What makes Good Friday so good?   Several people asked me to please answer the question about why we call this day… the day Jesus died on the cross, Good Friday.   Lol…like most religious questions there is no clear cut answer.  In the past two days, I have read 5 very different answers ranging for why the death of Jesus is a good thing (we certainly wouldn’t have resurrection without it…) to the the idea that the German words for God’s Friday Gottes Freitag look a lot like Good Friday.

Still, I have a rule of thumb in answering questions like this.   I find what I consider a trusted source and I go with that.   Which brings me to Fiona MacPherson… seriously you can’t make up names like that… Fiona MacPherson ( it gets better)  is the senior editor at the Oxford English Dictionary.   Say what you will about all the other arguments… my money’s on Fiona.  And Fiona says that “good” traditionally “designates a day on which religious observance is held.   She says that “good” in this context refers to “a day or season observed as holy by the church.”    So that’ that.

And on that note, I preached the traditional Good Friday service today at noon.   I talked about how this Lent has been a season when I have recognized the power and felt God communicating through scenes, moments in the life of Jesus.  It is as if God is painting these powerful and moving scenes that can speak to us.   Have you ever stood in front a great work of art and felt it “speaking” to your heart and your senses?   Much is said on Good Friday about the 7 last words (or phrases) of Jesus.  I won’t deny that they are important, that Jesus has a great message in every phrase.   But when I consider the scene of the cross in all of its brilliance and contrasts and  chaos,    I can hear God shouting to the universe.   The barren hill called Golgotha, the place of the skull.  Three cross at the top of the hill, against the beautiful blue sky.  In the center, hanging on the cross is the Son of God.   The God of creation is communicating with the world through picture that is grotesque and gory and violent and chaotic and yet strangely beautiful.   We understand this language, because it is the world we know.  It is who and what we all are.  Broken. Full of contradictions.   What I love most about this picture is that God is not off somewhere in the sky.   God is right in the middle of the muck.  Center stage in the violence and brutality.   Jesus is there with his arms stretched out.  And God says to us,  “This…. This is how much I love you.”  And the caption on this picture is simply this:  “For God so loved the world, He gave his son.”

Grace and Peace at Lent.

Myra

Jesus knew all about the importance of creating a moment.  He knew about the planning; he knew that each step should be intentional.  That’s how you create a moment that is defining, a moment that lasts.    Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is just such a moment; it is a moment that still spreads joy and enthusiasm two thousand years later.   Jesus gave us a moment that was compelling and telling and true to HIS story.

The “moment” is recorded in all four of the Gospels and each one gives us a slightly different slant, a nuance or detail that will resonate.

I begin with John.  His is the shortest version.  Jesus gets his own donkey.  But John gives us the palms.   Only in John to we find this detail that is the centerpiece of our current celebrations.

Matthew always concerned with his Jewish audience will make sure we know that Jesus is deliberately fulfilling Old Testament prophesy.   Matthew gives us the full account of Jesus sending the disciples out to find a donkey and a colt, putting Zachariah 9:9 into the “moment”.   Mark gives us that element of excitement and danger and Jesus rides into Jerusalem and keeps on going – straight to the temple.   Jesus is claiming his city and his “Father’s House.”   Luke gives us many of the same details as Matthew and Mark, but he adds those great lines at the end of the story.   The Pharisees tell Jesus to make everyone be quiet.  “Teacher order your disciples to stop!  And Jesus replies, “I tell you if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Jesus knew there will be trouble.   He was  ready for that.  But he knew that there is a point where you can no longer be silent.  A point where you must speak out.  Jesus had a story to tell.  Jesus had a movement to advance.  And he would give us this wonderful, triumphant moment, full of full of love and joy.  And yet, it is moment that recognized the danger of pushing God’s truth, God’s love out into the world.

I end this day looking again at those words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.  If your moment has come, if God is moving in the world and you try to silence that…. the very earth will cry out.

Grace and Peace as we officially move into Holy Week.

Myra

We stay one more day in the Gospel of John and with the branches of the palm trees.  Amy-Jill Levine  (“Entering the Passion of Jesus” page 39) links the reference of the palms not to the festival of Passover, but to the Jewish tradition of Sukkot.  She references Leviticus 23 :40 “on the first day of the festival you shall take the fruit of the majestic trees, branches of Palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.”  From this verse comes the tradition of Sukkot, the festival of booths, a celebration of harvest and thanksgiving.  But there is something much deeper in the Sukkot celebration that has always fascinated me.   It is one of my favorite Jewish traditions and the link between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and Sukkot is subtle but powerful.

I have been on a personal campaign to promote Sukkot for years. It is a celebration of the fleeting, of the beautiful things that do not last.  It’s simple.  To celebrate Sukkot, you build a temporary shelter decorated with fruits and leaves and praise God.  What’s not to love.      For many of the 30+ years when I taught 2nd grade Sunday School, I would hang a sheet against the wall; decorate it with construction paper fruits and leaves and invite the children to come inside and pray.   Those of you who know me, know that I have written more than once, not only on Sukkot but on the beautiful words from Rabi Kushner on this tradition.  (here we go.. one more time: )

“It (Sukkot) comes to tell us that the world is full of good and beautiful things, food and wine, flowers and sunsets and autumn landscapes and good company to share them with, but that we have to enjoy them right away because they will not last. They will not wait for us to finish other things and get around to them. It is a time to “eat our bread in gladness…” not despite the fact that life does not go on forever but precisely because of that fact. It is a time to enjoy happiness with those we love and to realize that we are at a time in our lives when enjoying today means more than worrying about tomorrow.”   Rabi Harold Kushner “When All You Really Want Isn’t Enough”

That, my friends is the entry into Jerusalem.  That is the palm waving, crowd cheering celebration as Jesus rides into Jerusalem.  It is a celebration of something so beautiful and yet so fleeting  that it transcends the moment, it transcends history.    This joy is fleeting.  Jesus’ time on earth as a human being is fleeting; like the temporary shelters of Sukkot it will be blown away, at least the physical will be blown away, to make way for the spiritual.   When the fruits of Sukkot are gone; the next crop is planted.  When the booths of Sukkot are gone, the community who prayed and rejoiced inside them lives and loves on.   With Jesus, the spirit of the living God will not be killed by Roman soldiers. It will be strengthened.

Go sit in a Sukkot booth; grab a palm.  Celebrate the moment because moments are fleeting;  the love of God is not.

Thank you John for giving us the palms.  The Gospel writer John is the only one to mention palms.  (Matthew and Mark talk about “cut branches” and Luke simply says “ As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.”  Luke 19:36.

Ah, but John gives us the palms in our hands, something to hold on to, something to wave.

Palm Sunday is coming and for the next few days we will look at the four different accounts of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and like the Gospel writers themselves, we will pick and choose the parts that move our own stories forward.

John omits many of the colorful details of the story; there is no going to find the donkey and the colt, there are no instructions for how to do it, what to say.  In John Jesus find his own donkey.  Yes, much of the details that pepper the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke are not present.  And yet, isn’t so interesting that the smallest detail in John has become the centerpiece of our entry into Holy Week.   One little word was added.   They are not just branches; they are “branches of palm trees.”    And it is just what we need.   We need a Sunday of palms.   We need to hold on to something tangible as we head toward the cross and the “physical” becomes spiritual.  Salvation changes forever.

Salvation up to this point has been physical.  The Israelites are saved from Egypt, Daniel is saved in the lion’s den and so on.   Even in the ministry of Jesus, people are physically healed and physically fed, although time and time again he reminds people and he has come for spiritual healing, spiritual feeding.   Something else is coming, or maybe we start to realize something that has been here all long.  Either way, Jesus is a bridge from the physical to the spiritual.  Jesus tell us in John 4:24 that God is spirit.   Physical Jesus becomes spiritual.  He sends the Holy Spirit.

I must admit that I chit chat with the Holy Spirit probably more than most.  Sometimes it is as natural as breathing and sometimes I feel like a total lunatic.  In those “lunatic” moments the spiritual world is just too much for my tiny human brain to comprehend.   My brain goes running back to Jesus, the man and I am so grateful that God came to be with us in the physical from, as a human being.   By the end of Lent, I am often desperate for the physical.  Thank you Jesus, thank you John for the palms.   So in 5 days from now, take your palms and hold on tight.   They are real.  But don’t forget, the palms are only a symbol.  They too, are a bridge to the things that are  “not seen”.

Grace and Peace at Lent,

Myra

Black and white Easter is much like black and white life; it is fantasy not reality.  People are never as bad or as good as we think they are.    The Easter story is never as clear cut as I grew up believing it was, and this week I have had some new colors of light mixed into the deep shadows of the Easter story.   Like all new revelations for me, I only began to see these new colors after struggling and wrestling with  new perspectives.

I am certainly not a Biblical scholar; I am simply a woman of faith with an overactive “input” gene.  I love research; I love to read new things, new thoughts, but declarations of fact about Jesus, his life, his teachings and his motivations set off my internal alarms, even when, no, especially when the declarations come from pastors and theologians.  On a leisurely pre Holy Week, vacation I picked up a book that challenges my view of the stories of Holy Week.   In Amy- Jill Levine’s book, “Entering the Passion of Jesus” my internal alarms were going off as she challenged, in no uncertain terms, some traditional views.   Here’s an example.   In the chapter on the story of Jesus “cleansing the Temple” is this:

“ ….despite Hollywood, and sermon after sermon, there is no indication that the vendors at the temple were overcharging or exploiting the population.  The people would not have allowed that to happen.   Thus, Jesus is not engaging in protest of cheating the poor.”

Amy-Jill Levine is a professor of New Testament at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University (my alma mater);  she is internationally renowned and the darling of Nashville, (my home town.)   Many of my friends and family have heard her speak and her book is the center of various Lenten studies.   She brings a fresh approach to the stories of Holy Week not only because she is smart and articulate, but because she is a Jewish professor teaching Christians about Jesus.   I love that and was really excited to join the wave.

The absolute statement that “Jesus is not engaging in protest of cheating the poor” is far too absolute for me.    I am not convinced of that, but I did start to see the beauty of the picture that Levine was bringing to the Holy Week stories.   Throughout this book, and especially in this chapter she is working hard to bring some “light” into our dark portrayal of the Temple and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.   She wants us to believe that the Temple was not as bad a place as we think.   Maybe not, but it was likely not as good as Levine would like us to believe.

Historical facts should add (not take away) color from the stories of the New Testament.   Levine does take us through the stories of Holy Week from the different perspectives of the Gospels.  I realize that in her own black and white version of these stories she is bringing some light into the darkness of those days.   She does give us the varying accounts of Holy Week, reminding us of the futility of exact interpretations.   Even Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t agree on the details.  Each of them is bending the story, emphasizing one thing, leaving out another, to make a point.  Colors mixing to bring us a vibrant and living story of the final days of Jesus.  We must not forget that beyond the history, beyond the facts and the suppositions is the movement of the Holy Spirit nudging us as we read and reread the familiar stories.   In some ways, the Holy Spirit makes each of us an expert if we are willing to be guided into new thought.

Sorry Amy, I do believe that Jesus was protesting the cheating of the poor, but that belief does not exclude what might be a more realistic view of the Temple.   In the book, Levine defends the various courts of the temple and exclusion of certain people saying  that there are always those who might not be included in every part of church activity, even today.  For example, she says, she is not allowed to take communion in a Christian church.   To that I would say… you’re at the wrong church.   I can speak for Royal Oak First United Methodist Church where  all are welcome at the table and you would be truly welcome to join in communion.

Don’t get me wrong, I am enjoying the book.   I love a good challenge and a new way to paint the stories.   In many ways if forces me to rethink, reexamine.   More to come.

Grace and Peace at Lent

Myra

It is not a black and white world, literally.   The world is filled with amazing shades of different colors, and just when we think we have seen every color there is to see, we see something new.   Now here is an interesting tidbit, (you know I can’t help myself) the definition of color is “the characteristic of human visual perception described through color categories such as red, orange, yellow and blue.”   The very color of the world is based on human perception through preset, man made categories.   You know where I’m going with this.   Nothing is “black and white”… not even the colors.

As we round the corner toward Holy Week, I see more and more that Easter is like a color, beautiful and vibrant and dramatic.  Like Christmas, we know Easter.  We know the story.  We surround ourselves with traditions to preserve the Easter that we know and love.  It is as blue as the sky, as yellow as the Easter chicks, as green as the palms.    But Easter like the colors around us can not be held by boundaries that are preset and man-made.     Just when you think you know about Easter and Jesus and Holy Week, you find  someone who is coloring outside the lines and mixing the shades.  If you allow youself, you can see something new and even more beautiful.

Let’s be clear; black and white Easter is easier.  Jesus did this, said that.   It means this and not that.   Still in our hearts we know that there is nothing simple or easy about the cross and there are as many explanations for the cross and what is symbolizes as there are slivers of wood in sealed boxes across Europe claiming to be from the cross of Jesus.

For the next couple of weeks, let’s keep our minds open.  Let’s mix some colors of traditional understanding and see what Jesus might have to say in 2019.

More…. Lots more to come.

Grace and Peace at Lent

Myra

In his book “Soulcraft” Bill Plotkin talks about the importance of the “survival dance” and the “sacred dance.”   The survival dance is about just that:   “survival.”   Whether we are working at a paid job or handling the tasks in front of us, the survival dance is how we get through the day.

The issue comes when we get stuck in this dance for survival.  Life becomes routine or rote.  I call it the “eat, work, sleep, repeat” mode.

Plotkin reminds us of the beauty in the “sacred dance”   that which we are called to do.

“Once you have your sur­vi­val dance esta­blished, you can wan­der, inwardly and out­wardly, searching for clues to your sac­red dance, the work you were born to do. This work may have no rela­tion to your job. Your sac­red dance sparks your grea­test ful­fill­ment and extends your truest ser­vice to others. You know you’ve found it when there’s little else you’d rather be doing.”  (Plotkin; Joyful Days)

And wouldn’t it just be lovely if we could all support our selves while booging to the sacred dance.   We read the stories and watch the movies about folks who live and work their dreams, but that is not the reality for most of us.  The survival dance is a critical part of our lives and that’s ok.

(I am typing this blog while on a lunch break in the midst of that survival dance two step…..)   There are some positives about the survival dance.   In this part of our lives we learn to show up, even when we don’t want to and to do tasks that are now always engaging or fulfilling.   We learn discipline and humility and perseverance.    The working world is filled with ups and downs, successes and failures.  We stick with it because we need to; we have bills to pay and people to help.    When we move from the survival dance to the sacred dance, perseverance is critical.   Plotkin reminds us that perseverance is what will keep us from giving up when our sacred dance hits a snag and will keep us dancing long enough to make an impact on the world.

 

“Unfortunately many of us spend so much time on our survival dance that we forget to dance our sacred dance. Just as we appreciate the survival dance that makes the sacred dance possible, we must remember that the point of the survival dance is to support the sacred dance.”  (Plotkin; Joyful Days)

What do these dances look like in our spiritual lives, on our faith journeys?   Does our faith have and need a survival dance?  Are we missing our spiritual sacred dance?  More on that to come.   Stayed tuned and keep dancing!

Grace and Peace at Lent

Myra

What if….this parable is in itself new wine searching for a new wineskin?  What if it can show us a new way to look at the transitions in our everyday life?    The Parable of the wineskins is in recorded in 3 of the 4 gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.  The wording is almost exactly the same in all three versions.  That is always a signal to me that there is something important here, something that deserves a second look.     First a word about old wineskins.   Wineskins were made from animal skins (probably goat skin) and they would stretch out of shape and become thinner when used to carry wine.  As the wine inside the skin continued to ferment, the skin would become brittle and easily torn.  The weight of the new wine would literally break open an “old” skin.

Yes, Jesus is talking about his teachings, a new way of looking at life and a new way of looking at God.   The new wine of the new kingdom does not fit in the “skin” or framework of traditional religion of the day.

Still, today on this journey in Lent I am thinking that we should not stop there.   There are all kinds of “new wine”… and all kinds of “old” skins.   I’ve been looking at transitions in life.  Yesterday we looked at “discharging the loyal soldier”.  Today I am thinking about finding the new wine skin, the new container, the new framework for the fresh wines fermenting in our lives.

The parable from Jesus holds true in this example as well.   New ideas, new perceptions of God and new chapters of our lives will simply not hold in our traditional containers.

I had an interesting conversation with my friend Cate Strumbos.     Cate is a good friend and our conversations get very deep, very fast.   I told her that there was an area of my life that I feel is lacking and that I wanted to pursue.  Cate said  “Well, let’s begin by declaring that to the universe.”

“So what does that mean?  Do I stand on a mountain top and shout it out?

“No, you just say it out loud to me.  But here’s the hard part.  You need to also declare that you will be intentional about it and not be hindered by old ideas, old feelings, old ways of doing things.”

Do you see what was happening in my conversation with Cate?   If I want the new wine to survive, I can’t put it in the old wineskin.  (And yes…those old soldiers from yesterday must difinitely hit the road.)

For me personally that is coming to terms with my call from God and realizing that, my call is much more than a call to ministry.   Don’t get me wrong, it is that.  But it is much more.   Limiting myself and God’s call is old wineskin for sure.   God calls each of us everyday, every minute of every day into many new adventures.   God is always creating new wine.   We just need to find the appropriate containers.

Grace and Peace at Lent

Myra

 

Jesus did indeed come to change the mind of humanity about God… but also about humanity itself.   I have been lost on a Lenten path of my own for the past few days; and am only now ready to share it.   It  began with a  reconnection with the writing of Richard Rohr (thank you Cindy Lucarotti) and a fascination with a meditation called “discharging your loyal soldier.”   It has to do with how we pass or transition into the various phases of our lives.   Let’s be honest sometimes we make those transitions with grace and sometimes…. Well, not so much.   Loyalty and tenacity are two of my greatest strengths which, as most strengths do,  can become my greatest weakness.   I can hang on to priorities and ways of thinking even we they do not serve or fit my current life.  Rohr talks about a Japanese custom that emerged after World War II.   Many of the soldiers had been at war for so long that they were unprepared to return to peaceful lives of their villages and communities.   As Rohr puts it, “The veterans’ only identity for their formative years had been as a “loyal soldier” to their country, but now they needed a broader identity.”

So the Japanese initiated a ceremony, a ritual to “discharge the loyal soldier.”  In a public ceremony, the soldiers were praised for their service then an senior member of the community would announce:  “The war is now over! The community needs you to let go of what has served you and us well up to now. We now need you to return as a parent, a partner, a friend, a mentor—something beyond a soldier.”

How often do we cling to those parts of our lives where we have felt comfortable, even successful, but they are truly not a part of the life we face today?    I can think of  many areas of my life where it is so difficult for me to let go.   Parenting for one.   I loved being a mother; loved it.   I was comfortable in that role; I felt good in that role.  And of course, I will always be a mother to my children, but “hello” my children are grown, with children of their own.     And somewhere my need to parent has tangled with my changing life and new directions.  Don’t get me wrong, my children will always be a priority in my life, but their basic needs are no longer my responsibility.   When I forget that, it is more harmful than helpful for them as well as me.  At this time in my life, it is time for me to be something beyond a parent.   It is time to discharge that loyal soldier.

Think about the “soldiers” still hanging on in your life.  Jesus had a thing or two to say about holding on to the past; more on that tomorrow.  I leave you with one more quote from Richard Rohr.

“With tenderness, notice how at various times in your life you’ve fixated on different priorities, different measures of right and wrong, different sources of meaning and belonging. Give thanks for the lessons you learned at each phase that helped you survive, succeed, and become who you are today. Ask yourself what beliefs you may be ready to lay to rest, ways of thinking and acting that no longer serve your maturing awareness of reality.”      Richard Rohr

“They’re gonna put me in the movies; they’re gonna make a big star out of me.

We’ll make a film about a man who’s sad and lonely

And all I have to do is act naturally….”

When I looked up the lyrics to this song, I had forgotten that it was first recorded by Buck Owens… the country star whom I got to know in the 70s because his TV show Hee Haw taped at the TV station where I worked. But that’s a blog for another day…

I was of course searching for the Beatles version of that song, “Act Naturally”   It was the first time we all heard Ringo Star sing.   All we have to do is…. Act naturally.

In this season of Lent we’ve been looking a lot of things that come naturally to us… both good and not so good.   The “still, small voice” of gratitude is a natural thing inside each of us,  but so is fear and anxiety when facing uncertainty.   The Dalia Lama says that the need to get along is innate, a natural part of all of us.   And of course the need to rest and regroup is a part of our nature.

Here is one more thing.   The desire to connect with God, with a power beyond ourselves is indeed a natural thing.   Author Maxie Dunham says, “Prayer is related to our search for meaning, our longing for relationship, our need to grow.  Prayer… is an expression of our hunger for God.”

Like all of our natural tendencies, it must be cultivated.   We need to add discipline and routine to what comes naturally.   This is one of my favorite practices for prayer during Lent.   It begins with these wonderful passages from the Psalms.

 

Psalm 63:1 NSRV

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

 

Psalm 34:8

O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.

 

Take a few minutes today, sit quietly and think about the opening words of Psalm 34:8   “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”     Stay focused on this one line.

 

Now say the phrase five times emphasizing a different word each time  – don’t over think it… just say it.

O taste and see that the Lord is good!

O taste and see that the Lord is good!

O taste and see that the Lord is good!

O taste and see that the Lord is good!

 

Write down what came into mind as you repeated this Psalm in prayer.  Prayer begins and ends with God ….and God is good.

 

Grace and peace,

MM