Tenebrae

Tonight I attended my first “Tenebrae” service, held at Resurrection’s mother church, Trinity Anglican in Marysville. Tenebrae is Latin for “into the shadows.” The service is intended to recreate the emotional aspects of Christ’s betrayal, abandonment, and the agony of his crucifixion. The heart of the service takes place toward the end, when candles are lit to coincide with a number of Passion narratives recited by different readers. After each narrative, the reader goes up to a table full of candles and extinguishes one. Thus, one by one all of the candles are smothered, until the Scripture passage (John 19:31-42) where Christ is put into the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and the room goes completely dark.

Dramatic? Absolutely. Some might say overly, unnecessarily so. Christ has risen! Why dwell on the sadness of the crucifixion? I think Ken Collins (www.kencollins.com) puts it well: “If you see only the happy ending of a movie, everyone who saw it from the start is elated, but you go away saying, ‘So they were all hugging each other? So what?’ But if you see the beginning and the middle part, with all the suspense and grief, you understand what the characters overcame, and the happy ending is all the happier. So to me, attending the Easter service without attending the Holy Week services is like watching the happy ending of the movie without seeing the middle—you only rob yourself of joy.”

But there is something else. The whole purpose of Lent is to try in some way to relate to Christ’s suffering and death in order to understand the depths to which God went to secure our redemption. The price was enormous, but if we never think about it, we may miss it. In Philippians 3:10, Paul states that there is value in knowing Christ, “—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” But again, if we never think about Christ’s sufferings, the value that God places on empathizing with Christ and his agony is completely lost on us. Even more so what it means to become “like Him” in death.

One particular Lent, spring was late in coming. There was still plenty of snow in the high country (like this year), and I went snowshoeing with a friend around Ice House Lake. At the turn-around point we sat down on top of boulders to rest; and being thirsty, I drank all of my water. Hiking back, I began to get dehydrated. Then I got really thirsty. Not good. I looked around at all of the snow surrounding me and practically drooled in my panic, knowing that I shouldn’t take even one bite of the white stuff (eating snow would only make the dehydration worse).

Driving home that day I thought about John 19:28, where Jesus makes the statement, “I thirst.” The Roman soldiers responded by filling a sponge with water and vinegar and lifting it to Jesus’s lips on a stick of some sort for him to suck some of the liquid out of the sponge. I thought I knew what real thirst was after my face-off with dehydration.

But tonight, another image came to me that brought Jesus’s agony into sharp focus. As I listened to the reader retell this part of Christ’s suffering on the cross, I was reminded of my dear husband mere hours before his own death last year, looking at me intently (he was unable to speak) and smacking his dried cracked lips. He hadn’t had anything to drink in nearly three weeks and he was absolutely desperate for water.

In a completely inadequate effort to relieve his distress, I was allowed to dip a sponge-on-a-stick into a cup of ice chips and rub it onto his lips. He wasn’t supposed to drink any of the water, yet he would take the sponge into his mouth and suck out whatever moisture could be found there. My heart broke into millions of pieces witnessing him suffer so.

Remembering this horrific episode tonight, a guttural sound I didn’t know I was capable of making escaped my lips, as I realized how fiercely thirsty my Lord Jesus must have been. True empathy was born in my heart at that moment. At least, as much as is possible for a very fortunate American Christian such as I, who has never known anything of real suffering on Jesus’s behalf.

It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how this knowledge, this participation, deepens one’s faith. How so? Threefold, at least: 1) it deepens my appreciation for what Christ suffered on my behalf; 2) it nurtures gratitude for God’s great gift of salvation through the forgiveness of sins…my sins (read Luke 7:36-50); and 3) it makes me a better witness for Christ, as I am now able to identify for others the lengths to which God went to save them, as well.

The Tenebrae service ends with a bare altar in near complete darkness. In the silence I could hear the sighs and sniffles of my fellow “participants” in Christ’s passion…many moved, just as I was. With no benediction to mark the dismissal, we were free to leave the sanctuary at our leisure, musing, and looking forward to Easter when we can say (with renewed and grateful hearts), “Alleluia! Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!”

Ash Wednesday 2017

“You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.”
—Psalm 77:4-5

In fall of 2015 I embarked on an eight month journey through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which begins with an examination of sin. As I progressed through the weeks it felt as if God were propping my eyes open, encouraging me to peer into my past and all the ways I had wronged him by what I had done and left undone. I had been warned that this would be a challenging point in the Exercises, yet there was no way to prepare for the barrage of emotions that came. Sometimes there was a flood of tears as I considered episodes in my life that I had never tried to view from God’s perspective before. Other times my eyes were dry, devoid of feeling. Just as Keith Green sang in the 1970s, my heart was hard and my prayers were cold.

For the first time I understood Jeremiah’s description of Judah, whose people had eyes but did not see, and ears but did not hear (Jer 5:21). I had been living in ignorance, and perfectly content to do so (vs. 31).

But no more. Jesus often told the crowds following him, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” I wanted to be a hearer, an obedient servant. Jesus taught many lessons, of course, but none so important as the one recapped by Paul:

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are
justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in
Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood,
to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness,
because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”
—Romans 3:23-25

God passed over former sins. My sins. Like two sides of a coin, God calls me to be honest about my sins—past and present—while at the same time extending his completely unmerited favor (grace). This is the gift of God; this is the gift of Lent. And what a gift it is…today and always!

And God Said: Listen Up!

Every year at Lent I pray about what I need to do, not do, give up or take on.  Of course a person can do a bit of soul-searching any time of year, but given Lent’s significance in Church history, there is something special about participating with other Christians around the world, past and present, who also set aside the Lenten season for a private time of reflection.

For me Lent is a time to root out the clutter in my life…the stuff – be it material or spiritual – that is in the way of God’s desire to be known and my ability to grasp that He is always with me.  My heart and mind packed to the gills, there is no space for the presence of the Most High to reverberate within.  So Lent is my time to “declutter,” or pay special attention to inner junk and find ways to eliminate it so that I can hear God more fully.  I think this is in part the lesson Jesus hoped to impart each time He said:

“Take heed what you hear,” and “To him who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

In other words, Listen up!

My ability to hear is very definitely tied to my desire and willingness to listen, to make room in my inner life for growth, and that’s where my yearly Lenten “declutter” comes into play.  Here’s an example:

One year I felt the need to give up my (then) once-weekly Starbucks “grandé decaf mocha, no whip.”  I wasn’t really sure why and I felt it would be easy enough to do, but even seemingly innocuous habits can be hard to break.  Within days I began feeling withdrawal pangs and a strong sense of deprivation!  As silly as it sounds, the anxiety over my missed weekly mocha didn’t fully disappear until Lent was almost over.  But by then I had learned something about attachments, and had begun paying attention to what was at the root of that soothing cup of chocolaty Joe.  It was great freedom for me to permanently say “no” to that weekly habit, which left a bit more inner space to say “yes” to God’s still small voice and the accompanying love that filled the need I didn’t realize I had.

This year, for the first time, I felt God asking me to pay attention not to some material thing or activity, but to my critical spirit.  I know this will surprise some of you who think I am perpetually as sweet as pumpkin pie, but I have a judgmental streak that is ugly to say the least.  When I realized this was my Lenten focus, I really, really struggled to begin.  Not because I didn’t think it was necessary; I knew it was (read my blog post: http://www.denisemariesiino.com/2014/12/lovin-into-the-kingdom/).  But I also knew it was going to be no small or easy task.  Not only was God asking me to keep my lips zipped…He was also asking me to immediately release every critical or judgmental thought the moment it struck my mind.  Wow.

Suddenly but not surprisingly, many, MANY opportunities cropped up to criticize others.  Then as an extra boost, I needed, for work, to spend a full day with someone who thought it was her job to tell everyone what they were doing wrong, to their face and behind their back, and as God would have it, I knew what I was seeing was a reflection of myself.  Point made.

I know this will be a lifelong lesson, but I’m already experiencing the benefits of giving up this weight of judgmentalism that is not mine to bear.  With each lumbering step in a more gracious direction, my heart is lighter as I hear God whisper softly to me (with my decluttered spiritual ears!): Give generously, gently and gratefully to others, and in like manner it will be given to you—in good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

Standing for Christ

I listened with great sadness to last week’s news about the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS in Libya.  While I have not tracked all of the “public” murders ISIS has performed in the past, it seems that – besides punishment for unpaid ransoms – they often target journalists and unsuspecting aid workers, and direct their brutality toward entities and governments that cherish free speech, which, along with freedom of religion, is contrary to ISIS’ beliefs.  This public beheading specifically targeted members of the Coptic Orthodox church—the predominant Christian church among Egyptians who professes faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

I worked for a Coptic Christian while living in Orange County, and visited the local Coptic Orthodox church a few times.  This faith tradition with its chanting, incense, icons, etc., can seem foreign, even pagan to members of evangelical churches across America.  Yes, Coptic Orthodox churches around the world – along with Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, even some Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches (among others) – can look different due to their varying focuses on peripheral practices and traditions, but their core beliefs are the same.  Just like Baptist and other evangelical churches across America, these churches’ central figure is God’s son Jesus Christ, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, led a sinless life yet died for the sake of sinful mankind, and was resurrected on the third day to take away the sins of the world.

For a long time I have felt a calling in my life’s work to help bridge the gap between the more acceptable (by evangelical American standards) forms of Christian faith and practice and those denominations that seem on the periphery.  If you have done much traveling in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, even South America, you know that the conventional evangelical church as we know it is more “Americanized” than we might want to admit.  When we reach heaven, we will be rubbing shoulders and entwining hands in worship with people in different garb, with different accents and different ideas about worship than we might feel comfortable with.  The book of Revelations even refers to incense in heaven!  So who are we to judge these Christ-followers just because they practice their faith differently than we do?  In this age of Christian persecution, we cannot afford to isolate ourselves from our brothers and sisters in Christ.

My feelings about this issue were birthed slowly, after interviewing Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand (founders of Voice of the Martyrs, an organization that serves the persecuted church worldwide, www.persecuted.com) in the 1990s.  I will never forget Sabina’s retelling of the story of how her husband Richard got to be in the Communist spotlight that led to his arrest and 14-year imprisonment for his faith in Christ.

The year was 1946 and the new Communist leadership in Romania called for a gathering of delegates from every religion and confession in Romania.  The convention opened with a speech by the new premier, Petru Groza, who avowed in his most convincing manner that the new Romanian government was in favor of faith.  But the Wurmbrands soon concluded that this was a farce.  Nevertheless, one by one, delegates from a wide variety of faith traditions stood up at microphones and gave the government authorities what they wanted to hear.

Sabina turned to Richard and said:  “Will you not wash this shame from the face of Christ?”

“If I speak,” Richard responded, “you will lose a husband.”

“I don’t need a coward for a husband,” Sabina replied.

Richard stood up to the microphone and presented a short speech saying that everyone present should “praise and glorify God the Creator and Christ the Savior, who died on the cross for all.”  Very soon he was arrested, and his torture began.

Seeing the video last week of those 21 Coptic Christians marching to their death, Sabina’s words rang as true as ever in my mind.  These brave men could have changed their profession of faith and saved their hides, but instead they held fast to their Christian confession and suffered the consequences.

What is our responsibility in all of this?  New Testament writers such as Peter and Paul wrote about partaking in the sufferings of Christ…in this case, acknowledging and sharing in the heartbreak of these men’s stories as if they were our own, and lifting their families and communities up in prayer, along with financial support if feasible.  Also I think these stories are a clarion call to us to consider how we might stand firm for Christ in our own circumstances.  Just as Richard Wurmbrand often speculated (before the event above) whether or not he would remain true to Christ under pressure, so we must cry out to God daily for the strength and courage we need to stand up for Christ with every opportunity that presents itself.

Atonement

Have you ever read the book of Leviticus?  All those “offerings” (burnt offering, sin offering, trespass offering, etc.) sound bloody and cold.  Even though there are several names for these different offerings, they all boil down to “sin”…that ugly archaic 3-letter word that has no place in a modern society.  Or if it does it should be like the Scarlet Letter, attached to garb worn by murderers and child molesters and senior citizen embezzlers.  I look pretty good in comparison…no need for blood splattered on me, thank you very much.

But then again.

Thanks to the miracle of Facebook technology, I recently came across an old friend from eons ago.  A past existence.  He was a mere teen then, but his life was already being stripped and scarred by the devastation of his circumstances.  Just like Paul said in Romans 8:22, his life already groaned under the weight of sin.  That was then.  Now…a train wreck.  Rubbled ruins.  Tragedy.

Reading (in one sitting) this man’s posts over the course of several months, the truth dawned on me.  Not like a sunbeam, fresh and white and beautiful, but terrible like a gleaming dagger whose blade has caught the pale light of a blood moon.  Sin is not some choice only the wicked have embraced.  Sin is a cancer that eats ALL bone and flesh.  My old friend has it…a good man caught in the grips of something distorting and sad.  I want to say I have no part in his beleaguered story, but maybe I do, the way the past played out.  Surely I do in the sense that this cancer is present at birth.  A defect passed through the spiritual DNA.  A legacy I do not want but which followed me through the birth canal nevertheless.  I cannot escape it (more accurately, I have not escaped it), and neither can or have or will you.

What is the remedy to sin?  Atonement, the old-fashioned kind.  The blood of a lamb.  Moses understood this when God explained to him what all those sin offerings were for (the instructions of which Moses so carefully inscribed in Leviticus).  John the Baptist understood this when he looked at Jesus – God’s Messiah – and proclaimed, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, begins at sunset this coming Friday.  A day I respect as the foreshadowing of the once-and-for-all sacrifice Jesus would make for me—to cleanse me of sin and rid me of the cancer that eats me alive.

You don’t have to be Jewish to take part in God’s great Day of Atonement, which we Christians claim as Good Friday, the day Christ died to take away the sins of the world.  Just come before the living Lamb of God at the altar of your heart, bow your head and confess your sin, so that He can cleanse you and make you whole.

See you at the altar.

Christ has risen…He has risen indeed!!!

Christ has risen…He has risen indeed!

This declaration and response resounds throughout Christendom on Easter Sunday…a day I look forward to each year.  While the Christmas season holds special meaning for Christians worldwide, Jesus did not ask us to remember His birth.  But He did ask us to remember His death, burial and resurrection, which we do in Communion throughout the year but mostly in the celebration of Easter.

One Christian practice (usually honored in liturgical churches such as Presbyterian and Lutheran as well as Episcopal and Catholic) that I have grown fond of is the observation of the “Triduum,” or “Three Days,” a period that begins on Maundy Thursday evening (typically with Communion) and ends on Easter Sunday.  While the Triduum is admittedly a “manmade” tradition, it is one that has served me well over the years, posing as a “comma in time” to help me pause and reflect in a very intentional manner on Christ’s sacrifice for me.

Maundy Thursday.  Christians celebrate Communion often throughout the year in remembrance of Jesus (“Do this in remembrance of Me,” Jesus said, Luke 22:19.)  While it is always a special time, to celebrate Communion on Maundy Thursday evening is unique in that it is a time set apart to specifically remember the Passover “Last Supper” Jesus had with his disciples.  A time to recall His final declaration of His pending betrayal and death, given just hours before his arrest.  A time to remember that “He loved [the disciples] to the end” (John 13:1) as He washed their feet, rather than focusing on His own immediate needs.  A time to recall that He was in fact the Passover Lamb of God “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), as John the Baptist had stated three years before.

Good Friday.  As a young person unconnected to the Church, I did not understand why a day when someone died would be called “good.”  But as a Christ follower I understand the redemption purpose Jesus fulfilled by submitting Himself to death (and what a brutal death it was!).  Now, along with fellow Christians around the world, I humbly and gratefully appreciate that Jesus did in fact die on that cross.  Indeed, for me and my salvation, THAT Friday was very “good” and today I honor it in remembrance.

Holy Saturday.  While part of the Triduum, Holy Saturday is a day in the background of the Easter story.  Reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and burial on Friday and resurrection sometime early Easter (Sunday) morn, it is easy to forget that for a full day – Saturday – Jesus’ body lay in the tomb.  He was not “in a coma” or “asleep” as some resurrection debunkers claim…His body was dead and buried.  According to the Apostles’ Creed, Saturday was not silent for Jesus…based on Acts 2:31, Ephesians 4:8-10 and 1 Peter chapters 3 and 4, the Creed professes that Christ spent that day in “Hades” (hell), declaring the Good News to the prisoners there.

Easter Sunday.  My favorite Easter story was told on Easter morning by a previous pastor who had a friend who was a Catholic priest.  During a children’s sermon one Easter, a little girl could not contain herself and interrupted the priest’s story time by waving her hand wildly in the air.  Impossible to ignore, the priest called on her.

“I know what Jesus’ first words were when He came out of the tomb,” the little girl said.

Surprised, the priest replied, “You do?  What did He say?”

The little girl, who had been seated on a pew in front of the priest, suddenly jumped up and thrust her hands into the air, calling out, “TA-DA!!!”

This Easter, may you cry out with all the enthusiasm of a child: “Christ has risen!” And may the response fill your ears: “He has risen indeed!”

Identity

Who am I?  First off, I am a wife and a mother—those are extremely important roles to me.  I am a writer and editor by vocation, both as a career as well as what I perceive to be my life’s calling.  I am a classical guitar player and knitter who loves the outdoors.  But do these things really define who I am?  If I never married, never had children, never had the opportunity to go to college or work in an “educated” profession, never learned how to play guitar, scuba dive or sail as a teenage girl…who would I be then?  Perhaps I would still be a knitter, but otherwise my life would look completely different.  So there must be more to the question.

I just came across an NPR story written last November about a Japanese man who learned at age 60 that he had been switched at birth.  Having been raised by a single mother in a 100 square foot apartment, he was actually the son of very wealthy parents.  Without the benefit of higher education, he made his living as a truck driver.  His “counterpart” on the other hand – the baby he was accidentally switched with by a nurse in the hospital – while born to a poor woman, has lived a life of privilege and was, at the moment of discovery, the president of a successful real estate company.

This story reveals the double-edged sword called identity.  While it appears that the anonymous Japanese truck driver was (from of the verb “to be”) merely a product of his circumstances, it also illustrates that he was so much more, though he didn’t know it.  What a difference knowing one’s identity makes!

As a Christ-follower, I believe my identity is rooted in the book of Genesis when Creator-God breathed life into a pile of dust that became the first human.  Adam and his wife Eve were made in the image of their Creator and thus perfect in every way, including their spiritual perception and ability to commune with God.  At least at first.  For a while they lived intimately connected with God as well as the wonderful world that was under their stewardship.  But you know the rest of that story…Adam and Eve fell from grace, and none of us have been the same since.

I mention the creation story because in this season of Lent, we would do well to spend some time remembering and reflecting on our true identity and “Who” it comes from.  Jesus did this, I am convinced, as he spent 40 days in the wilderness tempted by Satan.  His utter assurance of His identity, and clear understanding of who His Father was, were key to His victory over temptation and readiness for the mission that lay ahead.

Isn’t this something that all Christ-followers desire?  And how does Lent play into the picture?  I believe Lent – the custom of approximating in our own lives Jesus’ 40-day wilderness experience of temptation and preparation – has great value.  As we focus on our deep inner longing for God’s touch in our daily experience, the need for greater concentration on our spiritual existence (our souls) through practices such as prayer, Scripture meditation, fasting, etc. becomes apparent.

The New Testament tells us that all Christ-followers are children of the living God (John 1:12-13).  Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead were God’s way of redeeming the fatal mistake made by Adam and Eve, under whose curse the world and its inhabitants have been living since their crushing fall…His way of re-creating the Earth and the heavens – and yes, all of us – so that we can once again experience the wonder of Eden as it was originally intended—forever.

As Easter approaches, take some time to consider your identity.  No matter what the circumstances of your birth, if you are a Christ-follower you are the son or daughter of the greatest King who ever walked the Earth (Genesis 3:8, John 12:12-13), the Lord God Almighty.  And that’s an inheritance worth singing about.