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!

Lighting My Darkness

The last couple of mornings have been in the 30s so I’ve been building a fire in the wood stove instead of cranking up the heater. There’s something very cheery about a cozy fire heating my home as dawn creeps through the windows, plus it keeps my PG&E bill down. Out of necessity, I’m getting pretty good at this task that Jack always felt was his duty to perform. Sitting before this morning’s fire, reading, praying, and watching the rivulets of flame dance very slowly within the stove, my mind roamed back thousands of years to our spiritual forefather Abraham. For him, building a fire meant warmth, a hot meal, safety, light for early morning and evening tasks, and a sense of “home” for the wandering vagabond who left the land of his fathers for a place he knew nothing about.

For nearly 48 years, I lived with light at the flick of a switch, bright street lamps lighting my way on the highways and byways, and shopping areas so well lit at night the sun might as well have been shining in the heavens. Certainly there was no hope of seeing the stars overhead. Out here in rural Placerville the nights are black unless the moon is up, and with the frequent power outages (two so far since fall began), even the indoors can look like pitch.

It took a long time after our move for me to get used to this level of outdoor darkness but now I enjoy it. There is a unique silence to a black sky filled with stars that transcends my fear of the night. Indoors is a different story, however. When the power goes off, or even when simply making a trip to the frig for cold water in the middle of the night, I want a nightlight, flashlight, or candlelight to pierce the darkness and illumine my way. Why is that?

There is a metaphor here that I didn’t know existed before Jack died. While my soul mate was alive, he was my strength and security in ways unrelated to his waning physical strength. He was my unwavering rock, my solid foundation. If you’ve ever lost a loved one you know that when they die, the inner space they inhabited is irrevocably vacated. Nowadays, when my interior is dim (faint, shadowy), the lions roar in their cages and there is a great deal of room for rumbling trepidation.

Staring into the dancing firelight, an “Aha moment” emerged. While my spiritual foundation has been Christ for many years, Christ has not been the solid rock undergirding my day-to-day existence. Just as important to this realization was the immediate movement from head to heart and soul of what it means to be a temple where the Holy Spirit dwells (1 Cor 3:16). Didn’t God reveal Himself in myriad times and ways through fire? The burning bush…the fire by night guiding Moses and his throng through the wilderness…the licks of fire alighting overtop people’s heads on Pentecost…. Isn’t that same flame indwelling me?

I have no doubt that in the days and weeks ahead, I will continue to face my inner darkness and the lions that dwell there. (Don’t we all have a beast or two, pinned up in our innermost being?) Sometimes I sense they are lunging against their restraints to seize the void that Jack once occupied. Not going to happen! The empty spaces within will be filled instead with my ever-present savior, friend and brother, Christ Jesus the Lord. How do I know this? Because GREAT is He who is within me.

To Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!”  —Jude 24-25

Serenade

This is my first blog post since writing “Farewell to Jack, aka Lucky Girl” back in July. I have had many thoughts to share, but each time I took a step toward writing a new post my heart would not let me proceed. As I write this I wonder if I’ll have the courage to hit “Publish.” If you’re reading it now, you know the answer.

My beloved husband of nearly 24 years died on June 27. By mid-July I was still sobbing a good part of each day, and I knew I had to do something to help myself feel better. One of the things I looked forward to with our new dog Dixie (rescued this past March) was going for local hikes, which we had not been able to do with Jack’s critical situation. It was time to start a new habit.

The first place we went after making this decision was a place called Cedar Park Trails, a system of trails meandering through many acres of the El Dorado National Forest along Sly Park Road. It was a weekday, and not long after entering the trail I heard music. I stopped and let Dixie sniff around the base of a giant oak tree snag while I listened. At first it sounded like an orchestra tuning, followed moments later by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

Music in the middle of the forest!? I felt like I was in a dream, or maybe a movie. Particularly because a couple of my classical guitar friends played “Ode to Joy” at Jack’s and my wedding. Surely this was one of the most bizarre, most rapturous moments of my life. Before I knew what I was doing, my arms were up in the air and I was twirling slowly in place. If anyone saw me I didn’t care…the experience was pure euphoria.

As the dream-like quality wore off, I listened intently. No it was not my imagination, there really was an orchestra playing, and its music surrounded me. With no evidence to the contrary, I believed a heavenly orchestra was serenading me. Suddenly, a verse flooded my mind:

For the LORD your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.    —Zeph 3:17 (NLT)

I heard music three more times in July and August, sometimes riotous, sometimes melodic. At last Dixie and I went in search of the sound, crossing Sly Park Road and following horns and strings into a camp adjacent to a fire station and the EID water treatment plant. Aha, Sugarloaf Fine Arts Camp! When did it move west from Kyburz to this location?

But do you know what? I still feel like I have been serenaded by God and His angelic orchestra rather than a group of school-age boys and girls. God knew I would be there at just the right moment to hear “Ode to Joy,” and He knew the significance of that particular piece of music. He knew I needed my spirits lifted. He knew the music would carry me through weeks of difficulty.

And do you know what else? I’ve come to believe that God serenades us a lot more frequently than we realize. And we’ll hear it, if we will but listen.

Farewell to Jack, aka “Lucky Girl”

Lucky Girl

I knew the first time you held my hand,
walking past window displays in Naples and seeing our reflection in the glass
– the difference in our ages blustered away in the sea breeze –
that the spark between us was not a passing fancy.

 

When “Longer” played on the radio, when we danced to Ann Murray
or crooned like gooney birds to Kenny and Dolly,
the fabric of our hearts began to weave inseparably together and I said to myself:
“I am a lucky girl.”

Murphy Jones and Emma Moriarty, Harry Burns and Sally Albright,
Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox.
Silly characters in which we saw ourselves—
our own lives juxtapositioning similar to theirs and finding that we, too,
harmonized.

Because of you I fell in love with the outdoors, where fishing and knitting made
amiable companions for two people who enjoyed long stretches of silence…
together.

I liked street rods; you liked classics.
(To me, classic cars are street rods without their make-up.)
We admired both at car meets…another commonality of our friendship.
And I thought once again, “I am a lucky girl.”

Fords, Chevys, Chryslers, Cords, Packards, Pontiacs,
Olds, Willys, Duesies, Dodges, DeSotos, Buicks, Nashes,
Studebakers, Mercuries, Caddys, Chalmers…need I go on?
You set out to teach me to identify each by its signature ornament—
a feat I never mastered.
I set out to teach you appreciation for Steinbeck, classical guitar and fine food.
A fair trade-off, you agreed.

We always had fun, but what drew me to you most was your inner character.
Public or private, it never wavered.
Gentle man you were, quiet, thoughtful, always a smile tickling your insides.
In tune with nature, in sync with life, more serene than most men, even as your
book of years slowly leafed toward its conclusion.

For the past twenty you’ve been like a cat with nine lives, cheating death with
a wink and a nod.
Then one day – all at once, it seemed – the binding cracked and pages loosened
irreparably.
Your spirit reached a turning point then, and sought its true home.

Lying in that hospital bed, just hours before you slipped into final slumber,
you pulled me toward you, steadfastly bestowing dozens and dozens,
and dozens of kisses.
“Goodbye, goodbye, my love!”
How my heart sobbed and wrenched in anguish as I realized
the truth you were imparting.

Today I sit with pen in hand, writing these words of parting to you, sweet husband.
I feel not a widow but a married woman, still in love, for the last time in my life.

“I am, indeed, a lucky girl.”

 

© Denise Marie Siino, 2016

About the Resurrection

“You have been saved by grace alone through faith…” (Eph 2:8).

Faith in what?, some might ask. Faith in the Easter story—that Jesus died to pay the penalty for my sins, and most importantly, that He was resurrected from the dead. Those italicized words aren’t mine…in 1 Cor 15 Paul stated that if the resurrection is not true, Christianity is a farce and we Christians are to be pitied more than anyone (my paraphrase). The resurrection then is indeed the very crux upon which everything we believe rests.

For many years I have cherished the tradition in liturgical churches (including Anglican) of following the “Church calendar.” While Easter 2016 was nine days ago, the Church calendar tells us that we are still in the midst of the “Eastertide” season, which means that through May 8 liturgical churches will spend every Sunday talking about the resurrection and its application to our lives as if it were still Easter day.

So what does the resurrection mean for me? Many things, but its deepest meaning is rooted in the verse in Ephesians shown above. Here’s a story:

One day a few years before my father, who was an atheist, died, we had a conversation. He – again – was trying to dissuade me from my Christian beliefs. Somewhat exasperated he asked me, “What if you die and find out it isn’t true?” I replied, “Then I will stand before whoever I meet (assuming there is Someone on the other side) and declare with great conviction that I have believed in Jesus Christ, and as a Christian I have lived a rich full life, and if I had it to do over again I would make the same choice. Can you say the same thing, Dad?

My father said nothing in return. Quite some time later, he made a statement to me that “I am closer than you think” to believing in Christ. God was working in his heart, no doubt of that, and I have hope that – because of the resurrection – I will see Dad again when it is my time to enter eternity.

You see, without the resurrection, there is no hope. For anyone. Jesus would be just another man, one of many with moral and ethical stories to tell but no definitive truth backing his words. Poet and author Paul Mariani said it well (in his book “Thirty Days,” Viking Compass, 2002), that without the resurrection, “what’s left over … is a Jesus closer to the great Confucian teachers or to Socrates, a tragic teacher in the rabbinical tradition. His narrative ends with the teacher crucified; his final words a cry of utter abandonment. End of story.”

Thus the resurrection is not just another detail…it is The Great Fact of Life. You can believe it, or not, but either way what was was, and what will be will be. I BELIEVE that unlike the venerated cultural philosophers of other eras, Jesus did not stay in the grave, He is alive today! I stake my life on that, as well as my life after this life. I invite you to do the same.

Becoming Anglican

Last night in prayer, remembering the events of the last night of Jesus’ life, my mind rested on the scene at the Garden of Gethsemane. There, Jesus took three of his disciples and went off a ways from the rest of the group for a period of intimate prayer. He told his three companions, “Watch and pray,” and then left them to pray alone.

I remember the first time this phrase, “Watch and pray,” took on special significance for me. It was Lent 2008 and we had been living in Placerville for one year. During that year we had visited several churches but hadn’t found one we liked. Between the two of us I am the one who treasures a liturgical service, and I was feeling the absence of this element in worship. Still without a church home that Lent, I was praying about the possibility of planting a more liturgical, contemplative-style church in Placerville. Might God bring this to pass? Might I be a part of bringing it to fruition? It was during one of these periods of prayer that I sensed God say to me, “Watch and pray.”

This phrase is steeped in meaning as it relates to the Passion scene that was about to unfold in Jesus’ life, as well as the lives of His disciples. “Watch and pray lest you enter into temptation,” Jesus said. Lest you become apathetic, disillusioned, or give up hope. But for a moment there was also a message for me: “As you consider starting a church…as you ask in prayer for My blessing…watch and pray.

The following year we did find a wonderful little Baptist church to attend, full of friendly people who love Jesus. We made ourselves at home there. But we are all wired differently, and in the ensuing years I continued to sense a sharp need for a different kind of worship experience. All the while, I never forgot to watch and pray about a liturgical church in the area.

In fact I did more than that. Because our last church in Orange County was Presbyterian, I thought any church plant would be of that variety. So I actively pursued the possibility of starting a church with two different Presbyterian groups, but for various reasons both efforts failed. I felt discouraged and wondered if I had heard God’s “word” correctly as it related to my desire to help start up a church here. Was I still to watch and pray? Well, I had exhausted my ideas and my energy…there was nothing else I could do.

Funny how things work out. As more time passed, I began working on my next book and all of the reading that involves. I began noticing that many of the authors I turn to time and again were/are Anglican: C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright and J.I. Packer among others. A longtime favorite prayer, spoken daily, was written by Lancelot Andrewes, another Anglican, I discovered. So far I still didn’t know a whole lot about the Anglican tradition but I had attended an Anglican service a few times while in Orange County and loved it. So I decided to learn more. Among my reading pile was “The Anglican Way” by Father Thomas McKenzie (who I later learned is a regular contributor to a favorite blog called The Rabbit Room…small world!). I really liked what I learned.

Then last fall I did something on a whim. I called an Anglican church in Roseville to ask if there are any Anglican churches in El Dorado County. During that conversation I learned that God had been orchestrating events and contacts behind the scenes for quite some time, bringing individuals together with a common goal of starting a congregation of Anglicans in Placerville. But so far none of them lived here. I felt like the missing link. At the end of that conversation I was asked: “Have you ever considered planting a church?”

Over the past five months a lot has happened. The flood gates are beginning to open and in the not so distant future, I believe, Placerville will see its first Anglican evening service of prayer. If you watch my FB page you’ll hear more as the time approaches.

A lot has been happening within me, too. I am becoming Anglican. It is the church “fit” I have been looking for, for many years.

I am grateful to, and want to thank Placer Heights Baptist Church for accepting and loving me through this “incubation period” I have been going through. Jack and I will continue attending on Sunday mornings and participating in your fellowship for as long as possible. You will always be in my prayers.

Blessed Good Friday!