Black Saturday. Reflections on sorrow and joy, gratitude and grief.

On this Black Saturday, allow me to share an excerpt from one of my favorite lent reflections, one that has since my first reading of it last year, transformed my experience of this season and the Cross.

The excerpt is followed by a personal prayer that I began to write earlier today as I experienced the Prayer Labyrinth at my church for the first time. This prayer was also inspired by yesterday’s Good Friday Service of Darkness, featuring the Seven Last Words of Christ by Theodore Dubois, and reflections by members of our congregation.

“The difference between shallow happiness and a deep, sustaining joy is sorrow. Happiness lives where sorrow is not. When sorrow arrives, happiness dies. It can’t stand pain. Joy, on the other hand, rises from sorrow and therefore can withstand all grief. Joy, by the grace of God, is the transfiguration of suffering into endurance, and of endurance into character, and of character into hope – and the hope that has become our joy does not (as happiness must for those who depend upon it) disappoint us.

… For the moment, lay yourselves aside. Become one of the first disciples. And in that skin, consider: what makes the appearance of the resurrected Lord such a transport of joy for you? Consider this in every fiber of your created being … What causes joy? What transfigures you, you flaming disciple, you burning witness, with such a fusion of joy in the encounter? 

This: not just that the Lord was dead, but that you grieved his death. That, for three days, you yourself did suffer his absence, and then the whole world was for you a hollow horror. That, despite his promises, this last Sabbath lasted forever and was, to your sorrowing heart, the last of the world after all. You experienced, you actually believed, that the end of Jesus was the end of everything.

Death reigned everywhere. 

Death alone. 

But in the economy of God, what seems the end is but a preparation. For it is, now, to that attitude and into that experience that the dear Lord Jesus Christ appears – not only an astonishment, gladness and affirmation, but joy indeed! 

It is the experience of genuine grief that prepares for joy. 

You see? The disciples approached the Resurrection from their bereavement. For them the death was first, and the death was all. Easter, then, was an explosion of Newness, a marvelous splitting of heaven indeed. But for us, who return backward into the past, the Resurrection comes first, and through it we view a death which is, therefore, less consuming, less horrible, even less real. We miss the disciples’ terrible, wonderful preparation. 

Unless, as now, we attend to the suffering first, to the cross with sincerest pity and vigilant love, to the dying with most faithful care – and thus prepare for joy.” 

-from Walter Wangerin Jr.’s book, Reliving the Passion, Meditations on the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Jesus as Recorded in Mark.

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The Prayer Labyrinth experience at Union Church of Manila

 

A prayer of thanksgiving and of grieving:

Dear Jesus,

Thank You for the Cross. Thank You for the death You conquered and the agony of separation that You endured. Thank You for Your gift – of Breath, of Presence, of Love, of Life eternal in Shalom.

Thank You for Your love that You continue to lavish on me – for the Light that you continuously pour into my life; light that I now feel overflowing, not only reflecting, but pouring out of me. This Light is You. This is Your heart, Your grace, Your embrace – always more than enough, always perfect, always with me.

Thank You for who You are, what You’ve done. Thank You for how You love – truly unconditionally, having proven it generously and courageously on the Cross, even before I lived out my own sin in time or accepted any faith in You in life. With full knowledge of my future and recurring betrayal, You carried my sin, my shame, my guilt, my stubbornness, my resistance, and my darkness with You to the Cross.

Thank You – for even before I could understand the significance, Love was made whole in Your surrender. In Your sacrifice I am saved. All death was conquered and all evil overthrown. You finished it with love, absolutely and completely. But first, the Cross.

On this Black Saturday, I grieve Your death, Your separation from the Father, the weight that I put on Your shoulders, the wounds that I tore open with my sin, the brokenness of my life that broke Your heart. I grieve this death. And for a day, I try to sit in the posture of Your first followers. Is it anguish, desperation, loss, fear, or deep deep sadness that I try to carry and somehow treasure?  I grieve and yearn like the apostles did for You, for Your presence, so tragically and quickly stripped away. You are not with us in these moments, but suffering and bearing all our darkness on our behalf. You are bearing us.

I grieve Your death. I long for Your presence, for the heavy veil to be lifted off this darkness – opaque and consuming. Today, I can only imagine this agonizing weight, this loss of Light and Leader. I consider what it might have been like to meet this day of grief without the knowledge of Easter morning, without the full understanding of the completion of Your sacrifice, not having yet experienced the rise of joy and the truth of resurrection.

Tonight we sit in longing.

Thank You for what You have done, an act that You so graciously have never regretted, a gift you have never taken back and never withheld from the least of us – dirty and filthy as we are.

Grace and grace and grace so sweet, covers this grief; grief from a heart to whom your renewal is yet be revealed in the dawn, but a heart that clings dearly to all that You have said. For having known Your presence, as Your first and faithful followers had, how could one, how could I, sit in a sorrow that does not hope for You? Here again, another advent season.

Thank You for this moment, for this suffering, for this sacrifice born in absolute, unparalleled love.

Tonight we grieve and wait for morning, and oh what an unexpected morning we long for it to be.

In Your Courageous Name,

Amen.

The day after Christmas and the urgent gift we must offer our world

My books from my childhood and adolescence now boast the smell I love so much — the toasty, musty scent of old books. On Christmas day, standing in the bedroom I grew up in, I scanned my shelf looking for a good book to re-read as a Christmas treat. I pulled out Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which I hadn’t opened in over ten years.

Even as a young reader, I already knew this book was one I would have to revisit as an adult. When the movie came out not too long ago, I purposefully missed it, remembering the promise I had made when my copy of the book still smelled clean and bookstore-fresh.

So on this Christmas Day, to satisfy the hope of my younger self, I opened up the pages, already browning and spotted with a bit of age. This hope was that as I grew up and grew older, I would continue to open my heart to precious stories like these; that I would revisit their chapters and let their wisdom reveal something new with each reading.

The incredible thing is that the moment I finished the book this time, soon after waking this morning, I ached to read it over. It is a perfectly-timed read, as I continue to wrestle with the polarizing impressions of the daily news — safety and violence, injustice and the eager Christmas spirit.

In The Giver, Lois Lowry brings us to a version of our world that lives in Sameness. It is a safer, more organized world where people feel no pain, where everyone has their duty and place in society at any given time. Those that do not, due to weakness at birth or old age, or because of disobedience of the rules, were released from the community.

It was a secure society, where people shared their feelings, offered and accepted verbal apologies when wrong was committed, and never found themselves wanting.

While all of that made for a peaceful “life,” these people could not see colors, had never heard music, and more painfully to consider, had never known love. Could we still call this living? They had no knowledge of sunshine, of snow, of flowers or of birds. They had unknowingly traded the splendor of these simple, lovely things, for the absence of any discomfort, ache or inadequacy.

Only one member of their community held all memory and history — really he was the only one that knew of and lived with the beauty, pleasure, sorrow and pain that ever existed. That person was the Receiver of Memory. Jonas, our twelve-year old protagonist, was selected to be the new Receiver, by the former one, now known as the Giver.

And right in the pages of this book sits a beautiful memory of Christmas:

“Jonas felt the joy of it as soon as the memory began. Sometimes it took a while for him to get his bearings, to find his place. But this time he fit right in and felt the happiness that pervaded the memory.

He was in a room filled with people, and it was warm, with firelight glowing on a hearth. He could see through a window that outside it was night, and snowing. There were colored lights: red and green and yellow, twinkling from a tree which was, oddly, inside the room. On a table, lighted candles stood in a polished golden holder and cast a soft, flickering glow. He could smell things cooking, and he heard soft laughter. A golden-haired dog lay sleeping on the floor.

On the floor there were packages wrapped in brightly colored paper and tied with gleaming ribbons. As Jonas watched, a small child began to pick up the packages and pass them around the room…. While Jonas watched, the people began one by one to untie the ribbons on the packages, to unwrap the bright papers, open the boxes and reveal toys and clothing and books. There were cries of delight. They hugged one another….

Jonas opened his eyes and lay contentedly on the bed, still luxuriating in the warm and comforting memory. It had all been there, all the things he had learned to treasure.

“What did you perceive,” The Giver asked.

“Warmth,” Jonas replied, “and happiness. And — let me think. Family.”*

Christmas Tree 2016.jpg

On this stormy day after Christmas, I think of all those around the world who are not surrounded by the ideal Christmas or holiday. There are many among us who sit in evacuation centers, crowd in refugee camps, cower in the fear or aftermath of violence, run breathless in search for peace, shrink in hunger, or face their grief alone. Even as many of us have joyfully celebrated in the company of loved ones this Christmas, safe by a glowing fire, bathed in sweet sunlight, or in the embrace of joy, there are too many in the world that live the exact opposite of this story.

Though we raise our banners of generosity and cheer this holiday season, there is no denying the hatred, suffering, and overwhelming grief that runs in the bloodstream of humanity. It seems our love is not enough to heal the wounds, to ease the torment, or to undo the wrongs that have been committed in our generation alone. I fear our own hypocrisy.

And yet, I find myself still clinging to hope, even with the deafening noise and discouragement of reality. I cling to the true Gift of this season — the Love that heals, the Love that saves. The Hope in Whom Christmas began.

Because we are human, we will continue to carry the weight of anguish and heartache, but with it, the lightness of love and compassion. In a time when justice can feel like a sad, mocking idea to the suffering multitudes around the world, I insist that there is still a fighting army of us who can love, forgive and heal. Help me prove that this is true. These are the days when we must courageously show up in defense, in solidarity, out of love for others.

“… Jonas, the community will be left with no one to help them. They’ll be thrown into chaos. They’ll destroy themselves. I can’t go.

“Giver,” Jonas suggested, “you and I don’t need to care about the rest of them.”

The Giver looked at him with a questioning smile. Jonas hung his head. Of course they needed to care. It was the meaning of everything.”*

As I closed the pages of The Giver, I held on to these words. It is simple, but far from easy place to begin.

We start by caring. Truly caring for one another. We may not live in the Sameness of Jonas’ community, but the need for us to care is even greater today. It is so important that we reflect on how we are tangibly called to do this today and that we act on it with purpose and urgency.

May we never let our colors mute to gray, our music unravel into silence, our dancing slow down to stillness, our love disfigure into hatred, or our sense of justice crumble into indifference.

Merry Christmas!

[*Quotes in italics are from the novel, The Giver, by Lois Lowry, published in 1993, by Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers in New York.]

Don’t steal your own Christmas!

 

No matter how early you prepare for Christmas, it has its unfailing manner of sneaking up on you. Though the season has clearly made its presence known (especially when you live in the Philippines!), suddenly you wake up and there’s just four sleeps left. You wonder where the time has gone? Stolen by too many moments that weren’t really about Christmas at all!

It’s the yearly cycle of getting caught up in the busyness. The anticipation, annual traditions and the brightened eyes of those around you (Brightened mostly from receiving presents… Mostly from the mere thought…  Mostly from the mere promise of the thought of receiving presents!)

And we, or I at least, often arrive at a moment, sometimes too late (a day after Christmas or later still), thinking: how quickly it all comes and goes! Was I present at Christmas? Or had I let it blow through me like the cyclical tropical storm?

I liken this diversion to what we often see these days: Take a special event (a wedding, birthday or show,) and people are caught up in taking photos of the moment, keepsakes for later, videos that may never be re-watched. The effort and attention go to the storing (for later sharing), and too little to the actual experience. Instead of keeping our senses open, we hold a camera up and make sure nothing gets in the way of our frame. How many Christmases have gone by with too much of it through a middleman frame? How many significant moments?

What better “thing” to get in the way of your frame, than purely, humanly, genuinely treasuring an experience? No matter how short! Eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch – open!

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My little origami tree!

I try this sometimes, storing mental pictures of things, mostly people.

I’ve clicked the shutter of my mind’s eye to save the way friends look back at me. After a long distance apart, while sharing good news, celebrating a milestone, across a table over a meal, or in the moments that we say goodbye before parting lives. The expression in their eyes, their body language – something honest that I can’t quite capture with a lens in between us. (Others can.) I take a few moments, breathe it all in, try to remember all I can, hoping my memory is awake.

If the visuals fail, I think about how civilizations survived without photographs or the internet, and all those people have lived and loved with seemingly unmatchable intensity through battles, victories and ruin. And without photographs, their passion, their stories have transcended generations! So sometimes I defer to words, describe the scene, my feelings, to myself. Some of my favorite stories have come from authored books, not reality TV or media feeds, but they are as vivid to me in memory as my own experiences.

On Sunday morning I had my own mini-battle of pure sensory experience vs digital stowage. At my church, there’s a tradition of the choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus on special occasions. The fourth Sunday of advent, right around the corner from Christmas eve, was one of those days. The choir invites members of the congregation to come up and join the choir onstage, with copies of the sheet music in hand. I’ve never gone up to sing, but I enjoy the tradition very much! It’s beautiful! A taste of Heaven! Since I sat quite close to the front today, I contemplated pulling out my phone and taking a video, even though I had heard the music multiple times before.

I had a discussion with myself – would I ever even watch the video again? The sound quality is never as good on a video! Why would I want to ruin the moment with a device in my hand? What if I wanted to sing along for a bit, I wouldn’t want my voice recorded over the choir’s? Haven’t they done this multiple times this year? There’ll be another time if you need it!

In the end, I decided I wanted to relish the moment in full analog style. (Not always the case these days…)

Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, touch and heart – open!

I almost cried just listening.

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The Christmas corner of my little home!

 

Today, it’s just a few days before Christmas and I am once again in the flurry of the season. I’ve spent a good part of the advent season worrying about a myriad of things, as always. And the worries always solve themselves in the end (without any help from the wasted hours of worrying!)

More than in previous years, I have cherished my quite moments in advent anticipation. And yet, I write in this moment still feeling like I have missed out on Christmas, that I have skimmed over the season in eagerness, and let another Christmas go! But I guess at this point in the day, it’s just a bit of fear.

Thankfully, I still have a few more days: To sit in the glow of the tree and the Cross. To listen to the angels singing. To let Christmas unfold first in my heart through the Light of the manger.

And then later, much later, and only as measly afterthoughts in the afterglow, to unfold in the unwrapping of presents and to swell in the wrapping of family and loved ones.

 

First look is to the Light.

Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, touch and heart – open!