Arms Open On the Cross

Easter Sunday dinner at Joy’s and Tim’s house. We listened to the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar. My older sister loved the film when I was a young adolescent. I came of age with those songs ringing in my ears. Now I heard them again, particularly Jesus’ lament in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“I only want to say
If there is a way
Take this cup away from me
For I don’t want to taste its poison…”

I felt myself entering into the drama, plummeting with Jesus into the depths of despair. I felt his fatigue at the enormous amount of work he’d done in the past three years (the work of helping both my parents die?) and his uncertainty that he’d accomplished anything of note. Then his tone changed. It hardened, as he accepted the inevitability of his death and challenged God to tell him why.

“But if I die
See the saga through and do the things you ask of me
Let them hate me hit me hurt me nail me to their tree…”

I sang the words with deep abandon, stretching my arms out wider and wider with each phrase. When I felt myself as outstretched as I could possibly be, I rested there a moment. It was a moment suspended in time, a moment of pure surrender. It’s an interesting position, those arms open on the cross. It signifies both strength and vulnerability, a heart open to the joy of life and to the pain.

I thought of another instance when I had stretched out my arms in opposition. During a talk about the apostle Paul during Christian formation hour at church a few weeks ago, our rector asked us to consider the continuum between a faith grounded in tradition and one inspired by a personal intuition of God. He drew an imaginary line along the wall and asked us to point to where we fell on that continuum. I hesitated as I scanned the wall, then stretched out an arm to each corner. My faith was formed in the liturgical traditions of the Roman Catholic church. That remains important to me. Yet I’m a mystic and a religious renegade, an out-of-the-box believer in a God too big to be contained by any system of belief.

I’ve struggled this semester with another set of polarities: My deeply intuitive sense of God challenged by the academic understanding of how manmade religion is. The two kinesthetic experiences — pointing to each corner of the room, and joining Jesus in surrender on the cross — have given me an inkling of how I might reconcile those understandings. It’s not an “either/or” but an “and,” a way of holding both poles in simultaneous affirmation. Yes, religion is a humanly constructed vehicle to express our deepest longings, hopes, and fears. Yes, faith points us to something true, something so far beyond ourselves we can never reach it any other way.

I’m feeling a peace that has eluded me through these long winter months. I’ve stopped struggling to ascertain which position is correct and accepted that they all are true. I’ve joined Jesus in letting go of the need to understand, of abandoning myself to the human drama without the need to control the outcome. As Jesus says in another song earlier on the soundtrack: “To conquer death you only have to die.”

All quotes from “Jesus Christ Superstar” with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Copyright 1970, 1993: MCA Records.

At the Foot of the Cross

We read the Passion of Christ in church on Sunday — the account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, his indictment by the chief priests and the crowd, his humiliation by the Roman soldiers, his walk to Golgotha, his crucifixion and death. Our rector asked us to imagine ourselves within the story. What did we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? Which character did we identify with? He gave us time to sit with this experience in lieu of giving us a sermon, a bold and powerful move.

I found myself at the foot of the cross, one of the women weeping as I watched my friend and mentor dying a painful, humiliating death. The disappointment was palpable. What had happened to all our lofty goals? We were going to transform the world, to bring a new ethos of love and equality, to make God’s kingdom visible on earth through our radical example of trust and active caring. Jerusalem was going to listen to us the way the hill people of Galilee had done. Now this: Our dreams shattered. Our leader dying on the cross. His followers scattered in confusion and fear. A shameful, ignoble end to a bright and shining vision.

The disappointments of my own life merged with those of the woman at the foot of the cross. The disappointment of my mother’s emotional abandonment as she dealt with disappointment of her own. The disappointment when other authority figures drop the ball on their commitments. The disappointment in love, which has never been the fairy tale promised in childhood. The disappointment in not achieving success as a writer. Underneath it all, the disappointment in life. I thought it was going to be such a great adventure. Sometimes it is. But often, it’s this: A journey through a gray and broken world. People hurt you. They let you down. They die on the cross, or in their beds, or in a thousand other ways before the physical death ever comes.

What is there to hold on to?

It may be time to forgive the disappointment, to forgive the world for not being everything I wanted it to be. To forgive other people for not being perfect. To forgive God and to forgive myself. But not yet. That comes with Resurrection Sunday, when we realize there’s something beyond death on the cross. Now we don’t know anything except the bleakness of this moment, the terrible, painful loss of the ideal we have cherished.

 

Tuning the Stream

One of my neighbors has the most amazing yard, a secluded wonder of horticultural beauty. Screened by cypress and magnolia, it features an array of lovingly tended plants and the sounds of bird song, wind chimes and water. A little stream runs over rock to a tranquil pool. Walking past the other day, I saw my neighbor working in it and stopped to tell her how much I appreciate the sights and sounds.

“Oh, the sounds,” she said. “I don’t know about the sounds. I worked so hard to tune the stream, to get just the gurgling sound I wanted. But one leaf falls in it, it changes everything.”

Wow. What a story! Who would think to tune a stream? I love that my neighbor has this sensibility, that she would even consider such a thing. Maybe this is common among horticulturists; after all, they orchestrate the visual components of their gardens with equal care. It’s an enchanting idea: To tune nature the way you would an instrument. But what a job! As my neighbor found, the variables are infinite. You get it just the way you want it and something else happens.

It seems to me this is a metaphor for life. We all want to tune our streams, to make things just the way we want them to be. And then, darn it, life gets in the way. Some stray element gets into the garden, a volunteer plant, maybe, or a raucous species of bird. Even the wind brings pollens sparkling in the air. A robin’s nest tumbles to the ground. Leaves clog our artfully designed pools. Who can control all that change? We all want to, at times.

What would it be like to open ourselves to the way the stream sounds right now, without thought of how we might keep it that way? To enjoy it in its beauty and its disarray and its tumultuous, disquieting change? To discern, beneath the surface of that never-ending change, a wholeness that brings all things into harmony?

 

 

 

 

 

Seeding the Earth

I’m struggling these days, lost in a vortex of fear and doubt. God all of a sudden seems gone from my life, the constructs I’ve carried exposed as false. I’ve swung in the pendulum of faith and doubt many times. This is different. This doesn’t feel like a pendulum swing, with its concomitant swing back. This feels like a swing right off the edge of the map. I’m channeling the shock our forbears experienced when they traded an earth-based universe for one that revolves around the sun. All of a sudden my place in the center of things doesn’t seem so assured anymore. I don’t know that there’s a greater power interested in relationship with me.

I advise people to ask, to reach out to that beyond themselves and ask if it exists. Are you real, God? Is there anything there beyond my own imaginings? My therapist talks about One Mind, the collective unconscious to which we all have access. What am I accessing in this time of doubt? Where is awareness of the unified field of being I call God? Is there such a field, or is there only this, this material universe and our brief time in it?

I had a powerful dream a couple of nights after my mother died. She came walking out of the purple hills singing, sprinkling seeds across the earth. I recognized the image right away: the Corn Maiden of Southwest Indian lore, seeding the earth from a basket she carries in her arms. There was also an echo of the Narnia stories I loved as a child, where Aslan sings the world into existence. The meaning, to me, was clear. She was telling me about life, that this is what life is, that we create it from our own intentions, that we seed it with our dreams.

That’s a powerful responsibility. And amazingly freeing at the same time. The notion that we’re in charge — that we somehow partner in creating these rich, painful, beautiful lives — changes things. Yes, I’m using the word partner, because the prayer I expressed above has born fruit. I’ve connected again with a sense of Presence beyond anything we can ever put into words, a presence far beyond the fevered manipulations of our minds. It’s there, and we are part of it, and we are called to seed the earth with our collective love.

We are the final authority we seek, the meaning we are searching for. We create that meaning in our caring for one another, in the way we treat the planet and all its creatures, in our art. That which is God sings through us into creation. What are we going to create?

Closer Than You Think

I spent time recently with a group of younger women as they gathered for a monthly spirituality circle hosted at a vintage clothing boutique. I was struck by their eagerness for this kind of community, their willingness to share their hopes and fears, their generous support of one another in kind words and encouragement. There was so much positive affirmation going on that I wondered if each woman wasn’t projecting her strength and beauty onto the others, while holding her insecurities close to her breast.

One woman with a radiant smile and soft, sweet demeanor told me about the harsh self-judgment she dishes out on an ongoing basis. She yearns for an inner tranquility that eludes her, she said. She’s had tantalizing glimpses of such peace but it seems far beyond her reach. She despairs of ever crossing the gulf that separates her from what she seeks. At best, it is years and years of hard work away, she believes.

“You’re closer than you think!” I wanted to say to her, and to every woman in that group. The yearning alone means you’re on the journey. You’ve identified something you want, or something that is missing, in your everyday life. The mistake is thinking that it’s to be found outside of everyday life. We all yearn to be lifted out of our routine reality and transported to some other realm, some sphere of otherworldly perfection. The truth is that what we seek is already here. It’s inside us, available for the asking. We have to ask, though, and then we have to listen. We have to be willing to receive.

The hard work my new friend spoke of is the work of dismantling the belief systems that keep us from knowing our inner light. And it is hard work, for most of us, because we let go of those beliefs so reluctantly. “But this is who I am!” we cry. “And this is what I’m not… not good enough … not strong enough …. not worthy enough …” You fill in the blank. We fight against ourselves, refusing to accept and integrate our own strength and beauty.

Keep going! Keep questioning and seeking and expressing your desires, frustrated though they may seem. The very act of asking those questions means you have turned the key and opened the door. The fact that you are seeking means you have stepped through it. There is a very long path that lies ahead and there isn’t, at the same time. We are all on this journey together and will be as long as we live. And yet that which we seek is already here, fully present whether we know it or not.

Dare to believe that. Dare to embody the strength and beauty you long to find. Dare to take that next step, no matter how small, toward embracing your own inner wisdom and peace. You are closer than you think.

Where Mom Is

My Mom died a year ago today. I’m posting the newspaper column I wrote a few weeks later. It ran in the Religion pages of the Northwest Arkansas Media dailies on April 13, 2013.

I stood by my mother’s ashes at the front of the church, paying my respects before the service began. My aunt’s boyfriend came to stand beside me. “Where is your mother?” he asked. I proceeded to show him, lifting the cover of the stained-glass box to reveal the bag of gray ashes. I told him of the letters my sisters and I had written as we sat with her ashes that morning, love letters we had tucked into the box with her and would bury in the Catholic cemetery at noon.

“Where is your mother?” John asked again. I realized he meant something very different than the bag of charred bones on the altar. I had no conscious answer to give, but as I stood there, searching, a knowingness formed in my mind. “Everywhere,” I said. It wasn’t what I expected, but I knew it was true. “She’s in these flowers,” I elaborated, touching the white roses beside the stained glass box. “She’s in the candle light.” I gestured toward John’s chest. “She’s in you. She’s in me.”

It was time to take our seats and we did. The oddly intimate moment passed. But the gift of understanding John had opened up for me continues to reverberate. I’d struggled with my faith in the weeks before Mom’s death. What’s really there on the other side of dying? We build our mental constructs and believe we believe them, but face to face with death, we’re not nearly so sure. Was Jesus sure, as he endured his passion, that the resurrection would follow?

It’s hard now, just a few weeks after Mom’s death, to recall the sense of desolation I felt. (That’s the resurrection experience at work, I am sure.) An entry I made in my journal three days before she died gives a hint. “Have I said this is the hardest thing? It is. Why, Lord, why? Why death and sadness and suffering? There are no answers, are there? It’s just how it is.”

Father Bo talked to Mom about the afterlife in the weeks before her death. The visions of streets paved with gold and angels with harps might not literally be true, he told her. But they point us in the right direction. Heaven is so much more than we can imagine, he said. It’s the best place. I thought his explanation was sound, conjuring up a state of being as much as a tangible place. But in the last days before her death his imagery became more concrete. I imagine he was trying to comfort her with visions of things she had loved in life – swimming laps, taking walks, reading books.

They didn’t ring true to me. Those things are too much in our own image. They are what we need to leave behind. The truth, whatever it is, is far beyond what we can conceptualize. Yet there is something more. I have felt it so strongly on this side of the grave. I have to believe it’s on the other, too.

In the weeks since Mom’s death, I’ve sensed a new gentleness loose in the world. A softness, a spaciousness. It seems to me this is the essence of who she was. That her essence continues, one of the infinite shades of love. This is a new thought for me. I’ve been applying it to others who have died – my dad and his essence of freedom, my mother-in-law and her essence of welcome and hospitality. I’ve never really felt Jan’s presence since she died, but when I think of it this way, I’ve felt her plenty. I’ve channeled that energy many times. Her welcome and hospitality, poured out to me, allowed me to internalize it, to accept myself as fully as she did and offer that same welcome to others.

It’s the same with my dad’s unremitting urge toward freedom. My mom’s gentle wisdom. They live in me now. And through me — through each person whose life they touched — into the world. Outward and into the world forever. My answer to John comes back to me. Where is my mother? Everywhere.

Everywhere. Everywhere. Everywhere. Amen.

Joyful Participation

“Joyful participation in the sorrows of life.”

This Buddhist teaching is a powerful antidote to the spiritual desolation that has plagued me of late. So much in my life is up for review. I’m approaching the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death (my father died two years ago), when I left my job as a journalist to pursue seminary study. It’s been an amazing journey and I’ve loved the learning, but I can’t say it’s brought me closer to God. On the contrary, I feel alienated from my faith. The attempt to grasp the nature of God through reason alone is bound to fail, despite our long Western history of striving. The spiritual practices that have kept me grounded in a more intuitive approach have more or less fallen by the wayside. I could force myself to pick them back up but that feels artificial to me at this time. I’m wandering in a land of not knowing and I sense the need to allow myself to be there: Real faith, if it comes again, will come through letting go of what I’ve known before.

This brings me back to joyful participation in the sorrows of life, the Buddha’s prescription for meaningful living. I need a prescription to follow right now. The sorrows of life are all around us, there is no denying. In my current experience, there is this: A hospice patient dying in a nursing home, a friend facing a debilitating disease, a three-year-old nephew diagnosed with brain cancer, a teenage friend attempting suicide. All these particulars clamor for attention against the backdrop of global suffering caused by war, famine, poverty, environmental disaster, and disease.

And there is this: The flash of a red cardinal against the lingering patches of snow. My dog’s wagging excitement as I take her for a walk. Breath moving in and out of my body. The warmth of the late winter sun on my face. And this: The sweetness of the dying hospice patient’s smile. The strength with which my friend faces the diagnosis of her disease. Extended family rallying to support my nephew’s surgery. Friends and family coming together to help my teenage friend heal.

Some of the most tender moments I’ve experienced were at my Mom’s bedside during those last hard months. The dreams I had right after she died were suffused with joy. There’s something that makes life worth living, whether we know what it is or not. Sometimes it’s glimpsed the most deeply in the midst of our pain. Other times, it’s here for the taking, it we will only see.