Barren. Parched. Empty. I think of the desert as I sit looking out over our backyard. Half of it is green, a carpet of grass ready for little feet to run and play on. The other half feels rugged and rocky underneath eager feet. Harsh rains and hail pelted us this winter and water would stand in the shady, low places killing whatever had grown there. The grass got little nourishment from the sun and stayed bogged down with water, unable to replenish itself this spring.
Barren. Parched. Empty. I think of a valley of dry bones as I sit, trying to quiet my soul. I started writing again this year in an attempt to quiet my spirit, to take the swirling thoughts, the anxieties and the chaos, and mold them into thoughts directed at God. I have tried to find a time to write in the last week, a half finished story waiting to be completed and posted to my blog. But my soul has felt as battered as the dry places of our yard, and I have been unable to find the words, unable to even put myself into that vulnerable place of sitting down with a pen to put my heart down on paper.
All week long I felt like I was drowning under standing water, unable to see clearly through the murky mind and heart weighing me down. The little storms that came into my life this week shouldn't have so thoroughly derailed me. A spring cold made me groggy, then my five year old fell and got a slight concussion, throwing my whole week a bit off-kilter. Work got overwhelming. Discouragement weighed on me as well as I tried to push the date to the back of my mind. I had submitted stories to two magazines I felt really confident that I was a good fit for, and this week the deadline to hear if they were publishing me loomed ahead. Each day I didn't hear back made me feel a bit lower, a little more unsure of my calling to raise my voice for God in this noisy online world.
Little storms, surely nothing that should have swamped my soul and left me in a barren wasteland. But I found myself in the old familiar territory of anxiety and discouragement when I didn't cry out to God in the midst of all these swirling storms in my soul. I wallowed in them, let them build up until they blocked out the nourishment my soul so desperately needed from the One who promises to carry our burdens if we will let Him. The light couldn't break through and my words dried up, my attitude was bleak, and I couldn't bring myself to write the story of hope I had been working on. It felt like a lie.
Freckle Face. Carrot Top. Shrimp. Two by Four. Trailer Trash. These were all labels I received as a child.
I have always felt like the odd one out. Look at me and you'd say that is rediculous. I am not a minority (though I have lived in a country where I was, in race, language, and religion). I come from a loving family, have parents that are still together. Middle class, white Christian living in the Bible belt. Outsider. That is crazy.
But growing up I never felt like I fit in. I wasn't one of those "cool kids" and I struggled to belong, my freckled face, red hair and skinny legs screaming, "pick on me!" I bounced from trying to fit in to trying to stand out, anything to be noticed and accepted. I had this gnawing emptiness inside of me, always searching to belong somewhere. Having not grown up in the church, I discovered both Jesus and His Church when I was in high school. Finally, a place to belong...or so I thought.
I didn't know all the right "church" words, didn't know all the Bible stories and songs the kids grew up learning. I didn't know how to say and do all the right things that made me a good youth group kid, but I sure did try. In the process I alienated my family who didn't share my beliefs or desire to belong to the church. I tried so hard to fit into one world that I walked away from the family I did belong to all along. I started dating a guy who was in the group of the "real" youth group kids and I thought I was in...until that relationship went south and I was the pariah of the group I tried to so hard to belong to.
It was the end of summer and I was getting ready to start my senior year, still as lost as ever. I sat on the fringes of the youth group at an outside event we were having. I don't remember any teaching or songs from that night. I just remember the people who called me friend a few short weeks ago sitting together and laughing, excluding me. Every bit of laughter felt like a slight, like it was directed at me.
I walked away from church that night and it would be three years before I returned to the body of Christ, finding a new home at a campus ministry in college. I looked at the people who talked about love on the weekends and walked into school and showed nothing of the love of Christ to the people around them. If that was Christianity, I wanted nothing to do with it.
Every bit of Jesus' life was for us. He gave up the glory of Heaven for us. He came as a helpless babe to know the life of we know. He was tempted in every way so that we would have a High Priest who knows are weakness. He was sinless so He could be out spotless lamb. He healed, He fed, He had compassion, He calmed storms...He did it all for us. But nothing says more clearly how much He loves us than His resurrection. He was willing to die for us but had he stayed dead, we would have nothing more than another great teacher. He overcame death for us so that we do not have to die.
He came to us. He came FOR us. And we wait until He comes again...
You came to us, a towel in your hands,
Ready to sink to your knees and wash our feet.
When the waters rose and the wind ravaged us,
You only cared about calming our fearful hearts.
When the world pressed in on every side,
You welcomed the children, the weak, the dying.
You came willing to deny yourself,
the will of your Father driving your life.
You came to us, with holes in your hands,
from the nails we drove through your hands and feet.
When the people rose against you, all of us,
You only cared about redeeming our hearts.
When the mob pressed in on every side,
You welcomed us even as you hung there dying.
You came willing to sacrifice yourself,
the souls of your Children worth your very life.
The Saturday of Holy Week must have been heart wrenching for the disciples and family of Jesus. Their dreams of the Messiah were crushed with His death and they hid in fear or the same fate. Though He had told them of His resurrection, they didn't yet understand. The stone in front of His tomb sealed their fates....or so they thought.
One of the most profound moments on my trip to Israel was standing inside the pit where Jesus stood after arrested. These little details aren't in Scripture. You have to stand in the actual place to know that He would have been hauled underground in Caiphas' house and chained in a holding cell until ready to be questioned.
Then, because of the High Priest readying Himself to go to the temple, Caiaphas couldn't risk being around a murderer with blood on His hands. that would make Him unclean.
That is where the pit comes in. On the bottom floor, the prisoners were placed in a small room (about 20 of us fit in it at once). In the middle of the room is a tunnel that connects the bottom floor with the top floor (the middle floor with the holding cells is enclosed so they cannot hear what is being said). The priest would stand at the top and shout down, questioning the criminals.
So, there Jesus stood, in the cold dark room that had no light except from the small opening door floors up (in the picture you will see there are windows cut out. Those are new and didn't exist then). He had just been betrayed by one closest to Him and another was in the courtyard upstairs denying Him. he knew what lie ahead of Him and He was utterly alone, faced with the reality that soon His Father would, too, have to turn His face away as not to look upon the sin He would take upon Himself.
We focus so much on the cross on Friday and it was a brutal, inhumane was for anyone to die, especially the sinless Son of God. But standing there in that pit what struck me was how utterly abandoned Jesus must have felt and how we cannot even begin to comprehend what being separated from the Father on the cross meant to Him. He was completely one with the Father from the beginning of time in a way we cannot understand until eternity. And He knew that darkness was coming and separation. The striking thing is, because He was abandoned and separated from the Father, we never have to be....
After a day of rest, Thursday of Holy Week was a full, pivotal day in the life and death of Jesus. The Gospel of John summarizes the beginning of Holy Week in one chapter (John 12) but devotes five and a half chapters to Thursday. Jesus shared the Passover (the Last Supper) with His Disciples, taught a lesson on servanthood by washing their feet, predicted His betrayal and denial, and teaches on the way to the Father, the Holy Spirit, abiding, trials and perseverance. After teaching, He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, was betrayed and arrested, and was denied by Peter.
Today on the side of the Mount of Olives lies a church and a beautiful garden in the place where Jesus prayed right before His arrest. The word Gethsemane literally means "olive press" and was literally a place where the olives were harvested. The olives were pressed into oil by being crushed under the great weight of a stone press. It was in this place where the Lord was crushed under the weight of the sins of the world He would have to bear hours later.
Hours before this Jesus had told His disciples, "I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy." (John 16:20, NLT) Though there was agony for Jesus that night and for the disciples in the coming days, grief would be turned to joy. And there may be crushing weight of our own Gethsemanes but we will, with the rest of the world, rejoice. It took the garden to get to the cross and it took the cross to give us the empty tomb....
After another packed day Tuesday in Jerusalem in which Jesus confronted religious leaders, taught about the End times , spoke of his death and His return at the second coming, we hear nothing from Scripture about Wednesday. We can only guess what Jesus and His disciples did that day. Did they prepare for the Passover? Did Jesus continue to teach? My thought is that after the exhaustion of the previous days and before the trying days ahead, they retreated to Bethany to rest. To pray. To spend time at the feet of the One who would soon wash their feet.
Today the temple where Jesus spent much of His last week no longer exists. Pieces of it remain and when you visit Jerusalem no matter the time of day or year, you will see Jews and Christians alike crowded around the wall that remains of the temple. Some are silent, some celebrating the coming of age of young men, some weeping and rocking back and forth in prayer. If you look closely in every crack of the stones and littered across the base of the wall, like the delicate wings of birds flapping in the wind, you will see thousands of pieces of paper. They are names and prayers, placed into the wall, in hopes that God will hear and answer. This wall is the closest the Jewish people of today can get to the Holy of Holies to pray as they are no longer allowed to pray on the temple mount where the Presence of God once resided. People from all over the world venture to this place to speak to God. Sometimes songs rise from the side of the Mount and sometimes the sound of actual cries to God can be heard. Though the temple does not remain, God is not silent. In His Word, in the heart of those who seek Him, He speaks...
On Monday, Jesus had cleared out the temple and the anger of the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem grew. Jesus enlisted so many emotions in people that week - adoration, awe, confusion, anger, fear. Tensions ran high and on Tuesday as Jesus continued to evade the traps of the authorities and look forward to the End in his teachings, one of His own began his descent into betrayal. Judas negotiated with the Sanhedrin to turn Jesus over for 30 pieces of silver and looked for the right time to make his move. In just a couple short days, more of His disciples would deny Him and flee.
I have to wonder what was going on in Judas' head and heart that week as he remained with Jesus but knew what he was planning to do. Was he already regretting his decision but unable to turn back? Was he full of pride and blinded to the truth? As one who knew the Lord and walked away in my past (thank God for His loving pursuit of us and endless forgiveness), I know that He was always with me. Even when I tried to run from Him, I couldn't. Any of us could be Judas or Peter, betraying, denying. I'm so thankful for a love that can overcome even the darkest of hearts. His love is relentless and will never let us go, will always be waiting for us...
I couldn't help but love Jerusalem when I visited it. Israel is so much smaller than you imagine when reading the Scriptures, most places an easy drive from another. But then you enter the Holy City and first glimpse it from the Mount of Olives. The city is sprawling with people in every corner and the giant Temple Mount dominating the skyline. The voices rise from her streets in several languages, mixing in a beautiful symphony, and the smells bombard your senses like sweet perfume. It is simply breathtaking.
On Monday of Jesus' last week on earth He looked over the city that God had chosen so many years before and He wept. In the city where God's Presence had rested, Kings had reigned and battles had been waged, the people were like a sheep without a shepherd. Their King stood before them and they missed Him. They would look Him right in the eye and spit upon Him. Jesus wept because He did not want one of His children to perish and it broke His heart that some would choose to deny Him, others betray Him and most miss Him altogether.
Remember this Holy Week how deep His love is for His children, like the shepherd for His flock that He lovingly tends each day...
With Spring comes an expectation, the promise of new life just around the corner. Flowers push through the ground that has been hard and cold. Birds stretch their wings, ready to fly again into the warm April air. I love the way the promise of new life each Spring echoes the season of expectation we feel every Lent, as we contemplate anew the coming of Christ, our King.
As the days have been marching on towards Holy Week, I have found myself thinking back to the moments I spent last Spring in the Holy Land, walking in the very places Jesus walked during the last week of His life. I haven't felt anything quite as powerful as standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city that God chose and loved so dearly.
This Holy Week, I wanted to share some of the images that have been rolling around in my mind and the words on my heart as we contemplate the journey Christ took towards the cross and ready our hearts to celebrate our resurrected King.
On Sunday Jesus entered Jerusalem, coming from the Mount of Olives into the Holy City. He entered to the praise of the people, celebrated as a coming King. In a few short days, very different cries would ring through the city, calling for his crucifixtion. Today the side of the mountain overlooking Jerusalem is covered with over 150,000 graves. Jews have been buried on the mountainside for over 3,000 years, believing that when the Messiah comes He will come from the Mount of Olives and the resurrection of the dead will begin there.
Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the coming King of Zion. He came humble and riding on a donkey. One week later, He would return....victorious over sin and death!
The daughters of Zion rejoice
at the sight of You, O King,
coming to us humble and low
within our very reach.
You aren’t like other rulers
who sit on thrones far removed.
You keep company with our children
and sit at our tables.
You speak peace to the nations
and you set the prisoners free.
The daughters of Jerusalem shout
at the sight of You, O King,
Coming to us high and lifted up,
appearing over us.
There are none like you
whose arrows go forth like lightning.
You sound the trumpet
and march forth into battle.
You speak salvation to the nations.
and you set Your people free.