My sister and I sat cross-legged, waiting to learn about meditation.
Someone filled the little porcelain cups with steaming green tea; they grew warm in our hands. I looked around the makeshift temple in what looked like it used to be a gas station. Bars on the windows reminded us we were in the heart of the city, but inside, the peaceful atmosphere wasn’t threatened by the outside world.
I smiled at my sister, my eyes wide. I had asked her to come to the Zen Center with me, part of research for a college paper that asked me to step outside my religious background. I knew she would jump at the chance to explore a new experience, not for the sake of a grade like I did, but for the mere knowledge of it. This was her way. Together, we had been everywhere from Hindu temples to dingy rock clubs, from synagogues to Bollywood movie theatres. The world lay open before us.
Not long before, though, we never would have sat knee-to-knee like this.
In my teens I had found Jesus and alienated my sister. I shut people out who didn’t fit the mold I thought my life should fit. That’s when I started seeing my sister--who had been my best friend my whole life—as “other,” an outsider in my new community of faith.
Today I am over at The Mudroom talking about Connection and Acceptance. Join me there?
I have done some things in my life that most people would find daring. That trip to Yemen when our car was turned around and sent back south because of Al Qaeda activity up north – that seems pretty bold. Passing by those jeeps with guns strapped on the backs of them would have scared my mother to death. It felt completely normal to me.
Living in the middle east, planning another trip to Israel after the conflicts there last year – these things seem dangerous to some. They don’t make me think twice. God has just wired me that way, to love international people and travel, to be more comfortable outside of my own culture.
The things that feel more daring – downright frightening to me – are the moments in life where I have to be vulnerable to others. Opening myself up for criticism and saying what I really feel make me quake. The thought of others not liking me or, dare I say it, rejecting me? It makes me panic!
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...