified my desire.
The first opportunity I had to travel overseas was right after my sophomore year of college, when I spent six weeks with a delightful group of peers studying literature all across the British countryside. At the end of the trip, I left our study abroad group and caught a flight across the channel to Paris, meeting up with two of my college friends who had done the equivalent study-abroad trip in France. We had a beautiful few days in Paris; Emily and Kirsten, who had already been there most of the summer, kindly indulged me in the typical Parisian tourist’s regime — the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, Notre-Dame, Versailles, eating baguettes and cheese with a bottle of wine on the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower.
But what struck me, as I was reminiscing over that summer out of the blue tonight, was that I was in Paris with Emily & Kirsten the very last week before I turned 20 years old (in fact, the first person to wish me happy birthday was the airport security agent checking ID’s at Charles de Gaulle on my flight home). I was 19 — just 19! — and I had casually “flown over to Paris to meet up with friends” for the week, or at least, that’s how I explained it every time someone asked about my summer plans that year. To think that I had spent so many years in school longing for a two-week study trip; a few years later I was given the incomparable gift of a week with wonderful friends in a beautiful, world-class city.
I was stunned, sitting in the car tonight, as I suddenly put those two disparate stages of life next to each other — the deep yearning to travel, feeling as though I’d never get the opportunity; and later, the deep and unexpected joy of traveling with friends as a teenager in France in the summertime. What’s more, in the decade since my Parisian summer, I’ve added nearly two dozen more countries to my travel itinerary, in Asia and Europe and Central America, seeing and experiencing cultures and events I’d never have dreamed as a teenager just wanting to see the world. That deep yearning I experienced as a young student has been so completely, and magnificently, fulfilled, over and over again, in the last decade of my life.
I know that we don’t always get the deep longings of our heart filled so completely; but I also know that I certainly don’t spend enough time meditating, in gratitude, on the ways that God has met me in my longings, even the ones I cannot articulate so well as this one, and provided for me in ways beyond all my hopes. And, as the Benedictine monk David Stiendl-Rast so elegantly articulates in the TED talk linked above, every moment of our lives brings opportunity to be grateful, if only we take the time to stop and look for it. So here are a few more things that, upon reflection, I am deeply grateful for this year:
- Just four years ago I was a brand-new teacher, convinced that education was merely a pit-stop in my career path. The work and the students were overwhelmingly difficult, and I had little support or encouragement; there were many, many dark days that first year. Today, I am grateful to feel highly effective at the work that I do; to be surrounded by a close and supportive community of colleagues, administrators, and friends; to have opportunities to lead and grow; to have life-giving relationships with students; and to see a divine plan in where I’m working and the work ahead of me. I have a greater sense of hope and purpose as an educator this year than I ever thought possible four years ago, and needs and desires that I could not even name then have been fulfilled to overflowing in this past year.
- When I was a child, all I wanted was my own room (sidenote – I never got it, perpetually sharing with my younger sister), and as an introvert, I craved personal and private space to decompress, but didn’t know then what my spirit really needed. Today, I am grateful to have not only my own room, but my own house that I actually own: a space which is full of light and peace and possibility, that I love living in and cannot believe I have been blessed with.
- In the wake of much loss in my family this year, I am increasingly grateful for the time that I have to spend with my dad, who is a gracious and kind and generous man of God. I’m grateful that we can speak truthfully and authentically to each other, that we can laugh and work and play together, that he has endeavored to make some of my interests (coffee and crosswords, to name a few) his own, that he gives generously and models humility.
- I am deeply grateful for my church, which is the first church I have ever attended that feels like a true spiritual home. I have no doubts that St. George’s is where God has specifically led me to, to grow and learn. I have been abundantly blessed to have meaningful opportunities to serve and to walk deeper into relationship with others in my church family. I am grateful that He has faithfully brought us through a season of upheaval, and is stirring up new and life-giving work in our midst.
It is not a coincidence, I think, that each of these blessings has been born out of a sense of great loss, or despair, or desire, or uncertainty. None of them were blessings that I could have designed for myself or simply worked hard enough to achieve. They are all superlative gifts, given by the Father of good gifts, the God “unto whom all hearts are open, and all desires known.”
I have deep desires, still; unmet needs and yearnings and troubles that all too often preoccupy my focus and mental energies. I freely admit that I don’t spend enough time just being grateful, and I rarely look for opportunities to stop in what I am doing and be grateful for what is. Which is why it feels cliché to stumble through a list of things I’m grateful for on Thanksgiving — gratefulness is not an annual laundry list to be recited before a meal; it’s meant to be a habit, holistically born out of moments of stillness and reflection when we connect who we are and where we have been with the work that God is doing in us now. The faithfulness we have seen, sometimes over decades and often unnoticed. And the grace that has sheltered us, even with with our unmet needs and yearnings still clamoring for our attention.
Father, give us wisdom to see Your hand of abundant provision in our needs and desires; help us to mold our hearts towards gratefulness, for in You all our desires are fulfilled.
Anna: I had only been married seven years when I became a widow; I was still a child, really … and then, suddenly and terrifyingly alone. My husband’s family reclaimed all his estate, his earnings, our very home, as was their right under the law. What else could I have done? Everything I had naively built my life around was gone. I had no children … by the grace of God, I had no children … and no chance at making a livelihood of my own. Our people, the great nation of Israel, were conquered by Romans, and as worn as the dirt under our feet. The world was a difficult place for anyone, much less a young widow.
With no other hope left to me, I moved in to the temple. And there, when my life should have been over, it began.
I was little more than a beggar at first, living in the courtyard of the temple, and off of the people’s generosity. I’m ashamed to say it, but all the while those early years, my heart burned with bitterness and with a blind rage at the God who had stolen my one small sliver of happiness in this world. I stained that holy place with my dark heart.
But even as I sat paralyzed by grief and anger, beyond me there was a daily flow of worshipers, rabbis, pilgrims, and those who brought sacrifices or offerings. And people were kind to me. They’d bring food, clothing, coins. They gave freely, even out of the astonishingly little they had. After much, much time, my heart began to soften. I began to talk to God again.
What a peculiar thing it is, to come to know peace in the midst of the great blankness of uncertainty. That’s all my life was – a great blankness, an open space. And yet the God I had despised and resented never left. He was as constant and unmoving as the solid rock of the Temple Mount beneath us. He may have been silent, but He was alive, and over time, I came to believe in him again.
I became an old woman in this temple courtyard. Eighty-four years a widow! By now, I have no family but the people of God, those who worship at the temple, and for whom I am as old and gray as these stone walls. I sing. I fast. I pray. And in this remarkable simplicity, I have found some small measure of peace. The words to the songs, they come easily. They are the words our people have sung for a thousand generations. But behind them … behind all words, all thought … there are more. Words waiting to be spoken, for the time to be right.
And then, after eighty-four years, a young couple came with their sacrifice to bless their infant, and to purify his mother. Amidst all the other temple-goers – somber, purposeful, a little ragged around the edges – these two seemed to shine with life and light and peace. Their faces radiated a joy that I can hardly remember feeling myself.
I had to meet them. I had to hold their child. I felt pushed by the hand of God across the courtyard — I walk slowly and feebly these days, but I knew that our meeting was divinely ordained. My spirit burned to speak to them, to hear what Yahweh was doing.
But when I saw their child, that blessed boy, held tight in his mother’s arms, I knew the shining Hope that He had sent our people. We would be saved. He had not forgotten us. That child was our Messiah.
How and why the Lord is working I could not even guess at. But I know this one thing — I have seen the redemption of our people. Our God is at hand. And I would happily languish another lifetime in the temple courtyard for yet another glimpse of that child. All this emptiness, all this blankness of my life, all fulfilled in a few divine moments. One precious baby. And in him, by the greatest mystery of our God, is all our Hope in the world.
Thank you, thank you, Lord. Our God, and our Father. Our great rock, who has held us all this time, and who will save us.
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
I finished my journal, today.
The first entry was dated just over two years ago, and today I wrote into the very bottom margin of the last page. There is mostly at least an entry every week. When I am feeling particularly well, they are every three days; and in some parts there are gaps of a few long and dark months.
I figured out in college that keeping a journal is a good and life-giving habit for me. When I take the time to reflect and decompress and just sit with the questions and issues of my life, without seeking resolution, only acknowledgement, I can re-enter the world with a healthier and more balanced acceptance of them. And although I do not want to over-spiritualize the process, I find that for my own walk, God has been very faithful to meet me in these pages.
The three pages or so that I typically write are often a meandering journey. I may intend to inhabit one topic but find myself led to a completely different one; some new and entirely unfamiliar territory brings up rich and abundant reflection. God reveals things to me in the wandering prose. He gently leads. I often collapse into spontaneous and Spirit-led written prayers at the very end, completely organic, no matter if I started with a dry account of my day or a clinical assessment of my own emotional state.
Although I do not usually do this, I decided today that it might be good to flip back through the last two years, and browse through where I’ve been.
There are some hard questions.
There are some deep and wrenching prayers, cries of my heart.
What was perhaps hardest to read was the simple earnestness with which I wrote, without even being really conscious of it, the same heart-felt needs and requests over, and over, and over again over the past two years.
I will admit, it was disappointing.
If God has been working in the past few years, it has been very quietly, and very slowly.
No, that’s not quite true. There are a few prayers I see answered. A few places I have grown in wisdom and hard-won peace. But there is a lot of resounding unfulfillment, too.
Father, I want to hear from you.
Father, I pray for divine opportunities to build community.
Father, help me to order my life rightly.
Father, speak to me.
Father, help me to be satisfied in you.
I want to believe that the valleys are sanctifying, but it seems like a lot of fruitless and cyclical fist-shaking. And yet, I believe also that prayer transforms us. I long ago realized the posture that is all too inherent in evangelical prayers — that prayer is a tool to “get stuff” from God. It’s not a divine wish list. God isn’t Santa Claus. Prayers mold us towards the will and heart of the Father because we are taking small, baby steps towards him.
And my heart whispers that I have taken my fair share of baby steps. There it is, again — that nagging temptation to complete some spiritual checklist in order to start hearing from God.
And I do not want, and refuse to give into, the faith that reduces itself to a spiritual checklist. Life with God, the God who adopted us fully and completely into his family, is too abundant for that.
Father, I am trying to move towards you, not that my baby steps would sway your will or impress you with my display of spirituality. I want to know you. I want to dwell with you. I want life with you.
And if this is the road I need to walk to move towards God, so be it.
The Lament Psalms teach us to pray our inner conflicts and contradictions. They allow us to shout out our forsakenness in the dark caverns of abandonment and then hear the echo return to us over and over until we bitterly recant of them, only to shout them out again. They give us permission to shake our fist at God one moment and break into doxology the next.
Richard Foster, Prayer
In the beginning, they danced.
Before creation. Before garden and trees and knowledge. Before fall. Before all else, theology tells us there was dancing, and love. We call it perichoresis — usually translated “the eternal dance of love” — wherein the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit loved each other like a divine dance, facing inwards, the deepest union. The dance always had been, and always would be. It continues today.
And out of the eternal dance, the deepest and most profound love, came the light, and the waters, and the sky; the land producing abundant vegetation; the sky illuminated by the greater and lesser lights; the waters and the land teeming with living creatures.
And then He said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness … ” What other likeness was there, except the dance? It was as though He was saying, “Let us make human beings to dance and love and commune like us. Let us invite them in to the beautiful union. Let us dance with them in eternity.”
Our very creation was an invitation to that perfect love. Sprung out of the richness of divine and eternal relationship. We were created to love and to relate and to dwell with one another, and with our Creator, perfect God in three persons.
We were made to be in the dance. We are wanted there, we are welcomed. And in this brutal and broken world, where that beautiful vision of communal love has been uprooted by division, and destruction, and exclusion, and separation, our identity still calls out to us in faint whispers beneath the roar. Come in, come and dance! Know, be known, and love, in perfect union.
Oh, eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who love in perfect and beautiful unity, draw us deeper into your dance every day. Let our lives be invitations to know and love in the way of your perfect Trinity. We love you, and we await the day when all else shall fade but our Dance.
being to timelessness as it’s to time,
love did no more begin than love will end;
where nothing is to breathe to stroll to swim
love is the air the ocean and the land
love is the voice under all silences,
the hope which has no opposite in fear;
the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:
the truth more first than sun more last than star
John 20:11 – 18
No Sabbath had ever felt as long as the one after our Lord died. We waited. We sat together, all the disciples, and all us women with them, even Mary, his mother. We could hardly even speak. The shadows along the wall barely seemed to move, and neither did we.
After a restless night, the women and I rose early to go back out the grave. We had prepared spices that night, as soon as the sun set after the Holy Day and we were free to work again. We had watched him pierced, we had heard his last breath, and yet still we wanted to see his body … to reverence him in that small way that we could, with our humble anointing of spices.
When we arrived, dusty and despairing, and then saw that his body was not there, I was overwhelmed. I don’t think I had really believed it, yet, that he was truly gone, but when I saw that bare stone, the wrinkled linens, it was then I felt that deep, gnawing emptiness in the pit of my stomach. His tomb was empty. His body was gone. Our last chance to look upon him, to anoint and honor him after he had died in dishonor, was gone.
I wept at the tomb, for I do not know how long, feeling despair against despair. When I looked inside, again, there were two men there, in white — yet I still did not understand it at the time, how they shone with a light that overpowered that dark tomb — and all they did was to ask why I wept. And then I heard someone else — a man, in the brush behind the tomb — I assumed he was the gardener, out at his work. He, too, asked why I wept. I was distraught, and probably too demanding of him — through my tears I asked where the body was, and begged him that if he had moved it, to tell me, that I would come myself and take it away. Whatever I thought … well, I didn’t think. I grieved. I would have gone myself to move the body in that moment, had I but known where it was.
His voice sounded so calm, like that peace in the air just before the dawn as the morning star fades away. All he said was, “Mary.” And I saw him, then, and I knew him. It was the voice of my Teacher, my … Rabbi.
I remember … and with tears streaming down … I embraced him, this man who had just come back to us from the dead, who had … in that moment, conquered death itself. I remembered when we had seen him call forth Lazarus from out of the ground, how the very air seemed to quiver with the power of his Spirit, and now he had risen … himself. I did not understand it then, but I was not fearful. This man was surely our Messiah. He may not have led the rebellion that some were hoping for, but here he stood outside of what had been his own tomb, his dead body now warm and breathing and radiant with life.
He said, “Do not cling to me,” which was a hard word to hear, for I would have stood there all morning weeping and worshipping him. But I didn’t. He sent me, instead, back to the disciples, with a message. He said to tell them that he was ascending, he said, “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” These were words I had not heard before, but I remember them still. He was telling me that the Father — God, the Adonai — was now our father, as well. As though he, Jesus, was now our brother. That was what I told the apostles, through tears of joy. “He is not in his grave, he is risen! But he will not stay, he must ascend to heaven. And he says that God is our father, and he is our brother. He is out of his tomb, and he is our brother!”
He is risen, and he is ours.