We have arrived at the day of Jesus’ death, about which he prophesied, for which he prepared his disciples, and to which he marched willingly. Time has not permitted an elaboration on the trial before Pilate, Peter’s denial, or the mocking and scourging designed to humiliate and traumatize our Savior. In summary, we can say that by the time Jesus walked from trial to execution, carrying his own cross, he was already exhausted physically and mentally.

It is important to recognize the potential for spiritual danger when we are completely and utterly spent. Exhaustion can weaken our guard against temptation, scramble our judgment, and even make us (literally) stumble and fall. The only other time we see Jesus at very low ebb like this was when he spent forty days in the desert, immediately following his baptism (Matthew 4 and Luke 4). Satan took advantage of the situation to harass Jesus and attempted to divert him from his mission.

On this Holy Week night-without-food-or-sleep, we can only imagine the weakness Jesus felt. Add physical pain and/or emotional torture, and we can catch a glimpse of Jesus’ state as his crucifixion approached. All signs read, “Danger! Danger!”

When I get tired, I tend to get snappy, irritable, and selfish. My body and mind say, “You’re done, babe. You have nothing left to give. Go to bed.” If you were to overhear my words at this low point, you would be very disappointed in me.

How much worse was the exhaustion, the pain, and the spiritual strain on Jesus the night he was betrayed into the hands of Roman soldiers, Jewish elders, and a mocking crowd. Yet, what came out of his mouth as he was hanging on the cross? What we call “the seven last words of Christ”:

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)

“Truly, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

“Woman, behold your son; son, behold your mother” (John 19:26)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)

“I am thirsty” (John 19:28).

“It is finished [accomplished]” (John 19:30).

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

The gospel accounts give the impression that Jesus was largely silent in the three hours he hung on the cross. But the few words he did say reveal his soul, his intent, his mission, and his trust. What was his message?

Forgiveness: Jesus spends no energy whatsoever on anger or resentment. He asks the Father to forgive the people who were perpetrating an inherently unjust and undeserved punishment. He does not allow his spirit to be encumbered by bitterness. Take that, Devil!

Salvation: The very purpose of Jesus death was to atone for the sins of the world. In his weakened state, however, he does not overlook the salvation of one criminal hanging right next to him. Atonement is accomplished at Jesus’ expense, for our benefit. The thief who believes him and asks for consideration receives it freely and selflessly. No one is beyond redeeming! Take that, Devil!

Relationship: Jesus takes care of family business and gets his affairs in order. He possesses nothing of material value, but cherishes his mother. In a culture where widows were extremely vulnerable, he asks the apostle John to take her under his wing. Again, not thinking of himself or his own losses, but only of others. Take that, Devil!

Abandonment: Up to this point, the one reality Jesus could count on in life was the presence and guidance of his heavenly Father. On the cross, even that consolation is removed. I acknowledge great mystery about this moment. The God-Man Jesus feels his Father’s abandonment, distressing him greatly. But even in this dark despair, Jesus continues to speak to God who is silent. Take that, Devil!

Distress. The acknowledgment of thirst is so human and so basic. Physically, he is parched. But as Mother Teresa affirmed throughout her ministry to the destitute and dying of Calcutta, the human condition is one of thirst: yearning for living water, needing love, crying out for justice. Jesus at this moment is right alongside us experiencing neediness. He bears it. He is not satisfied, but he continues to trust God. Take that, Devil!

Victory. Like a marathoner crossing the finish line, Jesus recognizes that his dying is accomplishing the will of God and fulfilling his mission on earth. Nothing can be added now; he has done what he came to do. No guilt. No regrets. Only peace. Take that, Devil!

Trust. Jesus has survived scourging. Jesus has withstood mocking. Jesus has endured God’s abandonment to death. Jesus has finished his work. And now, Jesus gives up his spirit into the care of his Father. What trust! What resolve! What faith! Take that, Devil!

O Lord, that I may in the circumstances of my death be able to walk through the Shadow into your marvelous Light: trusting you, thinking of others, forgiving as needed. You have walked this path before me; now by your Spirit help me to live and die in confidence and serenity. Amen.

 

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As we move through Holy Week, I am contemplating Jesus’ mental state, on the lookout for anxiety. If I had been in Jesus’ shoes that week, anxiety is what I would have been feeling. But that is only projection from a very human point of view! Letting the Scripture speak for itself, we find a window into the soul of the God-Man Jesus in accounts of his visit to the Garden of Gethsemane.

Up to this point, Jesus was handling his emotions well. He has spent the evening with his closest disciples, instructing them, explaining the meaning of upcoming events, and reassuring them of the Spirit’s presence. His death is less than a day away. The narrators hint at poignancy and even sadness, especially in reference to imminent betrayal, but we see no fear at the dinner table.

In the Garden, though, we see a different reaction worth noting.

I am comparing the versions proffered by Matthew 26:36-46 and Mark 14:32-42, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Luke, for all the heart-warming humanity in his gospel, includes very little emotional content in the Garden of Gethsemane scene. (All we have is the textually disputed Luke 22:43f that elaborates on Jesus’ anguish in the garden.)

Matthew 26:37 states:
He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved (erxato lupeisthai) and agitated (ademonein).

Mark 14 uses a different verb:
Jesus began to be distressed (erxato ekthambeisthai) and agitated (ademonein).

Lupeo (to grieve) points to deep sadness and emotional pain. Agitation (ademoneo) suggests a physiological disturbance caused by a flush of adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone of stress. Physical pain is often accompanied by agitation, which adds to the suffering. So according to Matthew, Jesus was in deep emotional pain, overwhelmed by sadness and apparently unsettled and disturbed in his spirit.

Mark also uses the word ademoneo (agitated), but instead of referring to grief, he uses ekthambeo (be distressed). This word means, “greatly astounded,” with either positive or negative reactions. The positive use of this term would be “to be amazed,” but in this case, the meaning is “to be alarmed.”

What caught my attention is that this word “astounded/alarmed” suggests that Jesus was surprised by something ugly or dangerous. For some time we know he had been aware of the purpose of this journey and its outcome (his death). But in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was taken aback by a vision of what was to come. Louw & Nida suggest that this word meaning may even extend to fear.

What could possibly surprise Jesus to the point of alarm? The desolation of his own death! Death itself was not new to him; he had wept at Lazarus’ tomb before he shouted for Lazarus to come out. But here in Gethsemane, Jesus is confronted and astounded by the pain of dying and the darkness of his own death.

This reaction is different from the poise he demonstrated in the prior week. So different in fact that I wonder if the first Garden encounter—the one that caused alarm and agitation—was not with his heavenly Father but with the devil. The devil authors fear, disturbance, and destruction. If it can immobilize us by intimidation or threat, it will. God, on the other hand, is the author of peace. He provides courage and instills in us a sense of purpose and resolve. And he gives us the power to proceed on the path he has chosen for us.

By all accounts, Jesus is taken aback by the devil’s threat at first, seems to regroup, and then addresses his Father with “Please, if possible, remove this cup; nevertheless, do your will, not mine.” This is the honest, steady, intimate plea of Son to Father, born out of complete trust in God’s plan.

Jesus, even if he were momentarily afraid as the text suggests, was not sinning by recoiling from the horror of what would happen. But he does not run from this particular peril, because it is his mission to walk into trouble and die for a pre-ordained purpose. He willingly submits to his Father and carries out his assignment knowing full well now what it will entail, in all its gory devil-drawn detail.

As we continue on our Christian walk, there are times and circumstances when we become alarmed, even afraid. Alarm in the midst of a genuine threat to our wellbeing is a gift from God to help us get out of the way, run, remove our hand from the fire, or otherwise escape and survive. When there is danger, the alarm is raised so that we can act appropriately and quickly. There is no sin in recognizing danger. There is no fault in being outraged by death. Please be assured that even Jesus felt these things!

When I think about the moments in which I received bad news in the last ten years or so, I did experience alarm that allowed me to give my full attention to next steps. Yes, I tended to get agitated by the unknowns, unsettled by the ambiguities, befuddled by options before me. But my faith in God’s providence never wavered, because this state of alarm morphed into vigilant trust in the Savior. Focusing, as Jesus did, on walking in God’s Way throughout these ordeals was made possible by God’s Spirit within me. I believe it is that same strength and power that enabled Jesus to walk toward his death, from Gethsemane to Golgotha, resolving to do God’s will without complaint or cowardice.

Today’s entry is one more context-setting blog, and then I think tomorrow I can start in on some Holy Week reflections. One of the more interesting ministry directions I have taken in the last year and a half is to involve myself helping people who suffer from lung disease (sometimes cancer, but more likely asthma, COPD, or emphysema). When I was diagnosed with lung cancer in the fall of 2013, I was introduced to a new community of “my people,” those for whom breathing is an appreciated gift and intentional effort.

Part of my recovery in 2014 required me to undergo the Pulmonary Rehab program at John Muir Medical Center (Concord Campus). Participating in that seven-week discipline—which included class instruction and discussion as well as medically supervised gym workouts—opened my eyes to a needy population. I was soon asked to teach one of the units, specifically on “activities of daily living.” So now, once a month, I go in and entertain them with demonstrations, recommendations, website links, and other instructional input to help them function independently at home. Great fun, for sure, and keeps me in touch with a vulnerable group of people.

The second contribution I am making to lung health is through the Lung Cancer Alliance (LCA) in Washington, D.C. This fine group of people is supporting all kinds of efforts, with the hope of reducing the incidence of lung cancer, catching it earlier, finding new treatments, and supporting patients and their families with useful resources. The organization has a legislative branch that raises awareness among Members of Congress, drafts bills, and promotes funding for research of the disease and its cure. I made a trip to D.C. last month in order to meet with legislative aides for the two California Senators, Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris (see me here with Senator Feinstein, whom I met out in the hallway), my Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, and Senator Marco Rubio (R–Florida) in hopes of convincing him to co-sponsor a bipartisan research study bill with Senator Feinstein.

One of my LCA assignments, to be fulfilled next December, is to contribute to a webinar on the topic “Survivor Anxiety.” I had shared with one of the staffers that after three years, I still suffer from scanxiety (getting anxious right before or after a periodic follow-up CT scan) and certain events can trigger an anxious reaction in me. So between now and December, I am keeping an “anxiety journal” and pondering—in a good, non-anxious way, I hope—how to address what turns out to be a common experience of cancer sufferers.

I share all this by way of introduction to this week’s reflections on the events of Jesus’ last few days of life prior to his resurrection. I am going to look at some biblical texts through the lens of anxiety. Particularly this week I shall try to imagine how Jesus managed himself through the horrific unfolding of events leading to his excruciating death on the cross. I anticipate that we will learn something together about worry and obsession over the things that might happen to us, but the goal is to discover the resources we have in Christ that will enable to walk our own journeys with poise and confidence.

Today is Good Friday, the most solemn day of remembrance in the entire church year. On this day we recall the aftermath of Jesus’ betrayal by one of the twelve, his sham of a trial, his suffering, and his crucifixion in public view just outside the walls of Jerusalem.

For secular types in-the-know, Jesus’ appearance for judgment was an uncomfortable intrusion on their “live and let live” policy toward the Jews. For the Jewish elite in Jerusalem, Jesus’ latest offenses—including the raising of Lazarus (John 11) and his claim to deity at the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7-8) for instance—were the straws that broke the camel’s back. Something must be done with this man, or we are going to have an insurrection on our hands.

I wonder how 21st century news media would have covered the story, if press presence at Jesus’ middle-of-the-night trial might have held Romans and Jews accountable for their inept judicial proceedings. We know some of the inner workings of this process through eye-witness accounts gathered by the gospel writers from folks who must have been sympathetic to Jesus’ cause. But no one overtly stood up for Jesus, offered a defense, or otherwise provided a “fair trial.” He was “tried” by a hostile stampede of public opinion.

The news of Jesus death spread locally, but there was no 24/7 news cycle to analyze it from every angle or replay the scene ad nauseam. No, in those first couple of days, people retreated to their homes or walked along the way, dispirited and wondering, remembering his life and teaching and questioning whether they had gotten it wrong and that he wasn’t that special after all. I think they also wondered if this sort of injustice could happen to them, too.

And then Jesus rose from the dead, and within a matter of hours and days, he was appearing to hundreds of people and news spread through the witness of the apostles that Jesus was Lord, the Christ, and believing in him would impart salvation. This news, wholly unexpected and outrageous to the Powers That Be, nevertheless made its way into hearts and communities who demonstrated great faith and courage by believing and proclaiming it despite the hostile religious environment.

The Good News of the Gospel as we have come to know it was not a commodity to be sold but a message to be given to all who could possibly hear it. We are not part of the News Business, but participants in the Gospel Project. Its impact on individuals, villages, and societies in the two thousand years since is immeasurably for the good. As Paul would indicate in another letter, he did not personally gain by sharing this news. He was not charging a fee, selling commercials, or otherwise commoditizing the gospel for his own benefit. He sacrificed a lot, worked hard on the side to earn a living when he could, and ultimately was arrested in situations where the gospel was bad for business.

So when Paul asked for prayer that he could be clear about the gospel (Colossians 4:3-4) and bold in his presentation (Ephesians 6:19) he was demonstrating the priority of clear teaching over personal safety. His role was misunderstood apparently, because there were plenty of snake oil salesman giving itinerate preachers a bad name (2 Corinthians 4:1-2). Paul would not be one of those, and neither should we.

The news we have to share is lifechanging and very important. Its content is the Truth. By sharing it, we are not—are we—trying to pad our coffers, build a reputation, sell a product, or otherwise capitalize on the gospel. We are not in the News business; we are preachers and teachers of the gospel as potentially life-changing, personally transforming, and powerfully motivating.

We are never promised safety, but we are given inner peace. As we put our trust in Christ we are never to expect prosperity or the easy life, but we have his presence through thick and thin. The point of our discipleship (the discipline of apprenticeship to Jesus) is to gain enough strength in the Lord that we can remain standing through the difficulties that come with our allegiance to Jesus over any temporal power or ruling authority. That standing, in itself, becomes part of the testimony to the gospel—our willingness to put Jesus at the very center of our lives even at the expense of comfort, safety, or approval. In this, let us follow Jesus to the cross, die to ourselves, and live unto God.

I have been reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila this week, and am taken in by the character development of the girl without a home. Not wanting to spoil the book for anyone who has not read it (and I’m not even finished with it myself), let us just note a habit Lila started when she landed in Gilead. She pinched a pew Bible in order to gain some insight into what the preacher was talking about. To achieve her other goal—increased literacy—she opened the book at the beginning (Genesis 1) and started writing out verses one at a time, ten times each. It helped her ponder the texts and enter them into her memory for referral later.

On my piano rack stand several pieces of vocal music that must be memorized for a choral concert tour we will be making this summer. My struggle has included listening to the pieces many times, plunking them out on the piano, singing my part frequently, but they are still not memorized. My next step is the Lila method: write out the words, find the patterns, note the changes from verse to verse, and otherwise parse the lyrics in order to get them into my brain. Next will be loading the pieces onto my iPhone so I can practice holding my own with the rest of the choral parts.

Early in my walk with Christ, I memorized one hundred Bible verses and their Scripture references. Memorizing was so much easier then! But it always included writing them out (by hand) a few times, just like Lila did, then saying them out loud. Exposure to them through reading, writing, and speaking them finally enabled me to “hear” them. By this rather pedantic method, I succeeded in storing those verses into my mind and heart, where they reside and are available anytime they are needed, even today.

Of course, in the meantime, lots of homework has supported this early effort. I have read the entire Bible (more than once), studied theological concepts, outlined entire books of the Bible, and explored implications for everyday life. In other words, Scripture has taken root in me over the decades I have been known by Christ.

The Apostle Paul’s lengthy exhortation to the Colossians continues with the urging:

16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly;
teach and admonish one another in all wisdom;
and with gratitude in your hearts
sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

Paul knows the importance of keeping a firm grip on the Word of God. Something happens internally when we set something to memory. It becomes ours. It speaks to us when we are not expecting to hear from it again. We find ourselves making connections between something happening and what we have remembered. This has been my experience of internalizing the Scriptures. Paul calls it “letting the word dwell in you richly.” Namely, allowing the Word of God to abide in both mind and heart so that and until it bears fruit within. But he goes on to say that this Word is something that we, together as the Body of Christ, share with one another through teaching and correction. When the Word dwells in us, and particularly in our Christian community, in our worship and study together, we become a people of the Word. It isn’t only an individualistic thing, to know the Word of God, it is also a corporate thing to know, experience, taste, and handle the Word of truth among fellow believers.

And a joyous, comforting thing it is. Last week I had the privilege of spending an evening with several of Steve Hayner’s friends, who shared poignantly of walking alongside him on the journey toward heaven. Scriptures just “popped” for them. Old, familiar verses that had brought so much solace in life were now reapplied and richly expanded at the moment of death. I will never read Psalm 116 the same again.

Years ago, the wife of a dying man in his 90s called me for a visit. He was a retired pastor who had been in perfect health until just a few months before his death. My husband and I called on him in the hospital at a time when he was feeling discouraged and down, desiring more than anything for the Lord to take him home. He had been unable to read for several weeks, which further depressed him. As he shared this, his wife gently chided him, saying, “But honey, you have so much Scripture memorized, you hardly need to read now.” And then she prompted him with the opening verses of Isaiah 6:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne . . .

He immediately joined in, and before our very eyes he enthusiastically delivered the entire chapter and Isaiah’s call to the prophetic ministry. It was just amazing. He was a different person when he concluded his recitation: encouraged, seeing heaven, awestruck.

There is a man in whom the Word dwelt richly. Is this not an encouragement to all of us to grab hold of portions of Scripture, memorize them and carry them with us? There will come a day for us, too, when we will be unable to read. But with the Holy Spirit, who Jesus promised would help us remember everything he taught us (John 14:25ff), we can “eat this book” (Revelation 10:9, The Message). Lent is a perfect time to get going on this, don’t you think?

 

And over all these virtues put on love,
which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Colossians 3:14

Paul continues his theme with the “layered look” of spiritual dressing. Imagine yourself putting on a patience undershirt, and then a kindness button-down oxford. Pull up those meekness jeans, and compassion socks. Bring it all together with a humble sweater. But now, Paul says, the entire ensemble is tied together with an overcoat of love. It is intriguing imagery, particularly contemporary. What Paul is saying here is that love (and he uses the term agape, unconditional love) is the all-encompassing virtue. Love is the general “rule” and the fruit of the Spirit (for instance) are ways that it is embodied in actual attitudes and behaviors. Love is expressed through patience, humility, and kindness.

As Dallas Willard remarked, “Love, as Paul and the NT presents it, is not action—not even action with a special intention—but a source of action. It is a condition out of which actions of a certain type emerge.” [1]

We live in an age and environment that is a bit mixed up about what love is. We confuse love with desire. We say we fall into it. Or it is strictly a feeling we cannot control. And yet, Paul in this passage (and others, such as Romans 13:19 and 1 Corinthians 13) writes about love from a completely different angle. We are to put it on over everything else good and virtuous, because love brings it all together as one piece.

But what is it, this agape love? Dallas Willard offers a definition he thinks covers the ground:

Love is an overall condition
of the embodied, social self
poised to promote the goods of human life
that are within its range of influence.
Willard—“Getting Love Right”

Love is a disposition or character that makes one ready to act towards and for another in a way consistent with the gospel (God’s love for us). Willard often said it is misplaced effort to try to love a person. Rather, our prayer should be that we become the kind of person who would love that person. “The kind of person” who can do this is “possessed by love as an overall character of life,” regardless of what is going on. So, “I do not come to my enemies and then try to love them; I come to them as a loving person.” This is why John said, “God is love.” This is God’s identity, “a loving person.” It explains why he can and does love me, even when he is not pleased with what I am doing. Love is God’s general condition, out of which comes his promotion of what is good and right and life-giving for me.

So when Paul says to “put on love,” he is asking us to enter into the state of being possessed by love. “We love, because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Knowing we are loved by God, allowing that “we are not our own; we were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19f), we are possessed by love. As we surrender our wills to God and remain open to his transforming power, he will make us loving persons from the inside out. This is a work of the Spirit, requiring our willingness and availability, and the sort of practice that demonstrates we really do want to change clothes from “unloving” to “loving.”

The question for your consideration is not, Whom should you be loving? but What are the obstacles in your heart to becoming a loving person: selfishness? pride? anger? competitiveness? indifference? impatience? hurry?

[1] What follows are some thoughts heavily relying on Dallas Willard on the subject of love, as presented in his Fuller lectures (when I took a two-week intensive with him in June 2007) and a presentation he made in September 2007 called “Getting Love Right.” I am quoting him freely.

 

A Facebook friend was fretting a bit that she had not yet decided what to give up for Lent. She brings up an interesting question. As a born and raised Catholic, my family of origin refrained from eating meat on Fridays. Nowadays, such a discipline is a daily and year-round practice among vegetarians, robbing the deprivation of its spiritual meaning. But being the consumer society we are, chances are pretty good that we are all eating, drinking, injecting, or inhaling something that threatens to get the upper hand in our lives. Something in this category would be a sharper focus of discipline during Lent.

On the other hand, rather than eliminating something, would it not also be Lent-worthy to adopt a new habit or practice instead? Yesterday’s verse, Colossians 3:12, suggested arenas for our thoughtful application: patience, kindness, compassion, meekness, and humility. What is something you could do that would exercise one of these virtue-muscles for spiritual strengthening?

Today’s verse is even more pointed, as Paul urges us to express that patience, kindness, compassion, meekness, and humility in the act of “bearing with one another.”

“Bear with each other and forgive
whatever grievances you may have against one another.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

I can think of at least two ways “bearing with” happens:

  1. We help our [friend, family member, co-worker] to bear a particular burden, by our ministries of intercession, presence, and merciful action; or

  2. We “grin and bear it” when our [friend, family member, co-worker] errs, sins, or offends us, and follow up that tolerance with forgiveness in the same manner Christ has forgiven us.

Both interpretations offer possibilities for Lenten discipline.

This past week, one of our covenant group members experienced a confusing medical problem and had to be taken to the hospital ER. Three different brothers in Christ took turns staying with Tom and his wife Betty while the situation was sorted out over a matter of days. Just being there to share the burden and to help them know they were not alone away from home was “bearing with them.” In your life, is someone suffering a prolonged illness, requiring isolation from his or her community and yet needing it more? Can you take a meal? Drop off a little stuffed animal? Do a load of laundry or garden maintenance? Send a meaningful card with a verse worth re-reading and remembering? Your imagination is far more creative than mine is. What is important is that you show up in some way, as a sign that the burden is shared by the Christian community.

But then we come to the other meaning of “bearing with,” which is another way of saying Christian forbearance toward others while they work out the sin thing in their own life. Perhaps Lent is the time to stop nagging or being critical of someone close to you. The Christian discipline would be one of fervent intercession (pray for them!), openness to their humanity (listen to them!), active choosing not to be bothered by irksome behavior (forgive them!), and tending to their wounds with the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.

Just today, a Christian friend was sharing frustration over a work relationship that seems to be going south. The Christian friend thinks the solution is to quit the job because he feels he is being discriminated against as a Jesus-follower. I do not know the details, only that he feels this way about the situation. But maybe for Lent, he (and I in similar situations) could choose to take the barbs and put-downs without losing sleep over them, and walk in Jesus’ footsteps toward the Cross. After all, isn’t that a point of reflection during Lent? We ponder how it is that Jesus took our sins upon himself and absorbed them. He did not return evil for evil, he did not displace any anger or frustration on others around him. No, he bore the sins of all people and carried them to the grave where they could do no more harm. He bore with us, and he forgave us.

There is escalating tension and terror on earth today. Perhaps giving up retaliation might just be the Lenten discipline that could change the world.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” (Philippians 3:10)

I decided to wait until after Easter to reflect on my mother’s sudden death, because it just seemed proper to walk through the week of the Passion and Crucifixion of our Lord first. The convincing realization of that remembrance is that Jesus understands our sorrow, our pain, and has fully experienced death itself. What sweet comfort that reality is, and what stupendous hope we have because of his Resurrection that followed! With the knowledge that our Lord and Shepherd Jesus Christ lives and reigns, our entire perspective on life and death is a hopeful one. Through the lens of resurrection, then, some understanding of the suffering preceding it is possible.

The reflections coming out of this experience may take a couple days to pour out, but so many threads of my life come together in my mother’s story, which is now mine to steward and learn from. Over these last few months, I have pondered the meaning of life and death through my own prolonged illness, though I have not completely lived into Paul’s perspective by “shar[ing] Christ’s sufferings by becoming like him in his death, . . .” That perhaps will come later. But right now, my theme verse is “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection!”

I have experienced a short-term resurrection through this experience of coming out the other side of lung cancer. However, my mom in 2014 joins my dad, who also died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in 1996, in resurrection and life after death. They both are being ushered by Jesus into their long-term abode in his house, however that sequence of events plays out. [You can read N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, on which I commented in a previous post.]

So to begin my mother’s story, let me share her obituary, which appeared in the Seattle Times on Sunday, April 13:

Alice Irene (DeJong) Holder
November 3, 1930 — April 8, 2014

Alice Holder photoAlice Holder died early Tuesday, April 8, 2014, at Overlake Hospital after suffering a stroke at home. She was 83 years old.

Alice was born in Rockford, Illinois, on November 3, 1930, the third child of Alice Paulson and Henry W. DeJong. A graduate of West High School, Rockford, Alice set off to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she majored in French. While there, she met the love of her life, Leonard G. Holder, on a blind date. They were married after her graduation in 1952, and resided in Ann Arbor while Len finished his senior year. Their first daughter Mary was born the night Len took his last final exam, and two months later the new family moved to Seattle, Washington, where Len began his life-long career with Boeing and Alice managed things at home. They first lived on Capitol Hill, but eventually moved to the East Side (Lake Hills). She gave birth to three more children, Martha, Michael, and Louise.

Alice was a charter member and active participant in her faith community at St. Louise Catholic Church, singing in the church choir for years and ministering with the Legion of Mary. She and Len were long-time members of the Seattle Chorale, with whom they sang some of the great choral works in concert with the Seattle Symphony.

Once the children were launched in school, Alice attended the University of Washington to earn a teaching credential in foreign language. She taught French at Sammamish High School for several years, until a severe back problem required her retirement. A highlight of her life was a trip to France in 1972 during which she navigated the language competently and gathered many great stories for class lessons. More recently, Alice, always an avid reader, digested books on American and European history and world leaders, with special interest in the Civil War and World War Two.

Her husband Leonard died suddenly in 1996. Shortly thereafter she moved from the family home to Silver Glen in Bellevue, where she enjoyed many friendships and served on the board.

Alice is survived by her sister, Mary Joan DeJong of Issaquah; her four children Mary Holder Naegeli (Andy) of Walnut Creek, CA, Martha Householter (Dennis) of Morton, IL, Michael Holder of Redmond, and Louise Holder of Kirkland; and by six grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her brother Henry DeJong and grandson Joel Householter.

A Mass of the Resurrection will be held at St. Louise Catholic Church, Bellevue, on Monday, April 14, at 11 a.m. Inurnment at Sunset Hills Memorial Park will be conducted in a private family service later.

 

Next post: the story behind the story

The Church has just been through the lows and highs and the Christian calendar, walking with Jesus through his passion and death, experiencing the emptiness of Holy Saturday, and the exultation of Easter. People’s reaction to this emotional ride vary from indifference to obsession, but the intensity of the calendar’s events is intended to draw us in to Christ’s experience in order to appreciate all the more what he did for us. My post on Good Friday was an expression of that gratitude.

But then there are people who felt almost nothing, though they would have liked to, and it is for them that I would like to share my recent experience. I walked through the last week emotionally cautious for a different reason: to get emotional would have exacerbated a physical condition I am struggling with at the moment.

As you probably know, the third major treatment of my lung cancer was to remove the affected upper left lobe of my lung, which encased the now dead tumor. Last Thursday, my surgeon declared me sufficiently recovered from that operation to proceed to my final precautionary round of chemo, which started yesterday. However, I am also dealing with a lingering condition requiring the attention of a pulmonary specialist. The symptoms—tight chest, constricted airways, wheezy breathing—mimic asthma though it is not clear that this is the cause. Because exercise now causes counterproductive coughing jags, I am stalled in my rehab. Okay, we’re getting a handle on this now, and a new med is on the way, for which I am sure I will be deeply grateful as soon as I get the go-ahead to use it! (Things get so complicated when you have four doctors treating you for the variety of medical side effects and clinical conditions that create the cancer-constellation.)

I found out the hard way, as I sat at my dying mother’s ICU bedside two weeks ago, that crying caused constriction in my chest, uncontrollable coughing, and hyperventilation. I literally had to leave the room in order to “catch my breath.” So crying was not available as an emotional release or expression of my feelings at such a precious time. I have preached or sung at enough memorial services to have learned, as a professional, to keep my emotions in check. So that is what I did in this case, as a matter of medical necessity.

And then Holy Week happened, and once again, I was faced with the elation of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, the depths of Christ’s passion and crucifixion, the glory of Easter. And all I could do was go through the motions. I didn’t even go to my favorite service of the year on Maundy Thursday, because it was just too much to bear. Good Friday carried with it enough distractions (doctors’ appointments, picking up daughter from airport) to keep me on an even keel. Yes, I did sing some beautiful choral pieces Friday night, but I could stay in “professional” mode. And then on Easter morning, we got up early to attend worship at 8:00. It was wonderful by all objective standards, but by then—because I had not really felt the lows all week—the highs had much less impact on me.

I have described a situation that is common—albeit for a host of different reasons—to many people at this time of year. We wonder sometimes why we just don’t feel the impact of what is repeatedly proclaimed as the most stupendous set of events in Jesus’ life and in our own. What is wrong with us that we do not feel it, we ask? There are several possible reasons for this: negative associations with anything “church” related, trauma experienced earlier in life, a world that is just too busy and too plugged in to have room for genuine emotion, an addictive habit that has masked pain for a long time.

But here is the good news: the fact that we didn’t feel anything does not change one bit the importance and effectiveness of what Jesus did for us two thousand years ago and what God is doing today. Our gracious God does not require our feelings—or even our faith, if you want to get really radical about it—to do his thing. That thing is redemption: the reclaiming of what is his and its restoration to its proper place within his realm. This is something only God can do, and our emotions (or lack thereof) affect our experience but not the thing itself.

And so, in keeping with the general concept of St. John of the Cross and his Dark Night of the Senses, written about in a previous post, we simple place ourselves in silent readiness for God’s touch at the right moment. That place of readiness might be as simple as an hour in the porch swing on a spring day, quiet reading of the day’s lectionary Scriptures at the kitchen table, or a walk on the beach listening to God’s immense power crash in waves. Find your place of quiet where God can meet you. He won’t make you cry if you can’t or don’t want to. He will simply say, “I did this for you, because I love you.”

Good Friday Reflection

April 18, 2014

As I was sitting in the choir tonight contemplating the Scriptures, the songs, and the choral pieces offered during our Good Friday service, something struck me rather forcefully. All four gospel accounts make note that Jesus remained conscious throughout his crucifixion ordeal. The evidence that he remained alert is that, in each case, he said something right before he died and then “he gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50, John 19:30; “breathed his last,” Mark 15:37 and Luke 23:46).

Jesus was in agony. He was slowly dying of asphyxiation, caused by the unnatural position of his body hanging by the wrists on a cross. The tightness I feel in my chest these days—due to asthma or reactive airways after lung surgery—is nothing compared to the heaviness Jesus felt trying to keep his lungs filled with air. The weight of his body was slowly compressing his breathing apparatus. He was awake and alert while this happened. This fact alone convinces me that Jesus endured the cross intentionally, rationally, and convincingly. He chose this, and he stayed awake to feel every pain, gasp every breath, and say every word that needed to be said, until “It is finished.”

Unless we are on a battlefield somewhere, this type of death is so rare as to be beyond most ordinary experience. In this country, at least, if one is under any kind of medical care at all, the symptoms and side effects of impending death are addressed through pain control, anti-anxiety medications, warm bedding, and supplemental oxygen. My mother suffered a stroke on Saturday, April 5. Within three hours of that splitting headache that caused her neighbor to call 9-1-1, Mom was unconscious. No longer in pain, experiencing no agitation, and aided in breathing with a ventilator, she was accompanied by the kindness of family members keeping watch and nurses ministering their wonders of care and comfort. She slipped into heaven about 60 hours after the initial symptoms set in, and her four children were glad that she did not suffer.

But Jesus suffered when he died for us. He missed nothing of the indignity, the agony, and the heaviness of his burden. He carried us and bore our wounds upon himself, and that is why we call Good Friday good. He poured out his love for us by taking upon himself what we deserve for our sin. And he did it the hard way.

While I experience the breathing difficulties yet to be resolved, while I go back into the chemo cave (on Monday) to feel that cellular-level fatigue once again, while I fully heal from the amazing surgery that has rendered me cancer-free, I want to remember Jesus’ painful process that led to my New Life. Though I have tried here to imagine what he went through, I will never fully know the extent of his resolve but only enjoy its benefits.

And if I am ever called upon to suffer for the sake of Christ or in service to others, may I do so with eyes wide open, alert not only to the pain but also to its purpose, just as Jesus did.