On the Other Side of Good Friday

“No Name” is what the woman called herself. She was in a locked ward of a psychiatric unit in a hospital, wearing a straitjacket. She was there because she had tried to harm her father after years of suffering from abuse . . . she was to say, “I am beyond the state of hope. I have no hope.” Once she wrote, “No name, no place, no love, no hope.” (I heard the story of “”No Name” from a professor who had met her.)

Hopelessness and its pain are not unique to our generation. The scriptures reveal the pain of the faithful who have gone before us. “My eyes stream with unceasing tears and refuse all comfort” wrote Jeremiah. (Lamentations 3:49 REB). The Psalmist would say, “I sink in muddy depths where there is no foothold; I have come into deep water and the flood sweeps me away. I am exhausted with crying, my throat is sore. (Psalms 69:2-3 REB)

The writers of scripture were no strangers to pain, suffering or it’s resulting hopelessness. Yet, they were confident of God’s continuing presence in their lives. They recognized a presence that lifted them from their despair. The 27th Psalm speaks to that hope. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? . . God will hide me and shelter me in the day of trouble; . . though my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will take me up. . . . I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living . . . be strong and let your heart take courage.” To those burdened with shame the 103rd Psalm promises, “As far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us.”

We are a resurrection people. Far from hopelessness we are gifted with the knowledge that God is one who brings life out of death, turns despair and hopelessness into avenues of new life, and makes our darkness become as day. Countless people, through the ages have discovered God’s new life surrounding them. Among them are people like myself . . . who having lived through the darkness, discovered God’s resurrection living.

Soon we will celebrate Holy Week where once more we journey from triumphant through fear, despair and death . . . only to be surprised that after Good Friday’s pain, comes Easter’s joy. On the other side of our journey through the Good Friday’s of life . . . Easter and resurrection wait.

Prone to Wander

I have a beautiful hardanger needlework cross I keep in my Bible. I keep it there as a reminder of the gracious woman who made it for me when I moved to another church. She was in the weekly Bible study where we shared the scripture, our faith and perhaps most of all, our personal stories. One of the gifts of ministry is the opportunity to be allowed into the lives of those we minister to. Often I hear stories which strike me as heroic, given the circumstances the teller has lived through.

Betty and Frank were a couple who came yearly to the small fishing resort I grew up on in southern Minnesota. Childhood sweethearts, they married at a young age. I never learned what happened to Betty’s dad, but I knew that her mom left home right after the two of them were married. None of that would have affected Betty and Frank quite so much, if there weren’t six younger children in the family. As a young married couple, they took on the responsibility of raising all of Betty’s siblings without any idea how long that would be. The youngest was only two years old.

I never knew them to complain about that fact. With a houseful of kids, there was no room for any children of their own. They were full time parents to Betty’s sisters and brothers. Over the course of many years, we got to know the family well. Laughter arrived with them for the two weeks they would stay each summer. Along the way, we heard the story of their unusual family. The children grew up without knowing their mother’s whereabouts. Eventually, an assumption was made that she must have died.

I don’t know what I would have done the day that Betty’s mother showed up on their doorstep, long after the youngest child was raised. How had she even known where to find them? I never learned that part of the story. What I did not expect was for the two of them to take Betty’s mother into their home. She made life difficult whenever she could. Yet, I never heard anything from either Frank or Betty critical of her. A missing mom had returned looking for help. In their minds, opening their door to her was the only response possible. I have often thought of the love that these two gave her so freely. It was both undeserved and completely unmerited. Everyone would have understood if, on that first day, they had simply shut the door to her.

God’s love is like that. We stumble and fall. Our mistakes can be legendary. Still God waits. God waits for us to come to our senses. We are as Robert Robinson’s hymn would say, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” Our resolves, our resolutions, our good intentions slip away as we let ourselves get side tracked by less important, less meaningful things. Still, God is patient with us. We are nourished by God’s hand. We are loved in spite of our wanderings. Robinson’s hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” continues with “Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above” which is another way of saying “Yes” to God. That “Yes” is an acknowledgment that we are ready to journey out of the wilderness and into God’s land of promise. Meanwhile, God waits with arms wide open for us to return.

Unanswered Prayer and God’s Answers

My first vivid experience of answered prayer was the Thanksgiving Eve when I looked up at a star filled night sky and prayed for snow. My five-year-old self didn’t know that from then on I would ask myself how much I wanted a prayer answered before I asked. Thanksgiving morning arrived with  a foot of fresh snow. So very much snow, there was talk about not making the trip to my grandparents home thirty miles away. I vowed from that time on, I would be more cautious in my prayers.

Most of my prayers have not had that vivid answer. More often, prayer has been a source of strength, hope and encouragement when life has taken a painful or punishing turn. Prayers have been answered through people God has put into my life, who have offered wise counsel. Meanwhile, difficult people have continued to be difficult. Problems have not vanished. Rather they have demanded that I walk through them. And yet, there have also been the vivid answers. Unexpected financial resources to help me through the early years of a divorce, a job and a scholarship that came at just the right moment when I started seminary . . . all answers to prayer.

The church I volunteer at has been doing a church wide study on prayer this Lent where I’ve been leading one of the groups. In the weeks we’ve been together, we’ve pondered the mystery of unanswered prayer. We’ve thought about the tragedies in our collective experience. We’ve named heartaches in our lives. We’ve puzzled over those moments while we’ve also recognized moments when we have known God was using us to help another person. We’ve recognized God’s nudges to reach out to a person who was hurting, lonely or afraid with a note, a call, a hug.

Is it that we simply don’t recognize when God is doing the same in our lives? Was that note which came, the unexpected phone call,  a person who reaches out to us (that we might even think is annoying),  all a response to one of God’s nudges? God’s answers clearly, do not always come in the way that we hope and pray for, but they do come. When we wonder why God isn’t answering our prayers, it might be a good time to take a backward look in life . . . To look at the other hard moments when we wondered how we could go on. How did we get through that time? Who was there in our life to give us encouragement or support? Did we ever think of those encouragers as God’s answer in our lives? In the backward look of accrued wisdom we see their light shining in our lives, reflections of God’s love and care for us.

In another era, the Apostle Paul wrote the people of Ephesus with his prayer for them, which is a prayer for each of us: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 6:16-21 NRSV)    May it be that as you puzzle over God’s answers that you do see the breadth and length, height and depth of Christ’s love in your own life.

Childhood Lessons On The Environment

My parents taught their children with parables – not the Biblical variety, but those homespun truths which grab wisdom by the tail. If something needed fixing, we’d hear “A stitch in time saves nine. ” My sister was often the recipient of “Don’t’ cut off your nose to spite your face, ” every time she and her friend got into an argument and stopped talking to each other. When we were about to short change a project we were working on, my mother would tell us, “A job worth doing is worth doing well.” Both parents were especially fond of letting us know not to “count our chickens before they’re hatched.”

My parents were the first naturalists I knew. They cared about the environment and taught each of us to care also. I learned from them about our interconnected world. In the rural area I grew up in, nature’s lessons were all around us. During the dry years our neighbor’s crops died in the field, and the lake that supported our fishing resort dropped to unhealthy levels. From an early age I learned how I used or misused the earth mattered. They taught us of the interconnected nature of earth and all of earth’s creatures.

Later I would hear more of the Biblical worldview of earth and God’s concern for the planet we live on. The Bible tells us that the earth belongs to God and everything in it. The Genesis account of creation calls upon us to be stewards of the creation. The gospel of John has this poignant word, “For God so loved the World.”

I’m puzzled by the political divide over care of our environment which we encounter today. Until recent years Christians were united in a concern for the earth and its creatures. We worked together for laws that limited pollution and cleaned up our lakes and rivers. I’m not sure when our collective wisdom changed, or how the environment got mixed into creation theologies as if one believed God created the heavens and the earth, one couldn’t believe that the earth was in danger.

I don’t know how this happened, but I yearn for that time of yesterday, when words like Global Warming and Climate Change were not political fireballs, but words that pushed us, regardless of political affiliation, into action. I yearn for the time when we so love God with our mind, heart, soul and strength, that we invest ourselves in all the ways we can to make a difference for the generations who follow us.

To Say a Prayer for Peace

The groundwork for the Palestine – Israeli conflict started before I was born. By the time I was two, a major offensive had taken place. Through all these years, I heard one story. It was the story of the Holocaust and a land that became a Jewish homeland after Hitler’s ovens were shut down. For most of these years I wondered why there was no peace in that land. I wondered why the Palestinian people simply didn’t move on with their lives and work for the betterment of their people. I wondered why, just about the time when peace might finally break out, there would be a bombing in Israel by Palestine or an assassination in Palestine by Israeli forces.

I applauded the peace accords at Camp David and hoped that peace might finally come to that troubled land. Through all these years, peace has been elusive. A few years ago I read a book which gave perspective to the issue and helped me to understand there were two distinctive views of Israel and Palestine. More books caused me to dig deeper. Last summer I attended an event which brought Christians who live and work in Palestine to the states. Their stories were full of heartache.

I didn’t know that a wall was built around the biblical city of Bethlehem, birthplace to both David and Jesus. A wall built not for protection, but to keep people in, allowing access to mere four square miles. Movement between Bethlehem and another part of Palestine takes hours of waiting in line at a checkpoint, only to be repeated at another wall and another checkpoint. I learned that Christians who lived in Bethlehem were only allowed to go the four miles to Jerusalem at Easter and Christmas. I didn’t realize that Israel controlled both water and electricity in Palestine or that they allowed only scarce amounts of each to reach people who live there. Their stories of ongoing harassment caused me to entirely rethink what I thought I knew about Israel. I find it difficult to understand why the children of people who survived the Holocaust could treat an entire nation with so little compassion.

In the past few years, more and more Jewish settlements have started in the West Bank. The land is spotted with settlements which make a two-state solution increasingly difficult. Settlements have no lack of either water or electricity. Settlers have incentives to move into these new cities. Meanwhile, land that has been held in a family for generations has been taken, named as state land. The Israeli government will refer to an action by Hamas as the cause for taking the land, but somehow Christians in Palestine are among those losing their land.

The staff at Bethlehem Bible College talked about Jewish settlers who saw the land as something that God had given them, and therefore they had a right to take land in Palestine for themselves. They told of farmers with trees ripe for harvest who were told that their land was now state land. Between the time the farmer could appeal the take over of his land and a military tribunal validated his right to it, fifteen-hundred trees ready for harvest were plowed under. As I heard those stories, I thought of the good farm people I knew in Southern MN and how angry they would be if they were aware of what the current government in Israel was doing to farmers like themselves.

I started to read Goggle’s Israeli news after the conference. I’ve learned European Jews link rising antisemitism to Israel’s treatment of people in Palestine. In February of this year, 500 rabbis protested the demolition of housing built in the West Bank by non-profits to help fill the serious housing shortage there.

I wish there were easy answers to this long and painful conflicts. The frustration of the Christian population in Palestine was easy to see and hear. I wished for them an easier life. They told us they saw themselves as a bridge, trying to pull people together. A part of the solution. They asked each of us to do whatever we can do to draw attention to the conditions under which they are living. It seems a little thing to do. To tell a story, to share an insight. To say a prayer for peace.