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Everyday Faith

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I have never been a mother. But I am a daughter and have observed my mother and I over the course of fifty-five years. As I reflect on our years, most of them spent living together, I have an appreciation of what this relationship has meant in my life. Because surely, this has been my longest relationship, and has had the greatest impact in forming who I have become.

Around three this morning, I woke thinking of how four Biblical scenes from the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, illustrate the arc of a mother’s life. I tapped a few thoughts in an email to myself and went back to sleep.

I sat with these notes this morning, considering what these moments felt like from Mary’s perspective and then imagined similar turning points during my relationship with my mother.  What could these passages in Mary’s life teach me about what it means to be a mother, to be a daughter, to live a life in full by surrendering to someone else and to God?

When we first meet Mary as a young woman, she is visited by an angel and asked if she is willing to become the mother of God. Her answer is yes. Imagine the courage of that moment. To say yes, to the unknown. To say yes to God.

Each day around the world, women make a similar yes to hope and love and possibility when they give birth to their child. No matter how difficult the circumstances there must be a moment when they gaze into the eyes of their child, still linked to their body, and see a limitless future.

My earliest memory of my mother is being held in her outstretched arms as she glided backwards in a sun-filled pool, teaching me to swim. I was ecstatic, so joyful in the sun and water and my mother’s secure hold on my three-year-old body. Her smile was the center of my universe.

In a second milestone of Mary’s life, Mary and Joseph and twelve-year-old Jesus, have traveled to Jerusalem. On their way home, Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus is not with them. They return to Jerusalem and discover him in the temple, sitting among the religious teachers, listening and asking questions. From a Biblical perspective, this moment is meant to provide the first glimpse of who Jesus truly is. But let’s consider this scene from Mary’s perspective. Perhaps this is the instant when she first experiences her child’s independence, his identity apart from her.

I imagine most mothers might wince as they recall what this age foretold in the life of their child. Instead of calmly sitting with religious leaders, their child began to show the first signs of rebellion. This is the moment when mother and child instinctively acknowledge that for personal growth to begin they must grow into their differences.

At the age of twelve, I stopped speaking to my mother. I became a sullen child certain that no one understood me. I wanted to be everywhere but home. And when I was home, I was in my room with the door closed. I became by turns, emotionally isolated from my family, wildly extroverted with my swim teammates, and terribly selfish in what I needed to fill my loneliness.

In the third scene from Mary’s life, she attends a wedding with her son, Jesus. The host of the wedding runs out of wine and Mary asks Jesus to intervene. Like most young adults who are asked by their parents in public to do anything, Jesus at first says no. Then, like most young adults, after he has asserted his independence, he turns around and does as his mother has asked.

When I left college, I went to work in New York. My mother and I were still barely speaking, but it was agreed that I would come home once a year at Christmas. One year, after a particularly painful phone call, I told my mother I would not be coming home for Christmas and hung up the phone. I wanted to assert my independence. And I wanted my mother to know how my heart was hurt, by hurting her with my absence. It only took me a few days to call back and reschedule my visit. It was a turning point in which I knew that no matter what physical and emotional distance separated us, there was a bond of love beneath that I could not bear to lose.

Where do we go from here?

In the final scene in Mary’s life, we find her weeping at the foot of the cross as her son, Jesus, is crucified for our sins. We are taught about God’s love for us, about a child’s love for his mother, and a mother’s love for her child. In his final moments, Jesus expresses his love for his mother by instructing one of his disciples to care for her. And what must she be thinking in this moment? Does her entire life with Jesus flash before mind’s eye, joy and sorrow tumbled together?

Mom and I lived together for twenty years after my father passed. We were both adults, my mother was in fact retired. Over time, we learned to put away our swords, those words we knew pierced the heart the deepest. In their place, we came to respect each other as women, and then we learned to love each other as mother and daughter.

The final scene in the Biblical life of Mary and Jesus is about the many layers and meanings of love. This final season in the life of my mother and I, is about learning to love one another despite years of separation and recrimination and second guessing about what we could have done better. I would not trade a single moment of our journey together. Because it brought us here.

I love my mother more than I ever dreamed possible. Not because either one of us is perfect. But because we love each other while embracing our imperfections. Because we understand that these are the very things that have taught us that the gift of pain is humility. The gift of humility is the ability to be less, so we can give more. To experience heartbreak so we can fathom the suffering of someone else. Because of our jagged history, we are better able to be who we were meant to be and to serve God as he would want us to do.

I always thought of the Last Supper as a somber event because it is the last supper of Jesus before he was arrested, tried, and crucified. But what I overlooked was that what we honor as the Last Supper was also the celebration of Passover, which is not a somber event, but a cause for celebration, a time to remember and give thanks for God’s deliverance of the Jewish people after years of slavery.

I attended my first Passover Seder on Tuesday, thanks to the kindness of Jonathan and Susan Knopf, and the Synagogue of the Summit. The Seder was led by Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb and took place at the Senior Center. By my rough approximation, there were at least 150 people, families young and old, friends, and guests. It was anything but somber. As would be expected for an event remembering God’s deliverance of a people from slavery, it was a joyous event. And I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to experience it.

But it also got me thinking about another Passover dinner, two thousand years ago. What I have always thought of as a sad event, because Jesus knew what faced him, was by Jewish tradition a night of thanksgiving for God’s goodness. I tried to imagine what it must have been like at the final Passover feast for Jesus and his disciples.

Instead of breaking the unleavened bread to remember God’s provision during the Jews’ quick flight from Egypt, Jesus’ asked his disciples to accept this bread as his body, given up for them. And the wine they consumed would become the blood of the new sacrificial lamb of God. The blood that was shed for all of us.

Wondering about Jesus’ final Passover supper sent me to the Gospel of Saint John. In Chapters 13-17, I read how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples as an example of how we should serve others with love and humility. Afterward, as it finally dawned on the disciples that this would be the last night they would share with Jesus, he offers them consolation. In a soliloquy that is the longest passage of Jesus’ speaking in this gospel, he tells them over and over of how much he loves them, of his inseparability from God, and tells them that he will not leave them alone, but send the Holy Spirit to console them.

“I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Live within my love. When you obey me you are living in my love, just as I obey my Father and live in his love. I have told you this so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your cup of joy will overflow! I demand that you love each other as much as I love you.” (St. John 15:9-11)

After attending my first Passover Seder, I am grateful for the Jewish heritage of my beliefs. I am grateful for the way in which God, in his wisdom and eye for beauty, wove together a tapestry of history and miracles that would link us forever in admiration and respect. Our Christian faith does not exist without the first covenant given to the Jewish people, or the Christ child born to a Jewish couple.

From today, I will view the Last Supper as a very special Passover feast. A second Passover, in which God once again redeemed, freed, and delivered us. Not from a physical slavery, but from a slavery to the sin which separated us from God. Jesus became the Paschal lamb who took away the sins of the world, his death became that holy sacrifice of the unblemished lamb. Therefore, Holy Thursday and Good Friday are solemn: When we see the altar stripped, and sit in that unholy silence of a world in which Jesus is dead, we feel a desperate longing for him.

When Jesus Christ rose from the dead, on Easter morning, he fulfilled the Old Testament requirements of a prophesied Messiah. Not one who came to rule a nation, but one befitting of the Son of God, who came to save the world.

I am sometimes asked how I can believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that this is my chosen religion among so many others. It is because I see in Jesus someone who taught us to be our best selves. He taught us to love God, to love one another, to serve rather than to be served. Yes, I believe it all. His birth to the Virgin Mary, his miracles, his crucifixion and resurrection. I believe he is the Son of God, one part of the Holy Trinity. But what compels my love for him is his goodness, his love for each of us, no matter how undeserving we are, his love endures.

I am grateful for the Jewish heritage of my beliefs and the opportunity to participate in my first Passover Seder. I am grateful for another Easter to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Savior.

 

I stand in the entrance and look at the empty sanctuary, the images of Jesus and Mary are draped with purple cloth. Even now, before Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week, an atmosphere of reverence has entered the church without notice, because no invitation is needed.

Although the coming week will find me in church nearly every day, I long to be there, not to miss a moment although I have attended these same services for years. The days of this week will be filled with sorrow, passion, and suffering but with equal measures of love and gratitude. This week is the reason for our faith, in God, in Christ, and the basis for our hope in ‘things unseen’.

We know there is a history-changing triumphant ending only seven days away. We will travel with Jesus, entering Jerusalem hailed as a king. But what awaits are not banquets fit for royalty, but a humble Passover dinner in which bread and wine will be consecrated and become the body and blood of our Savior.

Instead of a crown of gold and precious gems, our Lord will be crowned with thorns that pierce his skin. He will be beaten until his body is covered not with royal robes, but with the outpouring of his love for us.

At the start of the week crowds line the streets shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!”.  By the end of the week, when given the opportunity to save Jesus’ life, they will call for his crucifixion. So unreliable are we, it is a miracle that God would love us in spite of ourselves.

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”

From king to crucifixion these seven days are the holiest days of our liturgical calendar, filled with sorrow for the suffering that Christ endured. Yet, they are the most precious seven days. A time when we feel suffused in the significance of our Christian faith and what it means to be loved by God.

There is a moment, after the Last Supper is honored on Holy Thursday, when the altar is stripped bare, when the Holy Sacrament has been taken from its place and moved to another room, when I have the feeling of what it would be like if Christ had never come into the world. The desolation is overwhelming. I understand how darkens pervades the world without the presence of Christ and how apt the name ‘light of the world’ is for him. Later I will sit with others where the Blessed Sacrament has been placed and feel as if we are keeping Jesus company as his disciples were asked to keep vigil during his sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane.

I stand ready to walk with my savior to the cross, though I will only be a witness to his suffering and though my love for him is a pale reflection of his love for me, still my heart aches at the thought of what he endured on my behalf, on our behalf.

But because of his sacrifice, I can come into this church and sit in the quiet and be present with him. This week is about sacrifice, about laying down one’s life for another, about a father who loved his children so much that he sent his only son to die for us. Which is why this week is about love, God’s love for us, and our love given back to him.

I want to sit alone in this empty church and soak in God’s love and reflect it back to him. But Jesus has called me and you and each of us to do more with this powerful gift we have received.

Christ’s death and resurrection was not the end of his mission. I believe he meant it to be the beginning of a journey in which we experience and share an active loving relationship with God with the world.  When we listen to someone in need, we become the ears and heart of Christ. When we speak to a person who lives in isolation, we become the bearer of Christ’s love. When we take meals to the hungry, we share Jesus’ miracle of feeding the five thousand. When we serve in our church and our community, we carry God’s message to people who might not otherwise receive it.

During Holy Week spend quiet time with Jesus, reflect on his sacrifice with love and gratitude. And then ask how we can work with him, to grow in our relationship with him, and share the love of that relationship with others in our community.

 

 

 

 

Like resolute hikers, we move into the mid-point of our Lenten journey and deep enough into the woods to wonder why we started. Perhaps we have even forgotten our destination.

Here, we are ‘hemmed in behind and before’ by a shadowy thicket of tree trunks. We look over our shoulder and wonder if it would be less taxing to turn back – return to the comfortable sameness of our lives.

“I gave up meat on Friday’s,” my friend said with an annoyed wave of her hand. “But I don’t really see the point.”

We are tired. But most disturbing, that curmudgeonly voice in our head tells us this journey is without meaning, representative of outdated liturgies, and a silent God. Certainly, we must turn back before we waste another minute or before evening arrives and the outstretched branches turn ominous and we lose sight of the path home.

There is a pillar of wisdom which states that what we give our attention to, grows. This applies to gardens, fear, and faith. When I volunteered to Ben that I would like to write about faith, I considered myself above average in what I knew, believed, and loved about God. Now a year of columns later, I understand how blithely naïve was that belief. But I also discovered my life’s purpose and passion. When a friend recently asked if I’d run out of topics to write about, I guffawed – yes, I guffawed – and said I’ve only begun to plumb the depths of my pursuit of God. Purpose and passion are the linchpin of any endeavor.

I would like us to pause here in our darkened woods. Not turn back, but pause and take stock. Why are we doing Lent this year? Are we moving with automaton efficiency from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday without paying attention?

Purpose is the attention we must pay. As we pause on the trail, let’s be very brave and ask why for that matter, we attend church each Sunday? Is it an obligation we fulfill and then like getting the car washed, tick it off our list of things to do?

If you are sleepwalking through the forest of your faith, stop. Now. It’s not too late give meaning to this expedition. But you must act on your own behalf, you must consider: what is the point?

Because in the dark woods we stand on sacred ground. This barren wasteland in our Lenten journey is where we encounter Jesus Christ during his forty-days in the desert before he began his mission to save the world. This is where we encounter God, who loved the world so much that he sent his only son to save us. This is where we encounter the Holy Spirit who will pray on our behalf when words no longer convey our desolation.

Let’s see our Lenten journey as a miniature of a lifelong walk of faith. During Lent, we vow to walk with Jesus to the cross. To stand by his grave until his resurrection on Easter morning. But afterward with a sigh of relief, we return to our lives grateful to have completed our task.

This week, let’s take thirty minutes to sit quietly with God. Ask ourselves honestly why we go to church, what we are seeking in our relationship with God, whether we are willing to open our heart to him, if we will embrace the adventure of pursuing our faith with the passion we reserve for love and career.

Let’s resume our Lenten journey with fresh perspective. Step back onto the path with renewed vigor. Before we imagined ourselves accompanying Christ like obedient disciples, now let us see Christ walking by our side – but not for a season. Through the sun-dappled forest, we understand this is not Lent, this is life. We are no longer alone, we walk with God with purpose and passion.