Friday, March 30, 2018

A Holy Week of Simple Regard

A church organist in Petersburg, Virginia in 1953 is first person to come up with the idea of turning Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper into a dramatic production.  Ernest Emurian, a Methodist pastor, takes the idea and runs with it, developing soliloquies for the twelve Apostles.  Each is a response to Jesus’ statement, “One of you will betray me.”  Apostle after Apostle ‘unfreezes’ from the depiction of the painting, tells his story, and asks “Is it I, Lord?  Is it I?”  Emurian calls his drama “A Living Picture of the Last Supper,” and it premieres on Palm Sunday night in 1954 at Elm Avenue Methodist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia.  Over the course of the next few years the drama is published and presented all over Virginia and North Carolina before becoming a national phenomenon.

Every year, the church I grew up in put on a production of “A Living Picture of the Last Supper.”  The men of the church memorized their speeches, grew beards, put on makeup, and donned costumes for what was always an impressive presentation.  It is a production replicated in tens of thousands of churches over the years, including the parish I served in Richmond.  The haunting question, “Is it I, Lord?  Is it I?” is remembered by every person who has participated in it or attended it. 

“Is it I, Lord?  Is it I?”  For eleven of the disciples, the answer (of course) is ‘no’, but it might as well be ‘yes’ because each character is deeply flawed and riddled with sin.  It is hard to calculate the influence Emurian’s drama has had on shaping the spirituality of Holy Week, but surely its impact has been significant.  It directs us to ask, “When have I, like Judas, betrayed my Lord?”  “When have I, like Peter, denied him?”  From this perspective, the goal and purpose of Holy Week (and especially Good Friday) is to make us feel really, really, really bad about our sins and the purpose of our gathering here at this hour is to muster in us the deepest possible remorse. 

Growing up and well into my adult life, this is how I approached Holy Week and Good Friday.  No one taught me to do this.  The message just somehow seeped in.  But more and more I come to Holy Week, and especially to this service, identifying with the people who stand at the foot of the cross.  Some of them are there doing their job.  Of these, some are callous and indifferent while others have maintained their humanity while tasked with doing something completely inhumane.  Simon of Cyrene did not expect to be here at all.  He is in Jerusalem to observe the Passover but is forced to help Jesus.  And now, standing at the foot of the cross, he surely is smeared with Jesus’ blood and traumatized by what has happened.  And then there is the disciple Jesus loves, Jesus’ own mother, and several other women who are followers of Jesus.  Their pain, their shock, their horror, is unimaginable.

The English writer Margaret Hebblethwaite makes this observation:  

The extraordinary fact about the people gathered around the cross, who abandon all their duties for the day simply to be with Jesus, looking at him, is that they are changed by the experience.  Just seeing, doing nothing, turns out to be for them a revolutionary experience, so that afterwards they see things differently and, no doubt, will act differently.  They have not wasted their time doing nothing, but they have allowed themselves to be changed.  Before the death of Jesus we are told how everyone was mooching and taunting him.  Now, his agony over, a change has come over the scene.  The centurion does not cry, “Now you can never be king, now you are dead!” but rather praises God saying, “Certainly this man was innocent.”  And the multitudes beat their breasts in repentance.  Judgments are altered, people see things in a different light, and they feel both sorrow for their sinfulness and praise for God’s goodness.

Hebblethwaite likens what they are doing at the cross to a contemplative practice known as prayers of simple regard, or the prayer of just watching.  This kind of prayer does not require words, merely attention to what is happening around you.  “Wait here.”  “Watch.”  “Stay awake.”  “Pray.”  These words of Jesus to his disciples in the garden before he is arrested now take on new meaning and new spiritual significance for me.  Now they are my goal and focus for Holy Week and Good Friday.  Be here.  Show up.  Pay attention.  Allow the liturgy and the Scriptures and the experience to have their way with me.  Perhaps it will lead me to deeper remorse, but more and more I find this does not seem to be lone destination.

At Wednesday night’s service of Tenebrae we listened to a reading from St. Augustine’s Treatise on the Psalms.  In it, he encourages his readers to “place ourselves beside [the psalmist], that, by sharing his tribulation, we may also join in his prayer.”  This now is my aim during Holy Week.  I just want to walk and wait with Jesus.  Typically, I don’t come away from this beating my chest – miserable sinner that I am – but touched in some way, changed somehow, and deeply grateful for what I have experienced.

I am always struck by how the Good Friday liturgy takes us from standing at the cross to offering up the Solemn Collects.  The meaning is obvious.  Once Jesus’ work in this world comes to an end our work begins.  We respond to his death by offering prayers for the church, for the world, for those who suffer, and for those who have not received the Gospel.  The collects conclude with one of my favorite prayers:

Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.

It is a hopeful prayer which anticipates the Resurrection.  It is worth noting it is offered at this service as well as at ordinations.  Jesus’ death and the ordination of every deacon, priest, and bishop is a sign our Lord’s work continues on through us.  Perhaps the best way to approach Good Friday then is to watch, to wait, to weep, and then to act.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Go Forward!

“Abba, Father… Daddy…, with you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

A person came to the church this week to speak with a priest; a woman about fifty years old, I will call her Joan.  She was distraught.  Her husband works with a crew of rough men who travel up and down the east coast doing specialized work in factories.  They put in long hours and her husband is addicted to methamphetamins.  Although he treats her well, it appears he is having an affair with a woman at the factory.  For her part, Joan has been clean and sober for over 20 years.  She loves her husband dearly, but the substance abuse and the affair have deeply hurt her.  Through her sobs she told me she does not know what to do. 

I suspect each of us has had a time or two in life when we felt paralyzed; when we faced something so hard, so traumatic, so difficult we simply did not know what to do.  In my experience, at times like these it is easy for other people to give us advice, but they are not the person paralyzed.  They are not the one carrying the emotional load.  When you are the one with the load to bear, the easy answers others offer with such clarity are neither easy nor clear to you.

I think of the time when God’s people are standing before the vast waters of the Red Sea as Pharaoh’s mighty army closes in from behind.  The situation seems utterly hopeless.  They cry to Moses, “Why did you bring us all the way out here to die?  Where there not enough graves in Egypt?  We would be better off as slaves in Egypt than to be slaughtered in the desert.”  Moses tells the people to “stand firm” and they will see the deliverance of God.  The Lord then says to Moses, “Why do you cry to me?  Tell the people of Israel to go forward!  Lift up your staff, raise out your hand over the sea, and divide it.”  Tell the people to go forward? 

When you think about people you know who have great faith, who comes to mind?  Perhaps you think of a person with deeply held religious convictions.  Maybe think of a person who is rock sure certain about God’s will and God’s activities in the world.  But faith has nothing to do with certainty or conviction.  Faith is about moving forward in the face of uncertainty.

As Jesus prays in the garden he is terrified by what he is about to face.  He will be isolated, abandoned, and betrayed.  He will be tortured beyond imagining.  He will be humiliated.  He will be executed in the most excruciatingly painful way possible.  No wonder Jesus prays for any other possibility.  But in the face of uncertainty, he tells his Father he is ready to move forward.  It is the only way for him to go.

In her book, The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold weaves theology throughout her work to drive the plot.  At one point her main character, Lupe dy Cazaril, says this:

“This wasn’t prayer anyway, it was just argument with the gods.  Prayer, he suspected as he hoisted himself up and turned for the door, was putting one foot in front of the other.  Moving all the same.”

Prayer is putting one foot in front of the other.  Faith is moving forward in the midst of uncertainty.

Elizabeth Lesser writes this in her book Broken Open: how difficult times can help us grow:

You can either break down and stay broken down and eventually shut down, or you can break open.  It’s a decision you make.  It’s a commitment.  I am going through a very hard time.  I am not going to waste this precious experience, this opportunity to become the best me.

Through the experience of getting divorced and becoming a single mother, I lost everything – my financial security, my self-image, my support, my home.  Everything changed for me.  In the depths of that loss, I found out who I really was.  I began to trust who I was.  I began to find a genuine me that could withstand anything.  And if we fight those times and fight the bud opening, we live half a life.  But when we open into our brokenness, that’s when we blossom.

Right now, perhaps no one broken open is blossoming more beautify than the students of Parkland, Florida.  Their faith and ability to go forward is truly remarkable.  Who could have imagined over the span of this holy season of Lent a group of students could go from the horrors of having their school under attack to inspiring global marches calling for change?  Go forward into an unknown future!  Their faith is breathtaking. 

The prophet Isaiah spoke these words to God’s people in exile:

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior… Fear not, for I am with you.”

God promises to be with us as we move forward in the face of uncertainty. 

There are times in our life when, like Joan, we feel paralyzed by the moment.  There are times when, like Jesus, we kneel in the garden and, praying things could be different, resolve to accept things as they are.  There are times when, like Elizabeth Lesser, our brokenness leads to blossoming.  But there is never a time – never – God is not with us in the uncertainty, walking with us as we move forward. 

Dear people of God, today I have a word from the Lord for you: Go Forward!  Go forward in faith.