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.


Every Lent I ask God what I can give to Him during this season…something He knows I need to give up in order to receive what He knows I need.  Often the answer comes in sharp and clear, but this year I struggled with the question.  Through my pondering, Billy Joel’s song “Honesty” came to mind:

Honesty is such a lonely word.
Everyone is so untrue.
Honesty is hardly ever heard.
And mostly what I need from you.

I first thought of the song earlier in the year with Lance Armstrong’s admission to lying about his doping.  Not only did the seven-time Tour De France winner lie, he sued people for telling the truth.  He lived the lie so long, and so well, that he believed it himself.

That’s a dangerous position to be in, but Lance didn’t know that, and apparently still doesn’t.  According to a recent Washington Times article, Lance told an interviewer that “the public will soon forget about him being the biggest dope cheat in cycling’s history, just like they did former president Bill Clinton for his affair with an intern.”  Armstrong went on in the interview to say Clinton is his hero.

How sad that the opinion of the public is the biggest problem Armstrong is concerned about.  How tragic to be so awed by a man (Clinton) who was able to rise up from the ashes of his own self and public deception as to make him out to be a hero.

I don’t know whether Clinton was able to recover from his own lies and remake himself through honesty or a brilliant self-marketing campaign, and frankly it’s not my place to judge him.  But it begs the question, who must we be honest with?  Lest anyone think “no harm, no foul” when it comes to lying, let me make it clear that even when we succeed in keeping our lies secret, someone is always injured in our transgressions.  There is no such thing as no harm.

Furthermore, let me suggest that the greatest harm we do, we do to ourselves, because believing our own lies hardens our hearts and pushes our psyches into remote regions of our being where we can no longer reach.  In fact, the most dangerous part of lying is that it promotes the biggest lie of all—that we don’t need God.

Back to Billy Joel, while his song decries the fact that he can’t get honesty from others, he also acknowledges that he can’t give it, either:

But if you look for truthfulness
You might just as well be blind.
It always seems to be so hard to give.

So my Lenten journey led me to look at my own honesty, or lack thereof.  What am I dishonest about?  I am dishonest when I act as though I can live life without God.  When I neglect time for personal worship because (I tell myself) other activities are more important.  When I tell God I love Him for who He is, when in fact I love Him for the blessings He bestows on my life, which, if taken away, might lead to my desertion.  When I say I love Him yet don’t always strive to follow Jesus’ example.

As Benedict of Nursia might say (or the neighborhood high schooler), “I am a worm.”  But by this admission I know I am in a good place, because I am being honest and I believe God will meet me here, splayed as I am at the foot of the cross of Jesus.

Join me, won’t you?


Once, I’m told, during an Easter morning children’s sermon, a priest was describing the scene at the tomb that first Easter sunrise when a child interrupted his story.  “I know the first thing Jesus did when he came out of the tomb,” the girl said.  “What?” the priest asked.  Jumping out of her seat and thrusting her arms high overhead, fingers spread, she chimed, “Ta-da!!”

Precious!  No wonder Jesus said we needed to have faith like little children.  We celebrate Easter just once a year, but the hope of Easter morning springs always and eternal in the hearts of Christians everywhere.  Steven Curtis Chapman, reflecting on the 2008 death of his 5-year-old daughter Maria, described faith under such tragic circumstances as “grieving with hope.”Read More

Fasting for Spiritual Hunger

One of the worst, and lasting images I have ever seen is one of hunger, people digging through a landfill looking for something to eat.  Tragically, it happens the world over.  Although it may not know it, the world is also starving for God, and the life found in a relationship with Jesus.  Too many end up picking through society’s junk heap for scraps that will satisfy the inner longings of the soul.  The American theologian A.W. Tozer once wrote, “To most people God is an inference, not a reality.  He is a deduction from evidence which they consider adequate, but He remains personally unknown to the individual” (Tozer’s Classic, The Pursuit of God)

The Church at large, I believe, is facing a similar predicament.  We are starving to know God.  Tozer used to adamantly proclaim that true spiritual worship “has been lost” in the churches of his day.  He further described (in The Pursuit of God) that our worship is but a shadow of what it should be and once was, primarily because we no longer seem to believe that we can actually experience God in our daily lives.  “….we have in our hearts organs by means of which we can know God as certainly as we know material things through our familiar five senses….  We apprehend the physical world by exercising the faculties give us for that purpose, and we possess spiritual faculties by means of which we can know God and the spiritual world, if we will obey the Spirit’s urge and begin to use them.”Read More

Fasting for Fellowship

I usually try to read a devotional specifically for the season during Lent.  I want one that will help me think about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in fresh new ways.  This year I selected Martin L. Smith’s A Season for the Spirit, probably the best Lenten read I’ve come across.  He uses the popular psychological reference to the many “selves” within, instead of “different sides to one’s personality,” which is the terminology I prefer.  But setting that aside it is insightful and thought provoking.Read More