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!”

I Am Christian

I wonder sometimes about Paul’s declaration in Philippians 3:10 that he wanted to have fellowship with Christ’s sufferings (“that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed unto his death”) and what that means. Since we American Christians did not grow up in a climate of hardship or persecution, it is hard to grasp these powerful words.

This week changes that. If it has been difficult to grasp the persecution of Christ on American soil over the past couple of decades, and all He stands for, in the myriad of legal gesturing such as to eliminate prayer from our schools, God from our money, the 10 Commandments from our legislative history, etc., it is not at all difficult to understand the sheer suffering and pain inflicted on the 10 Christian college students who were murdered for their faith yesterday (plus seven injured) at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, and their families.

According to a witness, the shooter walked into a classroom and immediately shot the professor point blank. He then turned to the students and asked who among them were Christians. Those who stood up were killed. Nothing is known, yet, about these individuals, but God knew them. They were likely Protestant and Catholic, or like the Coptic Christians killed by ISIS earlier this year, perhaps they were Orthodox. It makes no difference. They counted themselves among God’s children, and proved their allegiance to Christ through their public profession of faith.

My message today is simple. Whatever Paul meant when he wrote that he wanted to know Christ, the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, he at least meant this: We must stand with our brothers and sisters in Christ, in their darkest hour.

Stand with me, and proclaim to all those you know, “I am Christian.”

Rules of the Game

Steve Coburn’s tirade on Saturday about the unfairness of allowing horses that hadn’t run in either the Derby or the Preakness to run in the Belmont (his excuse for why his horse, California Chrome, didn’t win the Triple Crown) got me to thinking about human suffering, and the God who allows it.  Weird, huh?

But really the comparison is not so farfetched.  Steve Coburn’s gripe, essentially, is that a Triple Crown contender is practically set up for failure if horses who haven’t run the previous two legs of the Triple Crown (and thus are well rested) are allowed to run against a horse who has given his all twice in the previous five weeks.

This reasoning is similar to the line of thinking that calls unfair a God who would create the world and its inhabitants and then “rig the game” so as to make living according to the rules near impossible.  Either there is no such God, some agnostics and atheists say, or if there is, He is malevolent for setting mankind up for failure.

A survey I once read of people’s faith choices cited suffering as the number one stumbling block to faith.  As I consider my own faith walk I can sympathize with this…if God is good, why does He allow suffering?  How do I deal with times when God doesn’t meet my expectations in what I consider to be truly important matters?

Framed in Steve Coburn’s line of questioning, are the rules fair, if we cannot reasonably anticipate a good outcome?

I do not pretend to have answers, but after years of pondering, a few more questions have arisen to help guide my path.  First, do I really understand the rules (to like the rules is beside the point)?  To be able to expect someone to act in a certain way assumes I know the person extremely well, along with the context of the situation.  How well do I know God?  How hard do I try to get to know Him?  Is it even possible for me to fully comprehend the context of my life in the greater scheme of history and God’s plans?

If my answers to the above questions are no, not well, hardly, and no, then do I really have a right to have any expectations at all?

No, but now that I’m coming at the question with a better perspective, I do believe God wants us to have some answers as to the rules of the game and how they affect us (something Steve Coburn would have done well to reflect on).  An important clue to the game of life lies in the creation and early history of Adam and Eve in the beginning chapters of Genesis, where God told His children they have full reign over the garden and everything in it, except for one tree.  “Don’t eat its fruit,” God said, “or you will die” (my paraphrase, Genesis 2-3).

This one directive, Adam and Eve’s action, and the consequences set in motion from their choice, give tremendous insight into God’s ultimate love and respect for humankind.

You see, God gave the first man and first woman the freedom of choice—at that time the only rule in play.  Freedom is something we Americans understand and cherish practically above all else.  What we don’t appreciate nearly so well is the fact that freedom to choose extends to everyone…to people with different ideas, to those who might wish us harm, even to me and my own poor choices that negatively affect myself and others.

To a large degree, I think the suffering we see today is an extension of the freedom of choice passed down from generation to generation in a world that doesn’t see eye to eye, much less care about God’s way of life.  And while God has added many guidelines for living since those days in the garden, one thing has not changed:

God has remained faithful to his original design by continuing to give us freedom of choice.

So the next time I am tempted to blame God for the hardships and suffering I see in this world (or in my own life), I will check myself and say, “It’s not God’s fault.”  Yes, He is good, and yes, He could eliminate suffering in the blink of an eye (the Bible says He will one day, when the time is right).  But if He abolished all suffering today, all of mankind would be wiped out in an instant, perhaps without the benefit of the plan of redemption God so very carefully executed in order to reverse death – the ultimate price we all have been paying for our poor choices since Adam and Eve – that is, the atoning death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ.