A monk, a monastery, and a picture book?!

The day is rare when I give an unqualified “that was so good!” review for the Speakeasy books I read and review. Well, Brother John most certainly deserves such an accolade.

Just a taste of the gorgeous illustrations.

I selected this book to review because my heart loves the Abbey of Gethsemani, monks in general, and Thomas Merton in particular (for prior posts I’ve written about this magical place, click here, or here, among others). I was under the impression that since it was an illustrated picture book, it would be more geared for children, and I imagined reading to my future kids one day about Brother John. In case you’re wondering, it’s not written for children. It’s about the meaning and purpose of life and being the best human we can be.

The book is authored by August Turak, a man in crisis, in deep despair and depression. He is sorting things out at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. There he has a heartfelt encounter with Brother John, who is one of those people whose purity, goodness, servant nature, and love for God just emanate from their very being. This encounter transforms his life.

It’s a beautiful book, short (which means I can regularly reread it) and moving. I can’t do enough justice describing it, so I will quote some pieces and just encourage you to check it out yourself, soaking in the oil paint illustrations and the rich yet simple message.

On our fear of failure (p. 26): “I imagined dedicating my life to others, to self-transcendence, without ever finding that inner spark of eternity that so obviously made Brother John’s life the easiest and most natural life I had ever known. Perhaps his peace and effortless love were not available to all, but only to some. Perhaps I just didn’t have what it takes.”

On taking the first step (p. 30): “Acknowledging that fact [that something’s twisted], refusing to run away from it, and deciding to deal with it is the beginning of the only authentic life there is… We lie to ourselves because we’re afraid to take ourselves on.”

On trusting (39): “We must resolve to act decisively, while trusting in the aid of something we don’t understand and can never predict. We must open ourselves up to the miraculous, to grace.”

I promise I didn’t give away the whole book. If you’re still looking for something for that spiritually inclined yet hard to shop for person on your Christmas list, or maybe you want to get something spiritually moving that you’ll actually read, instead of getting something to collect dust on your shelf – this is your book. I’m going to revisit it repeatedly!

Links: Brother John on Amazon
Author’s website for Brother John

This shows the inner page of the book. Title of the book: "Brother John: A monk, a pilgrim, and the purpose of life." Beneath is a picture of the Abbey of Mepkin, a tall spire of the church with the warm glow of buildings underneath it.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

“Confessions of a Funeral Director” whaaat?

This sounds like a morbid post, but hang in with me here. This book is a memoir of sorts of 6th generation funeral director Caleb Wilde. He shares his thoughts about death, life, love, and heaven – but perhaps not in the way you might think.

If you think about it, the descent into fall is a good time to write about death. Here in Ohio, the leaves are pretty much entirely off the trees. It is cloudy and gray most days. We have to gear up for a long winter ahead of us. Luckily, we still have the excitement of the holidays ahead of us, but most of us carry the awareness that winter will keep stretching out long after that. Moreover, for many, the holidays are a painful reminder of losses and people who are not with us anymore.

This is not a book about grief exactly, though it does go there at times. It is more a book about the theology of life and death. It is for people who have ever questioned the common American Christian narrative of being saved so God won’t send you to hell, and then when you die, getting to join God up in heaven. If the thought of questioning the simplicity of that narrative makes you uncomfortable, this book is probably not for you.

Caleb himself transitioned from that narrative, which he posits is a “death-negative” narrative, to finding a more open and death-positive narrative. A narrative where our own mortality is not something to be ashamed of, associated with Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden, but as much a natural and necessary part of life as birth is. As with birth, through death, it is possible to find genuine love and community.

I really enjoyed many of the points he makes in his book. Through watching many grieving families and communities, Caleb has witnessed how a heart broken open by death is able to love those who are different from them. Death is a great equalizer of sorts. Caleb theologizes how the pain, openness, and vulnerability a person experiences in death and grieving is really a form of worship. He asks what kind of a God we really believe in. Is it a God immune to our sufferings, who feels no grief about loss? Is it an immovable, invulnerable God? Are we too, to be stoic and strong in the face of death? Or is God perhaps deeply connected to our sufferings, grieving with us when we are in pain, vulnerable to sorrow? We can choose to believe in either God, but one might find that believing in one of those Gods leads to a more humane existence than the other.

The challenge we must confront is how to allow death to help us live more open-hearted and full lives. No one will escape it, so how will it shape how we live? The grief and mourning we encounter through others’ death can serve to break us open to our own selves and have compassion toward others. We do not have to “get over” grief: there is no timeline for healing. Caleb suggests doing “active remembering” as a way of acknowledging that the ones who have left us physically never really leave the ones they loved.

This book is heavy at times but also surprisingly manageable, considering the subject matter. It feeds the theological mind and the griever alike. I hope it helps all of us mortals approach the lives we have with freedom, love, and compassion.

This is a book review for Speakeasy. I receive certain books for free in exchange for providing an honest review. If you have more curiosity about joining Speakeasy yourself, leave me a comment!

Other links:

Confessions on Amazon
Youtube trailer (it’s actually worth watching, I promise!)
Caleb featured on NPR’s WNYC Studios

love letters from fall

I have a collection of prose / poetry that I call “Love Letters to Somebody” (to help explain the post’s title today). These are a couple of pieces inspired by our recent, magnificent change of seasons. The pictures for the first two poems aren’t the trees of inspiration, but just imagine the brightest yellow tree standing out amidst the greens and browns, boldly being so bright and yellow.

View out my window from my favorite sitting place in the house.

Leaves
10/28/18

Because sometimes, when it seemed the leaves would skip their
glorious colors this year,
then you wake up
and everything is now yellows and oranges and reds,
and then the wind
blows through

raining
yellow
leaves
all
around

and you feel again
God is still speaking

 

Burning Bush
11/3/18

The tree
so
goldenrod yellow
if it were in the Garden of Eden,
I too would eat of it, to know
such beauty and knowledge

if it were Moses’ burning bush,
take my shoes off
leap into ecstasy into it
to burn too
Such magnificence
proclaims
the love of God

 

Royalty
11/11/18

Naked and unashamed, she stands
with royal carpet surrounding her majestic throne
unworried that it will all be swept away tomorrow

a beautiful thing happened

imagine from iStockphotos; RyanJLane

It was one of those mornings when I was thinking about my own “whys” of why I go to church. Besides the obvious that my husband is the pastor and I feel duty-bound to show up at least at some point in the morning, what draws me to a church community?

We all have different reasons. Many people, out of habit. Or a guilty conscience if they don’t go. Or because this is the place they see friends and loved ones predictably every Sunday morning. Or to hear a Word from God, maybe in a sermon, prayer, or hymn. Or to sing in the choir. Or because, for some inexplicable reason, they were drawn even though they can’t explain why.

One of my own whys today was because, even though I can be quite content with my spiritual practice of sitting alone with a book, my thoughts, and being quietly with God, I also know that I need to practice the spiritual discipline of being in community. I know that my personality tends toward isolation, and that I need to find contact with – and eventually connection with – other people to help make me whole.

I also have been enjoying the songs of the choir lately, so I decided to go to the later service at church.

In service, I had been thinking too much during the sermon. Seeing things from an outsider perspective. Wondering we need to be doing / saying / bringing that might speak to the needs of the community.

What I didn’t have eyes to see yet was that it is already here.

After the sermon, the choir began the communion anthem sitting in their seats in the pews. It seemed like a mistake at first, as one member rose alone, but one by one, the others intentionally rose too. They made their way to the front, walking slowly. Later I learned this was no one person’s idea, but something that evolved with everyone’s input, shifting and changing and needing everyone’s involvement to be how it was.

And then, I don’t even know what happened, but what I believe is we all knew the power this held at the same time.

The eight or so choir members gathered behind the table that holds the Lord’s Supper, singing, lines moving back and forth, voices trading verses, melody flowing sweetly. I didn’t hear the words: I felt the song. All I knew was it was spell-binding. Tears welled up in my eyes. My breath was held. And when I went forward for communion, the same sense of being gathered together remained; that this community of people was being held by something powerful and gracious and loving. When I glanced in the eyes of others, I think they felt it too.

If we were Quaker, I would call it being “gathered” or having a “gathered meeting.” If we were UCC, we might give the pause of a comma and sigh, “God is still speaking.” If we were Pentecostal, the Holy Spirit would probably be speaking through tongues. Some people easily describe it as the presence of God, or Jesus, being in the room with us. I might call it a “mystical moment.” An experience that cannot be adequately described in words, that defies explanation, and is a reality so real that it cannot be proven, but only felt and experienced.

It doesn’t truly matter what words we try and put to the experience, or if we put words at all. We are all getting a taste of this powerful Divine Reality, a reality so powerful it speaks to us however we need to hear it. An experience that sometimes only happens because we are all gathered together in community.

It was only when I got home and re-read the words of the song that I realized what they said: He is Here in the Breaking of the Bread.

Amen.

using our voices

I don’t know about you, but this has felt like a rough week.

Honestly, the last two years have been disheartening (to put it mildly) and soul-crushing (if my feelings speak for themselves), in a way I wouldn’t have guessed political situations could make me feel. There is so much hate, distrust, and lying in our national space that it feels like evil will take us over. The news still tends to infuriate me, but recently, I’ve found myself slipping more often into feelings of despair.

I went on a short, silent retreat this week. It was a wonderful chance to read, write, meditate, and take long walks in the forest. I know I am lucky I get to do such things. My fears about myself still crept up on me (does my voice matter? What meaning will I make of my life? Who do I think I am, anyway, trying to claim a space with my words?). But I moved forward, pushing back the fears, being present, and putting down words anyway.

Then we left the camp and had the news on the radio as we drove home. Real life hit me like a ton of bricks. A president trying to incite fear about Middle Eastern terrorists hiding among people who are trying to take refuge from an unsafe environment in Central America. Tax cuts promised that can’t be passed before election day, but truth doesn’t matter anyway so say what you will. And then, all week long, bombs that don’t detonate arriving to prominent liberals around the country. I don’t need to give you details – you already know them.

What kind of world are we living in?

What can I do?

What can we do?

While on retreat, I brought my good friend Thomas Merton along with me in book form. Reading him inspires and challenges me. Merton was a Catholic monk and prolific writer who died in 1968. Monks take vows of poverty, submission, obedience. But Merton was also compelled to write – and write boldly. He didn’t hide his head in the sand but was acutely aware of what was happening in the world. He called out the violences and injustices of his day (think Cold War and nuclear threats, and the divisiveness both sides were partaking in). Even when the Catholic Church censored him, even when he scandalized people. And he did it all from a deeply spiritual place.

I know I’m no Thomas Merton, but if I could follow just a tiny bit in his footsteps, I would aspire to do that. To speak the truth that needs to be told. To love deeply. To live fully one’s authentic life that they are called to.

What are you called to do?

What voice were you given to speak to the world?

Our voices matter. Trust me, a lot of the time I have trouble believing this. I took my small step today and early voted. I felt grateful to still belong in a democratic republic, with a still-functional news media, and to safely cast my vote without fear of reprisal.

Voting is one way to matter – and an important one. But there are so many ways to raise our voices in support of love and all that is good in the world. It is hard to keep that faith, but if we do it together, maybe somebody will hear it, and believe that this isn’t how it has to be.

We must not stay silent. If we are privileged enough to be comfortable staying silent (i.e. if you believe yourself to be unaffected by all that is happening), but if you are also a person of faith, then let your faith be the motivator to speak. To stay silent and do nothing is to be complicit. Stand up for the vulnerable and the oppressed. Stand up for morals and values. Believe in the power of love over the darkness of hate and terror. Pray. Extend compassion to your neighbor: whether that is your family member or your fellow global citizen.

It’s easy to lose sight. Just writing this post, I am mocked by the inner voices: who cares about what you say? No one will read this! You’re not saying anything new! You’re not good enough! Do you really think you can make a difference at all?

But maybe you’ve been tormented by those voices too. Maybe sometimes, the anger and despair presses in on all sides. Maybe you feel too small and insignificant to have an impact. Maybe you’re so frustrated by the whole thing that you’ve checked out. Please come back. We need your voice, too.

Maybe if I can be brave enough to put the imperfect and the unoriginal and the vulnerable out there, you will know it’s okay to do it too. Maybe we will start to push back the darkness.

It’s hard work. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Find the beauty in the world. Remember that the sun rises every morning – regardless if we see it or not. Let yourself be nurtured by relationships. Nurture others. Find something that makes you laugh. Find something that gives you hope.

However it is that your life speaks, I hope we can believe that if we each do our part to speak the truth in our own sphere, it matters.

God, I hope it matters. Let it matter. But we will only find out by trying.

omygourd… SCIENCE!! (why Genesis and science are not enemies)

Omygourd… SCIENCE!!

Recently I heard a brief presentation from a lovely, caring, passionate woman who was speaking about providing Christian religious education to elementary school children. I was on board with what she was talking about (sharing about the love of God to kids whose parents opt in to the program), but then she said something that made my heart sink. A boy informed her that he couldn’t believe in the 6-day Genesis creation because his dad told him the universe started with a big bang. She expressed to us her sense of sadness for him and asked that we pray for his mind to be open to change.

*Deep sigh*

First, let me say that I get it. I come from the tradition where believing in a literal 6-day creation is one of the litmus tests of faith. I felt like my 7th-grade science teacher was personally attacking my faith when she introduced our class to the concept of evolution. The process of trying to figure out how to incorporate modern science into my religion was terrifying, and there is a real sense that “those scientists” are just godless people who are out to destroy Christianity.

I’m on the other side of this divide now. But what I’m becoming increasingly aware of is that even today, the divide is still quite real. I wonder how often people still feel like they have to choose between believing mainstream scientific research versus believing in the religion they hold dear, which they also believe holds eternal implications for their soul.

My concern for the little boy, and the woman teaching large numbers of the kids, is that they will think you have to pick one side or the other. The little boy has clearly been introduced to mainstream science from his dad. The likelihood that he will change his mind about this and believe young-earth theory in the long run (not just for his 3rd and 4th grade years) seems like a long shot, when his family upbringing teaches him differently. What if he thinks Christianity is sold wholesale with believing in young earth, without any big bangs, without any evolution? That someone cannot believe in Christianity, evolution, and the big bang, all at the same time? And then he throws out the whole thing?

There is a third way. The choice is not either / or. The choice can be a resounding “YES!!”

It takes a different way of reading the Bible. There’s so much to say that I can’t even start to cover it in one blog post, but reading Genesis without needing it to square with a literalist view of how creation came to be can be so exciting and inspiring.

Here’s the thing. Genesis was never meant to be a factual record of how the universe, earth, and all the living species came into existence. Ancient peoples just didn’t have that concern. They told stories as representations of how things came to be. Stories that demonstrated values they had and beliefs about where they saw themselves in the universe, what they thought about good and evil, and what it means to be human. The Genesis creation story, when compared with other creation stories written in ancient Mesopotamia, stands out due to its belief in the goodness of creation and the lack of violence with which God creates the world (we just don’t realize that because we are not exposed to other creation myths of the time). That is a beautiful, inspiring thing! Just think about what insights the ancestors of your religion had about the nature of a loving God! It’s enough to make me use too many exclamation points in this one paragraph!

If we can shift our framework for Genesis from literal, factual story to a beautiful, poetic story about how life came into being and what God is like, the whole thing changes. I would say it opens right up. No longer are we trying to figure out how long a “day” in Genesis is, and why Genesis 1 and 2 seem to be describing the same situation but differently, and how both scenes can be literal (huh?? Yes, read Genesis 1 & 2 for yourself and look closely). No longer are we trying to force the Genesis story into a box it was never meant to be in. It is finally allowed to speak for itself as the artful masterpiece it is.

I know that jumping from a poetic reading of Genesis to believing in the big bang and evolution (however we think of it… intelligent design included) may just be too much. Or maybe you’re disinterested in the whole thing, or maybe none of these questions have ever bothered you. And that’s okay. No one needs to or should deconstruct their faith in a day. Many people never feel the need to.

But in my own experience, I find a much more vibrant, alive, and – dare I say – evolving faith when I trust that God is not confined by our personal interpretation of text on a page, and trust that God is also actively present in science (which is just systematic inquiry into the reality we find ourselves in). When I am open to the mystery of what is and how things happen, my heart quickens and I am moved deep in my being. God will always show up, even if it does not look like how we thought it would.

Amen!

Omygourd! Because gourds are funny. Photo cred Mallory Woodard

“Road to Edmond” review

I recently started listening to the Homebrewed Christianity podcast with Tripp Fuller. I have a lot of time on my hands when painting all the rooms in our house, and I like to engage my brain as well as my arm. For an INSFTPJ (that’s Myers-Briggs for being uncertain about many aspects of my personality but definitely being an introvert, and one who likes to think about matters that matter) like myself, it’s a really interesting podcast. He (like me, maybe you) is a post-evangelical/fundamentalist and does a lot of neat interviews with progressive Christians. And he really likes beer. So with those things in common, I find it’s a podcast worth listening to.

I just watched the movie he produced and acted in called “The Road to Edmond,” which I eagerly jumped on when I had the chance through Speakeasy (the group where I get to receive and read books for free as long as I write reviews about them).

Plot summary: Cleo the committed evangelical youth pastor supports a girl in his youth group who comes out to him, instead of telling her she’s a sinner and has to change her ways. He gets in trouble by the church he works at and has to take a 2-week leave. Cleo immediately packs a very small backpack that somehow contains enough clothes and supplies to last him through the two weeks portrayed in the movie and hits the road on his bike. Larry (acted by Tripp) runs over his bike early on in Cleo’s journey, and ends up taking him on a wild cross country trip where Cleo’s beliefs are challenged and deconstructed, and Larry processes things after the death of his dad.

It’s funny and goofy, unbelievable at times (Tripp is actually a pretty good actor, but Cleo’s character could use some work), and also touching. You will laugh, you will roll your eyes, and you might even well up with tears. My husband (never an evangelical but a mainline Christian pastor) and I really enjoyed it. There’s even some excellent plot twists and surprises that make it worth it to get to the end.

If you can find the movie playing anywhere near you, it’s worth seeing. If you can’t find the movie, just listen to some episodes of Homebrewed Christianity. It’s like The Liturgists but a little bit less angsty, and a little more heady (in some episodes). Podcasts have definitely been my friend lately.

If anyone else has seen this movie, leave me a comment. Or just tell me: what are some of your favorite podcasts?

and Jesus was moved by her faith

There’s no way around it. I am a pastor’s wife. (I suppose I might also say that I have a pastor husband, but either way, my life is becoming deeply intertwined with the church). We have moved from the big city to a small town, to be an integral part of the life of the church. I’ve never lived in a small town. I’ve never been a pastor’s wife in this way. I am finding myself drawn more deeply toward spirituality in general, and Christianity in particular, in this new life phase. (If this seems obvious of a pastor’s wife, read early blog posts and note that I’ve had a long period of deconstruction of faith and have been to many a locale on the theological map). Christianity is calling me, perhaps necessarily (what can one do in a small town besides attend and participate in the life of your husband’s church?); perhaps because it is, itself, compelling.

***

The story of the Syrophoenician, or Canannite, woman is calling to me in particular. Coincidentally, Kevin preached on this very passage (Mark 7:24-30) the same morning I encountered it in the memoir I am reading. My mind continues to mull over it days later. In the story, the woman begs Jesus on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter to heal the child. Jesus is not from the same social group as this woman. His people conquered her people (the Canaanites) long, long ago, and they still look down on the Syrophoenicians with disgust. Jesus – son of God, right? – goes so far as to call this begging woman a “dog.” You filthy, disgusting, scavenging creature. Try to allow yourself to ponder that, Christians. It’s right there in the Bible. The woman is undeterred, however. “Even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs,” she retorts. Andrea Lingle points out, “The Canaanite woman claimed her place at the table or under it.” And Jesus is moved by this. The woman’s child is healed by her faith.

Jesus is moved by the woman’s faith. Jesus actually moves his position, his beliefs, because of this woman who refused to back down and be seen as undeserving of the graces and healing he had to offer. Christians who need to see Jesus as always, only fully divine, never saying or doing anything questionable, will see this differently. They likely see Jesus as purposely testing the woman to get her to demonstrate her faith. They might downplay the fact that Jesus actually gave this woman a terrible insult. To me, this seems to be a case of making the story fit the pre-existing theology.

But let’s not sugarcoat things. Let the text speak. If we read the story and interpret it based on the context and what it actually seems to be saying – not interpreting it to try and squeeze a particular meaning out of it – Jesus seems to be prejudiced against this woman initially, but is moved by her insistence that she, too, belongs in the realm of grace. It seems that Jesus, a Jewish teacher, believed initially that he was here to minister to the Jews. He is here for the children of Israel. And then the beliefs he thought were certain shift. This woman will settle for crumbs, but she will not settle for less than that. And then Jesus’ eyes are opened and he sees that she too belongs. She receives full healing for her daughter because of her faithful insistence that healing is for her, for them, for everyone.

It is a significant divide we walk here. I am well aware of that. I acknowledge there are multiple ways to interpret this story. You may disagree with how I read it. It is an interpretation that is compelling to me. 

If Jesus is only, fully divine, then he’s either “just testing” her, or he’s not really insulting her, or God thinks it’s okay to insult people like that. A solely divine Jesus would not need to be moved by this woman to give justice to all, would he?

A Jesus who is, who needs to be, moved by others is a Jesus who is also fully human. Catch your theological breath and just play with ideas here. As my pastor husband quoted in his sermon, Karl Barth says we need not try to reconcile two beliefs seemingly at odds to try and make one cohesive belief system. We can just hold them both up together and let the rest be a mystery. Jesus Christ, divine. Jesus Christ, fully human. Jesus, God’s agent, divine, full of mercy and grace. Jesus, human, forgetting sometimes that all meant all. Jesus discovering through an encounter with the “other” that he is here not just for some – for his own people – but to heal and reconcile the whole world together.

I find this to be deeply moving. I generally do not feel full of grace, though I believe grace profoundly belongs to all. I go to the sheriff’s office to get fingerprinted so I can minister and be a counselor to those who are hurting. A man walks in and willingly cuts in front of me and another woman who have been waiting for a ridiculously long time in an empty waiting area so he can get fingerprinted for his concealed carry permit. He reinforces stereotypes I have of people like him. He feels entitled to get what he wants despite the needs or rights of others, and he does not even know it. And I confess: I have some hate for him in my heart.

But I know Jesus’s gospel isn’t just for people like me, the kind do-gooders of the world (who still have secret hate in their hearts). His gospel is for gun-toting Make America Great Again hats, for bleeding heart liberals, for desperate immigrants crossing borders and crossing deserts under cover of night, for families with loved ones killed by illegal immigrant gang members. His gospel of reconciliation and grace is for Jews, Canaanites, and even Romans. His gospel is for Israel, Native Americans, and even the United States. And in this story of the Canaanite / Syrophoenician woman, I see Jesus making the profound discovery of this as well. Perhaps there is hope for all of us.

 

Featured image credit goes to the Junia Project: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwifiZmYtMXdAhUvUt8KHcF-CdcQjRx6BAgBEAU&url=https%3A%2F%2Fjuniaproject.com%2Fcaring-marginalized-jesus-canaanite-woman%2F&psig=AOvVaw22ej_O-oyaCQ6iAu80yQKJ&ust=1537389314168444 

“Credulous” is worth the read

Andrea Lingle – mother, writer, lay theologian – has written the book I hoped to write. (Also that I still hope to write). It is a memoir of faith, filled  with personal stories as well as her own theological ponderings that meander through quantum physics as easily as they do the Bible. She believes in expansive, abundant grace. She has managed to hang on to Christianity in a deep way even through her grief, challenges with the church, and faith deconstruction. My favorite parts of the book were her honest and raw descriptions of being human and a mom, particularly around the tensions between our dreams and ambitions versus how our lives end up looking — but how grace and peace are found even in that. I also enjoyed her creative renditions of gospel stories with Jesus interacting with his disciples. Those well-known stories suddenly leapt off the page for me as she imaginatively described the very human interactions among Jesus, Peter, the people begging him for healing. I was so inspired, actually, that I wrote a separate post about it here.
The book is organized along the lines of a church bulletin, as she dives into a different life or theology area with each section of a church bulletin (anthem, children’s moment, sermon, etc). Even though I sometimes found myself annoyed at the theological meanderings and the occasional far-fetched attempts to tie her thoughts in to the chapter she was supposed to be writing about (perhaps that tendency hits too close to home!), I also couldn’t stop reading the book. It was relatable because it was not perfect. Because of that, I also secretly want to be friends with her and “do life” together. I recommend checking it out yourself – you won’t be disappointed you did!

Find it on Amazon here
Learn about Andrea on her website

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Good Friday Longings

 

(written early 2015)

On Good Friday of 2014, my mom and I are vacationing during my spring break in a tourist town of northern Michigan, a town where spring doesn’t arrive until May or June, thus planting us in the middle of winter during our April visit. We spend Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, in a place that isn’t my home, with churches and people I will never see again. But even though I’m losing my religion, something in me is still drawn to celebrating Easter time. So I Google search “Holy Week Anglican” and “Holy Week Episcopal,” trying to find a church that worships in a style with enough “smells and bells” to bring a touch of holy and sacred back to this holiday that is so rapidly losing its meaning for me.

So it is on Good Friday, sitting in a tiny one-room schoolhouse style church, on a hard white pew, listening to half a dozen laypeople stand up and read passages from their Holy Bibles, that I have this stark thought: “I’m not a Christian anymore…”

The words I hear that day from the other worshippers in the one-room church are dry, lifeless, containing no meaning for me. I know I should feel sad and mournful on this sacred holiday. Instead, I am devoid of emotion, thinking about how I wish I could be feeling something. Is it because this is a story I’ve heard too many times and it no longer has any impact on me? In a religion that barely touches me anymore, my hope is maybe this somber Good Friday service will put a spark in me and enliven my dry bones. But it doesn’t. Maybe the room is too light, the stubborn northern Michigan sun refusing to set on this April day to create the mood of darkness I long to feel. Maybe the selected hymns are too unfamiliar, too thin when sung by only 14 people, too shallow when accompanied by an electric piano instead of a resonant organ. Maybe my soul no longer knows how to take this seriously.

I know the real reason I am giving up my Friday evening on vacation with my mom and sitting anonymously in a church with 13 strangers who I will never see again. It is that I long for a magical moment I had almost exactly three years ago. I was living in Boston at the time, traipsing around flower-child style with my Chaco sandals and art supplies, exploring the distinguished city by foot and by the train system known as the T. Back then I knew little about Holy Week, since evangelicals in my tradition don’t celebrate such high holidays that remind us of the Catholicism we broke apart from in the 1600s. But the dignified Trinity Episcopal Church was on the route I regularly walked, and I saw a sign outside it advertising a week’s worth of “Holy Week” services around Easter. I shyly crept in at the beginning of the week, and after that first day, decided to organize the rest of my week around the other services. The church was expansive – such a contrast to this one-room schoolhouse – with dark wooden pews and tall stained glass windows. It had an organ that pounded out songs, making the body hum. It afforded a pleasant sense of anonymity, as the church welcomed tourists every day, and one could enter, pray, or sit in silence without being bothered by anyone else.

Trinity offered three hours of prayer service on Good Friday, and while I didn’t really want to commit to all 3 hours in a row, I greedily sought an emotional experience. I entered a little late and sat somewhere near the back of the room: easy in, easy out. The format of the service repeated a cycle – a Scripture reading, a short homily, a hymn, and silence – seven times. I remember very little about the service except a gradually darkening room, and approximately one line of a poem that still strikes me straight through my heart. My heart drops into my stomach; I ache at the very sight of the words.

And on the cross, he held me, and I was in the nothingness, and he held me…

The other remnants of the poem only exist because I scribbled them in my journal that afternoon, trying to savor them, their meaning, knowing how profound they were and how quickly they were slipping away from me.

Oh Jesus, don’t let your hands be bound

Your body hung taut like an arrow on the cross / your heart pierced / your body entombed

I have to, my beloved

To fling you taut like an arrow into heaven / to bleed so you may drink / to resurrect all those from the dead

I have tried to Google the rest of the poem, but to no avail. The poem is gone forever, lost in the space of time, or the imagination of the listener that day.

All I am left with now is the feeling of that afternoon, the profound images those words create. The poem asks Jesus why these things had to happen, and Jesus responds with the most beautiful yet soul-crushing answers I ever heard. Why did you have to go down into the pit, Jesus? Why did your hands have to be pierced by nails? Your side stabbed so water and blood poured forth? And in the moment I heard those words, I was touched by the answers in a way I never had been in 22 years of hearing the Easter story, over and over again.

Good Friday of 2011. The story that had always remained in my head somehow sunk down into my heart. It seemed I suddenly felt a small measure of his pain; that I could, for one brief moment, understand just how shatteringly painful the crucifixion was, not just physically but spiritually. What if… Jesus died so God could understand what it is like to be separated from God. And through it all, the line of the poem echoed:

And on the cross, he held me, and I was in the nothingness, and he held me…

I am in the nothingness, and he holds me.

I am still in the nothingness, and I know not whether I am held. I am in the nothingness every Good Friday since then, my soul dried up once more, the story that permeated my heart for one flash of a moment again escaped to my head. I seek that religious experience on occasion, hoping to feel stirred once more, wondering what it will take to get me there. But I don’t know if I will get there, and I am slowly coming to terms with that. I have mostly accepted that I can simply reminisce of a time gone by, a time when I believed in my very soul, when Jesus was so real, when the stars aligned and I could feel. That moment is gone now, and I am back in nothingness, holding on to something – nothing – or maybe, somehow, being held.