Good News on a Good Friday

 —For those who Celebrate Good Friday and for those who don’t!
Newly arrived humans lived simply and they related to God personally. He would show up at their house in the evenings and hang out with them. I imagine they talked about their days, the wonders of the created world, how they really felt about things. Eventually though the humans made an unfortunate choice. They chose to ignore some basic boundaries God had set. They chose independence and self. They chose to disrespect God. They chose their own way.

Everything changed that day. Where there had been intimacy, openness and sweet vulnerability now there was shame and suspicion. Difficulty and opposition and relational competition were all born from those misinformed choices the humans made. Evil and selfishness and sin all entered the world that day. I guess it goes without saying, but relating to God was no longer a walk in the park either. God gave them over to what they seemed to want—their own way.

God set up an elaborate reward system and sticker chart based on an even more complicated plan of laws. If the humans wanted to reconnect with God they’d have to work at it now. And the laws were elaborate and complex. There were ceremonial laws that told the humans how to worship. Civil laws outlined how humans should live each day and moral laws dictated the goodness and badness of everything. The whole point of the system was really to highlight that the humans couldn’t do it. There was no possible way for them to obey every single law. There was even a law saying that if they couldn’t obey all of the rules then they were guilty of breaking every one!

God let that system go on for quite a long time.

One summer when I was a college student I worked as a nanny for two children, Jamie and Kristen, a six year old boy and a four year old girl. At the beginning of the summer, the mother, who was a librarian at the local public library, asked me to help train her son. It seemed he had taken a class on sexual abuse. The parents and teachers assumed it would provide language to children if they were ever in that situation. An unintended consequence was that it provided little Jamie with an entire arsenal of body part language to use to horrify and provoke. He had taken to calling people shocking things!

I tried all kinds of ways to motivate Jamie to curb that kind of talk. He was in time out. He wasn’t allowed to watch TV. I tried everything in my amateur discipline tool box. Finally, I set up a sticker chart. If Jamie could go for five days without calling me the vulgar name of choice I would take him to Dairy Queen for ice cream. Jamie loved ice cream. I had found a currency that communicated. Day one was a success. Jamie got a sticker! Day two went well. Jamie got another sticker. Day three and day four meant two more stickers. He was doing so well. On day five after lunch I was loading the dishwasher when Jamie came running through the kitchen. As I bent over to add another plate, Jamie came dramatically toward me almost in slow motion, he kicked me in the behind and burst out with the word he had kept so carefully under wraps all week. “Penis head,” he yelled, and kept running. I was so shocked and so disappointed. I had been looking forward to ice cream too.

I found Jamie in his room crying. He already knew the gig was up. He knew he had blown it. Angry tears rushed from his face. Jamie was mad at himself for not being able to do it and he was mad at me for setting up the dumb sticker chart that highlighted his failure. All the chart had successfully shown was that Jamie was incapable of earning the ice cream.

The same was true for the rules and law system God set up. It served to demonstrate that people cannot, on their own, keep the system satisfied. The laws highlighted their failure to keep them. And really that was God’s whole point. Humans wanted to do it on their own, the choices they made at the beginning proved that, and yet they couldn’t. If Shalom was ever to be reestablished in their relationship with God, if they were ever to be at peace again, God would have to step in.

And that’s where Jesus shows up.

A couple of months ago I was on an airplane. My seat mate asked me why I was going to Thailand. I told her I was a spiritual director and I had been invited by a group that were meeting for retreat to offer soul care. She wanted to know what that was. I told her that I firmly believe that Jesus wants a relationship with each of us. I think he’s involved in our stories. He’s lurking. The spiritual director comes along side with curiosity and helps identify where Jesus might be and what he might be up to. It intrigued her.

I really do believe it. Jesus is present in your story. He’s calling you deeper. He doesn’t care where you come from, what passport you carry. He’s inviting people from every religious or irreligious background: Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, Agnostics to relate to him with honest hearts. Your previous religious experience doesn’t disqualify you in anyway. Rather he longs to breath a whole new way of thinking about relating to God into your soul.

Jesus isn’t like any other spiritual experience you may or may not have had. He cuts through the rules and the crap, the expectations and the ways you’ve always done things and he says, Look, See. I’m doing a whole new thing here. And there’s no point system or reward card in place. You don’t have to do this, subjugate yourself in that way, accumulate this, check that off, maintain these five things in order to score points with Jesus. He eliminated all of that. All you really have to do is come with an honest heart. There are no awkward silences. He has already initiated a friendship with you. He’s already started the conversation. Just respond. Just admit that you’re clueless to do it on your own. Just admit that other systems seem to bog you down.

Ask him to make himself known.

And then be prepared to be spiritually transformed.

 

 

 

A Death Anniversary

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A Death Anniversary by Robynn

On April 12, 2014, our youngest daughter, Bronwynn, went bowling with her Sunday School teachers. The previous week she and I had been to a special Butterfly Pavilion at the mall. There she had purchased three tiny caterpillars in a precarious cardboard box with her own money. She had watched the caterpillars with anticipation. And she was not disappointed. They had been transformed right in front of her eyes. The cat had apparently also been watching from a distance. When Bronwynn was away from the house bowling, the cat seized his opportunity.  He must have noticed a rustling and ruffling noise coming from the small cardboard box. Ever curious, he attacked the box and by the time Bronzi came home, there was only one rather traumatized monarch left in the box, quivering on a small broken stick.

My husband, Lowell broke the news to her on the way home from the bowling alley. Her grief was in full swing when they reached the house. She was so angry at that cat! She searched the house, thinking, hoping, praying the missing monarchs were still somewhere. Her denial quickly gave way to greater waves of rage and sorrow. She sobbed. She cried. She told the cat, in no uncertain terms, how she felt. We took the remaining butterfly outside and she released it to the spring trees, to the camaraderie of other butterflies, to the joy of freedom.

Unbeknownst to us, that was the prequel to our grief.

Later in the day we went to a dinner party with friends from church. While we were there our son Connor called. The car had died. He was just about to leave his girlfriend’s house but the car wouldn’t start. Lowell excused himself from the circle and went to get Connor.

Another sympathetic element perhaps?

An hour or so after he had left, Lowell called my cell phone. I saw his name come up and I started to laugh. I just knew that he was calling to see where I was, when I was coming home! I took the phone into the entryway and answered it. I’ll never forget Lowell’s words, “Robynn, there’s no good way to say this but…… Dad is dead!”

The air that escaped my body was loud enough to silence the room. Every one gathered near or around me. They waited with me while I waited to hear Lowell’s voice quickly, quietly, tell me what he knew, which wasn’t very much. There had been an accident involving a tractor. His brother Bryan was out there. Lowell was on his way. He hadn’t told the kids. Could I come home and be with them?

Who knew that one tractor, one load of firewood, and one too-steep hill could have so much power to change the stories of our entire family? It still makes my chest tighten all funny to think of Lowell’s mom waiting in the house for dad to come back in the dying day’s fading light. I can imagine her agonies over when to make that phone call to Bryan to please come look for dad. There was another phone call from Bryan to Lowell asking him to come help and to please bring flashlights and batteries. And then that one sudden discovery midway through that particular phone conversation: dad, covered in saw dust and cedar tree needles and the earth’s dirt, laying there in the dark, pinned under a tractor tire.

Everything changed that day and in some ways we continue to live into those changes. We’re still settling into them. We moved to a house appropriate for three generations to share. Mom moved off the farm and in with us. Bryan’s family moved out to the farm. Eventually Bryan’s house sold and they bought the farm. Although it felt at times, that the melody was silenced, we shifted around like a game of musical chairs.

Last year Larry’s death happened a week before Easter; this year the anniversary of his death is a week after Easter Sunday;. We were a week into funeral arrangements and death details when we pushed pause in order to remember Good Friday and to celebrate Easter Sunday. Larry’s death was all entangled and entwined with our observances and our celebrations. His death was all mixed together with the Resurrection.

Today is, In Western Christian tradition, Good Friday. It’s a death anniversary of a more significant sort. The execution of Jesus, although no accident, changed the stories of masses of people that day. Who knew that one crude cross and another too-steep hill, one confusing trial, one chaotic crowd and one innocent man could have such eternal consequence? It makes my chest do that uncomfortable tightening again to think of another mother waiting at the foot of the cross for the Father to do something to end the Son’s agonies. She too had to wait while the day died and along with it her dreams, her expectations, her plans, her baby.

I suppose, from now on, my experience with Good Friday and Easter will always be a little entwined with my memories of butterflies and stubborn cars and Larry’s death. Death happened. Larry suddenly, shockingly, surprisingly stopped breathing. It makes complete sense that his death be all wrapped up in the bigger story of the Resurrection. Because that’s the way it really is. All of our deaths are now forever consumed in that Wholly Momentous Resurrection! Death is now wrapped in hope. It’s lost it’s power to paralyze. The cocoons are ripped open and we are transformed in the blink of an eye, released to life and the joy of true freedom. Larry’s death serves to remind me of these sweet realities.

Today, on Good Friday, I choose to sit in my grief. I remember Larry—alive, hospitable, generous—and now gone. I remember Jesus—alive, full of grace and mercy, a friend of sinners—put to death. Larry ‘s death brings me to tears. Jesus’ death, sorrowful and somber, is also cause for deep sacred grief.

The death of Jesus is also deeply holy and redemptive. The story isn’t over on Good Friday. We wait for the fullness of time. We wait for the plan that is bigger and higher and broader than ours. We wait with anticipation for Life! We wait expectantly for Sunday and the Resurrection.

If you…believe that the Lord Jesus Christ Is the Eternal (One), and that He died for all your sins, then for you, Good Friday is the most sorrowful, the most solemn, and yet, one of the holiest days of the entire year. (WikiHow)

“But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die,this Scripture will be fulfilled:

Death is swallowed up in victory.O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?

(1Cor 15:51-55)

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 24 “On Pascha, Sophia Maria & Isaac”

 

The Orthodox hymn gets in your brain and you find yourself wanting to belt it out in loud measure everywhere you go.

Christ is risen from the dead, 
trampling down death by death.
And upon those in the tombs 
bestowing life! 
 

Pascha in the Orthodox Church begins with a darkened sanctuary. The light of one candle is held by the priest and as one we move forward as he calls us to “Come, take the light!” Candles now light up the church and we head outside around the church as though to the tomb. We come back to the door of the church and are told “He’s not here – He is risen from the Dead!” As we enter again into the sanctuary we move forward in joyous hymns and priests rushing joyfully into the congregation declaring in many different languages “Christ is Risen!” to which we reply in various languages “Indeed! He is Risen!” or “In Truth, He is Risen!”

And all this happens between midnight and three in the morning.

The first time I went to a Pascha service I lasted from 11:30 until 12:30. I was beyond reluctant – I was like “You all are, in my daughter’s words, ‘cray-cray’ (the vernacular for crazy)” Now I’m like “When will I get to take grandchildren to this glorious service?!”

A lot has happened in 11 years. And today – Holy Saturday – the reluctance was buried in an Orthodox Baptism, and as reluctance died, acceptance rose. Yes – my husband and I were baptized and chrismated into the Orthodox Church. We were cheered on by a church body that has loved us well these past couple of years, by a Poppadia (priest’s wife) who walked beside me these past weeks, even when I sent emails saying “I can’t do this thing!”, and by two priests who we trust and who have heard the bad, the hard, and the ugly, telling us there’s nothing we could tell them that they haven’t already heard in some form or another and assuring us that God’s grace covers all.

This is not new information. I was taught and loved well in my life by parents, brothers, sister-in-laws, friends. So many who have reflected love and grace and the very best of Christianity. But as I’ve said before, sometimes old information needs new clothing. And so it has been in our case.

We celebrate Pascha as “Sophia Maria (Marilyn)” and “Isaac (Cliff).” I figure that two saints are better than one. The lives of both Sophia and Maria (Mary of Egypt) exemplify Wisdom and Repentance and I find I am in need of both of those, in abundance. You can read up on their lives here and here.

This step in no way erases all reluctance or all questions. Indeed, the more I learn the more I realize this Grace is a mystery and confounds much of the time. I’ll be writing a bit more in later posts on going from reluctance to acceptance; on being Sophia Maria; on legalism and grace; and on some of the more humorous ‘mistakes’ I have made (including calling the priest’s wife a “PoppaDokka” and our son calling Father Patrick “Pope Shenouda.”

But tonight I celebrate Pascha, Sophia Maria, and Isaac.

Because with Christians all around the world I sing the words:

Christ is risen from the dead, 
trampling down death by death.
And upon those in the tombs 
bestowing life! 
 

“*A few drops of blood recreate the whole world and become for all human beings like a curdling agent for milk, binding and drawing us together into one.” 

 
Nazianzen, Gregory. Festal Orations. Trans. Verna E. F. Harrison. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2008. Print.

Baptismal photo credit: Dn Tudor Sambeteanu

 

 

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The Morning After Easter – Sham el Nessim (a Repost)

English: People receiving the Holy Light at Ea...

Orthodox Easter, otherwise known as Pascha, was this weekend. This means that much of Christendom celebrated Easter after a Holy Week that led us to a final, triumphant service, beginning just before midnight on Saturday and ending around three in the morning. While this may seem daunting, I assure you – staying awake is not an issue. How can you doze off when a priest periodically comes into the congregation and with joy shouts “Christ is Risen!” to which you respond “Indeed, He is Risen!”. 

As is the duty of those who call themselves Christians, the challenge is moving from Pascha into the week after. From celebration into the ordinary. From Sunday into Monday. It is easier to do this in some places than in others, and Egypt is one of those places where the Monday after Easter is Sham el Nessim – a national holiday.

So today I am reposting a piece I did a couple of years ago – Enjoy and Happy Sham El Nessim!

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Stale cigarette smoke, morning coffee breath and Marc Jacobs perfume mingled together in a crowded morning bus. While faces differed in color of eyes, skin, and facial features, one thing was the same – the look of Monday resignation after a weekend that brought jelly beans, promises of spring, and, for some in the crowd, the remembered hope of resurrection.

The bus door closed just as a flushed and out of breath young woman arrived, knocking at the door with hope that the driver would have mercy and let her on. He did and she breathed heavily with relief, her glasses fogging with the moisture and change of temperature inside the bus. The rest of us held on for dear life as the bus driver, clearly annoyed with the 5-second delay it had taken for him to succumb and display an act of empathy, sped miles above the neighborhood speed limit to drop us off at the central stop.

This is Easter Monday – a day given as a holiday in some countries but business as usual in the United States, perhaps particularly so in the Boston area.

And today I miss Egypt, for in Egypt the mood is not depressed and resigned, but instead light and celebratory as people celebrate Sham el Nessim. Almost as old as Egypt itself, the holiday celebrates spring and creation. Literally meaning Sniffing the Breezes”, Sham el Nessim is always held the day after Eastern Easter (Orthodox or Coptic Easter) and celebrated by all Egyptians, regardless of their religious affiliation. This makes it especially meaningful as a national celebration, free of some of the tension that inevitably marks other religiously based holidays.

In celebration of the event picnics are packed and from crowded cities, to rural areas families head outside. With a dearth of green space, crowds in the cities descend on any area remotely resembling a picnic spot, sometimes heading to the Nile River and opting for picnics on feluccas — large wooden sailboats popular for relaxation in Cairo and a way for people to escape the crowds of a city that by day boasts a population of 22 million people. Significant to the event is the dying of hard-boiled eggs symbolizing life, similar to Easter celebrations in other parts of the world. And there you have the holiday in a nut shell: Unity, picnics, eggs, and springtime.

So though my body is present in a small cubicle with a sun-blocked window, boasting a view of an eight-story parking garage, and my spirits are pressured to conform with the depressive atmosphere that only a government organization poised for layoffs in the form of pink slips can produce, I will slip into memory-mode.

Memory-mode takes me away from this for the moment, and puts me into a space where there is sunshine, and holiday, and my world is full of Egyptians celebrating life itself in the spirit of Sham el Nessim.

Do you find the day following a holiday particularly difficult? What do you do to go from Sunday celebration to Monday mundane? Also – don’t forget to participate in the giveaway and send suggestions my way! You can read about it here. 

And There are Floods in Djibouti

I am tired.

The ‘luminous foundation’ that makes television people look so pretty can’t hide the shadows under my eyes. After a delightful Easter weekend my head aches from the traffic on the highway getting home; from listening to The Clash full blast to pass the time; from Easter candy that looks so pretty in the bowl and feels so rotten in my stomach (because I am who I am and I overindulged.) It’s an Easter Hangover – but not the sort you are supposed to have where the glory of Easter moves into the Monday beyond.

I have my head full of all kinds of petty, so hard to get rid of petty. I feel exiled and frustrated and full of – I’ll say it – first world problems.

And then I remember there are floods in Djibouti. A place where it doesn’t rain — one of the hottest places on earth. Djibouti – a country that is often forgotten when naming countries in the African continent. Djibouti – where poverty abounds and most could care less.

Djibouti – where floods, even small ones, cause massive problems.

English: Mosque in Djibouti city, January 2008

“When there is no rain for so long, drainage clogs and people set up homes in precarious places, lulled into security. We had been in Djibouti less than four months when the last flood came through and killed more than 500 people in 2004. That year we lived on the upper level of a duplex and stood with our landlord’s family downstairs, watching the water rise more than three feet inside their house. This flood isn’t as massively catastrophic, but to people who have lost everything, there is no difference.” From Djibouti Jones

I need my ‘floods in Djibouti’ moments. They bring me back to reality. They remind me to pray. They push me to flush narcissism down the toilet. They tell me this world is big and God is bigger – and it matters to him that there are floods in Djibouti. It matters to him that people who have nothing are losing even more. These moments remind me that the circles under my eyes are merely circles – that I will get a good night sleep and they will go away.

That my energy and attention had best be spent on finding my Djibouti, finding those in my area that the floods of life have overwhelmed.

“This is the week of Easter, this is the week of miracles and resurrection. For many in Djibouti, this is a week of loss and grief. Pray for those who have lost so much. May God have mercy.” Rachel Pieh Jones

Blogger’s Note: If you haven’t already made your way over to Djibouti Jones – I urge you to do so. Rachel Pieh Jones and her husband have lived in Djibouti for over 12 years and I believe her perspective on life and faith will resonate with readers of Communicating Across Boundaries. She views the world through a much-needed cross-cultural lens. More importantly she communicates this view through all her writing.

The Victory That is Easter – A Guest Post

He is Risen EggOn this day Christians across the world are using a greeting that began over two thousand years ago – greeting each other with the words “He is Risen” and responding in turn: “He is Risen Indeed!” They are words that I have heard since I was a child, and in my faith tradition they are words of Hope.

My oldest brother, Edward Brown, wrote an Easter blog post earlier in the week and it resonated deeply with my soul. He has allowed me to re-post so I am sending you over to his blog today. Enjoy and make sure to take a look around his blog.

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It is the start of Holy Week. Christians of whatever label take time this week to remember and celebrate events that are at the heart of our faith: A coronation march into an ancient city. A sham trial. A barbaric execution. An unexpected finale with earthquakes, empty tombs, and wild rumors. And finally, a dead man come to life. Euphoria, despair, confusion, victory – all in one short week.

This up and down cycle of Holy Week is a pretty good metaphor for life. Whether it is our own small lives or the grand drama of human history through the ages, we experience the same wild swings from giddy joy to awful despair, with a lot of waiting time sprinkled throughout. This is a picture of how God works in our histories, small and large, to bring us to an end that he sees and has ordained from the beginning.

We know how it ends before we begin

That last phrase is where we have to begin: The end has been planned from the beginning. As Jesus went through the cycle from the exuberance of the Triumphal Entry (Palm Sunday) to the sorrow of the Last Supper to the humiliation of his trial and the agony of the cross, he knew that that he was participating in a drama whose end had already been written. There was pain. There was shame. But there was no uncertainty. He knew how it would end.

John makes this clear in his introduction to the events of the Last Supper:

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end… Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper… [John 13:1,3-4]

Jesus’ whole-hearted embrace of events that had been laid out for him from the beginning of time reminds me of Psalm 44:4 where we are told that God “decrees victories” for his people. What a great thought: We don’t have to earn our victories! God has decreed that we will win. If this was true of Jesus, and of the ancient people of Israel, it is also true of us in our day. Whatever today feels like, God has already decreed that there will be a victory. It almost feels like cheating – like starting your first game in the NCAA tournament knowing that strings have been pulled and you have been guaranteed the crown.

Not what we expect.

But the victory that God has decreed is not like winning a tournament. It may in fact be a ‘win’ that looks and feels like a defeat……Read more here!

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Ed Brown is the Executive Director of Care of Creation, an organization whose mission is “to pursue a God-centered response to the environmental challenges that brings glory to the Creator, advances the cause of Christ, and leads to the transformation of the people and the land that sustains them.” In this role he travels extensively both nationally and internationally, leading seminars and speaking on the topic of caring for God’s creation. He is the author of Our Father’s World, Mobilizing the Church to Care for Creation and a second book that was just released, When Heaven & Nature Sing:Exploring God’s Goals for People and His World published by Doorlight Publications.

“What’s Mom Doing in My Mirror?!”

I sleepily walked into the bathroom, tired from an Easter weekend filled with chocolate and relatives. “What’s Mom doing in my mirror?” I wondered aloud as I stared with heavy, sleep-filled eyes at the image staring back at me. I half smiled and Mom gave a little smile back. Ahhh! Nice!

I backed up and Mom moved away from the mirror…I moved forward and she did the same. And with that motion I realized with a shock that the young 26-year-old I once was was replaced with a version that was recognizable only as my Mom.

And I love my Mom. She is lovely. She has aged with grace and beauty. She is also 32 years older than me, so to see myself 32 years older than I had imagined was a big surprise.

I was relaying this to a friend and she began to nod her head and laugh. “Yes!” She said. “I know exactly what you mean!” She was recently in a store and had to show her license to validate her identity. The teenager behind the counter looked at the license, looked at her, and gasped aloud “What happened to you?!” He wasn’t old enough to have the tact to hide his shock.

Aging comes with its humorous moments and that is a gift. A gift because much dignity is lost as I go from being that young cute thing to being described as that “Older or middle-aged woman”.  A gift because laughter is so incredibly healing in this journey called aging as mirrors reflect back mothers or strangers, and even doctors can’t stall the inevitable.

So I waved goodbye to my Mom and told her I’d see her in the reflection of the car window. Not surprisingly, she waved back!

Have you seen your mom or dad in your reflection recently? Do tell! We need each other in this process!