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.

how we worship

This small congregation of 12, the ones K. tears up for when preaching about them in sermons, the ones who have to close their doors in too few days, too few to allow K. to be ordained in the church building he was raised up in. Where is the line between thriving and surviving? What happens to a church that once split because it was growing so much and now, can seat everyone comfortably around a long foldout table?
Sitting with them, I film a movie in my head, a beautiful tragedy of a once-bustling church. A scene of this very conversation, zooming in on the confirming question: we still want to keep meeting, right? – yes. Camera pans out to a wide shot of the whole table discussing how much money to sell the building for, face shots of people giving out numbers in earnest, putting numeric values on a place that has housed the growing up of children, the building of community, the maturation of their own souls. I watch the fierce commitment of people who have spent years and years together, without a question in their minds of whether or not they will continue to be church with each other, only wondering where.
I imagine a future scene in my head, the keys being handed over to the new owners, the wooden doors closing one last time, the last truck loaded with folding chairs and a chalice, driving out of the parking lot. A tear streaking slowly down the cheek of the churchgoer, maybe the movie watcher. A beautiful tragic drama, or as K. reminds me, There is joy; it’s an opportunity for a new beginning.

 

*****

Early morning pre-dawn, best time for running. We’re getting so much in before most people are even thinking about rolling out of bed. The moon is just showing off with an incredible set like this, playing hide-and-seek between the clouds, sinking large and low on the horizon. K. and I tread cautiously on frozen snow, paths lit by the shine of the moon and the occasional car beam, until we reach the stillness of the canal path. I breathe deeper there and relax – my home. There is something about the joy of the cold air, the bare tree branches, the night sky, and running beside my love that alchemies into a mixture of joyous exuberance. Words burst from my mouth, story after story after random detail, but I am safe and know I am loved, and K. finds it all charming. At this easy pace, I could run forever, and almost wish to. Just keep going til you run out of path, out of time, out of darkness. Run until dawn, until the secret of night ends. That is what I love about night runs, I tell K. — it is as though the canal and I hold a secret that nobody else knows about, that there is beauty so strange and glorious and wonderful and I revel to share in it. Oh you beautiful world, you. Light feet, light body, light heart.

Moonset CTS night sky

being held in our pain

Recently, I posted on Facebook that I have been crying a lot this summer and doing a lot of growing and learning. After doing this, I wondered to myself, “Gee, would that make some people worried about me?” Help! There’s water leaking out of my eyes! Call the plumber! Can we talk about crying, about sadness, about tears, without others becoming concerned for us? I sure hope so.

I recognize I’m a bit biased in this: I’m in a counseling program, and I’m currently doing what’s called Clinical Pastoral Education at a local hospital. I serve as a chaplain, but CPE at its core is an intense self-examination, learning to see your own “stuff,” your own “baggage,” so that you can work it out and learn to be more present for your patients and clients (and also just be a healthier human being). Crying is very much allowed in group and is considered to be a normal, healthy thing. But sometimes I am jolted back to the reality of our culture and realize that for many families, in many situations, crying is shamed and holding sadness and grief for extended periods of time is found unacceptable.

I worked in a daycare for a year before coming to seminary, and it was one of those unexpectedly healing times: I truly think of it as a balm for my soul. Something that was particularly healing was the compassionate holding of the emotions of the children, and allowing them to freely express their feelings, to bawl their eyes out until they had nothing left to give. We didn’t tell them “c’mon now, don’t cry,” or “be a big boy now.” We definitely didn’t tease them with, “you’re not going to cry now, are you??” or use the classic, “If you don’t quit crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!” It breaks my heart to hear an adult give a child those lines.

Sometimes, as I held a sobbing child in my arms (regardless of what for: whether they missed mommy or because another kid took their favorite toy; the emotions are real), I would feel a strange sense of wistfulness and longing. Grief, you might say, because we can also grieve the things in our lives that we never had the chance to have. I wish I could have been held like this. I wish when I was little, someone had told me it was okay to cry and had sat with me until I did cry and I would have known that nobody felt weird about it. I don’t know about you, but in my family of origin, we didn’t really cry with each other when we were sad. So when I cry today, in some ways, I’m making up for 20-some odd years of shutting down, of numbing all the feelings that I’d felt.

I’m learning about grief in this summer internship and it strikes me: Grieving, when “properly” done, is really hard to do. Not because somewhere inside, we don’t know what to do or don’t feel things, but because collectively, we as a society don’t allow grieving to happen. It takes a long time. Too long. It’s messy. It’s repetitive. It requires patience and listening ears and steadfast support of loved ones. It requires you to offer yourself grace, of being okay with the sad feelings, even if they happen over and over again, and to not judge yourself for it. Grieving requires us to reach deep down into our wells of compassion, for self and for others.

But it is only through grieving, (“you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you must go through it!”) that we can healthily get to the other side. Sure, we won’t do it perfectly. We’ll still end up with “baggage” that we’ll need to keep unpacking in the future. But please, I ask of you: when you suffer a loss, any kind of loss, allow yourself to feel it. Big or small-death of a loved one, lost a job, broke up, moved, kid graduated high school, or any number of small losses we encounter in everyday life- these losses are real. Even happy things- I got married, I retired- include losses: losses of singleness and freedom, loss of purpose and structure to your day. It’s okay to miss those things too and to feel sad about them.

Do what you need to do. Journal. Talk to a friend. Take a bubble bath. Run. Cry. Just don’t be afraid of the tears. And in the end, it’s lovely to be “held” by someone, just like I got to hold those crying preschoolers: we cry on people’s shoulders, we make phone calls and pour out our hearts, we make plans to spend time with people who know and understand our pain. But don’t forget that we can “hold” ourselves too. Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself. Accept your pain and don’t try to rush through it. Because you deserve to be treated well and loved… by yourself.

Flowers on the Altar

Yesterday I went to the wake for my stepgrandmother. The house was crowded with family and friends celebrating my stepgrandmother “Deenie’s” 82 years of life and mourning her absence in our lives. In a book I’ve been reading (about depth psychology and pastoral counseling), an article stated that most of the parishioners the pastor encounters leave flowers on the church altar not on the death anniversary of their loved one, but on the loved one’s birthday. It is a celebration of life, not mourning your own loss. Thus, here is my own Flowers on the Altar.

My stepbrother delivered the eulogy and did a fantastic job. Deenie was an elegant and hardworking lady – comfortable hobnobbing with the oil executives as well as plucking chickens and starting campfires. She married the man who would be her best friend at the age of 17, a relationship started by a dollar bet on her being able to get a date with him within a week. They were married for over 50 years. She could make something out of seemingly nothing, and did so many times through countless moves following her husband’s work while raising their three children. She believed in all the members of her family, which made them believe in themselves.

The most striking theme to me about her life was the sense of welcome and acceptance that she exuded to everyone in her life. Whether your relation officially included a “step,” an “in-law,” or just a “boyfriend of __,” you were considered an important member of the family in her house. As the crowd shared memories of Deenie, my dad expressed to the crowd what I had been thinking. She enveloped him, my brother, and me into the family when we showed up as a husband of remarriage with an 8 and 6 year old to the family gatherings at Deenie and Papa John’s house in the Black Forest woods, and we are forever grateful. Despite having no history with these people, my 8-year-old self never felt like I was missing out on some family inside joke when I was at her house. I was simply present, and that made me family. I was startled when, at the wake, people I barely knew or actually didn’t know (having to trust my faulty memory that I don’t really know them) greeted me by name and asked about Boulder. “How do they know I live in Boulder??” I queried my stepmom. She smiled. “Deenie just talked about her grandchildren a lot!”

Aging Well is a book that’s impacted my thoughts on growing old a lot, or even just growing up. Whether you fully intend to grow old or if the thought of growing old scares you, it’s a good read. It’s about the stages of life (based off of Erickson’s stages of development, slightly expanded) that we pass through in the aging process, with a focus on adulthood. We all, in our own ways, work our way through stages of Identity, Intimacy, Career, Generativity (whether through raising your own children or somehow contributing to the next generation), Keeper of the Meaning (whether one is involved in passing on culture and values to your society), and Integrity (how one is able to face death). The book also emphasized how being in significant relationships, or “letting someone in” (to our inside selves) as the author puts it, has an important impact on one’s overall health. Deenie devoted herself to her husband and raising her family, later expanding to grandchildren and even 5 great-grandchildren. When Papa John died, her love expanded and she let others in to her heart, particularly her current adventuring partner with whom she went gallivanting all over the hemisphere. To me, Deenie is a prime example of someone who has aged well.

My stepaunt reminded us that Deenie had so much left that she wanted to do and adventures that she wanted to go on. She was not ready to go yet, but maybe because of that, she faced her last days with courage and undying optimism. Her health went so fast, and we all felt a little bewildered at what had just happened. However, in a way, it means that there is more left of her life for us to carry forward on her behalf.

My stepbrother said that Deenie’s spirit continues to live on, partially through all of us. I am pondering that in my own heart. To me, her most important characteristic was that she was welcoming and embracing. My personality is nothing like hers – she was gregarious and talkative, I’m reserved, sometimes even shy. She was a hard-core conservative, I’m… not. She dressed with pizzazz and chunky jewelry, I just try to make sure my colors match okay. But we can share values. When I die, I want to have lived the kind of life where people look back and say, “I am grateful that we knew her. She loved much, she worked hard, and we always knew that with her, our presence was welcome and we were special to her.” It’s because of models like Deenie that I can have an idea of what a life like this would look like. Thanks, Grandma Deenie, for being that lady, for welcoming us, for nurturing a family that was the kind I had longed to be a part of. I will do my best to carry you forward.

Aging-Well image