Daily Devotional: We Don’t Face Our Falling Shadows Alone

ucc book of worshipI continue to work through prayers of Scripture and the church I use from the United Church of Christ Book of Worship in my own work as a chaplain, many of which have I have found personally helpful in my own dark times.

I turn to a Scripture now included in the same section in the Book of Worship that, too be honest, I rarely if ever directly read while sitting with patients.  It tends to be one I read as I approach holy week in my own life.  I almost skipped it but yesterday I talked at length about this story with a patient who was full of fear about his own death, wondering and struggling over what lay ahead of him.   I realize in doing so that though I rarely directly talk about the death of Jesus in its grim details by quoting Scripture, I do in fact use that story as a lens to help those hurting find peace, hope, and comfort in their own pain and fear.  I do so for myself and have.

The section of the passion story the Book of Worship includes in its Scriptures and prayers of comfort is a version of Luke 23, verse 33 and 39-43.  It follows below:

three crossesAnd when they came to the place which is called the Skull, there they crucified Jesus, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left.  One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ?  Save yourself and us!”  But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your reigning power.”  And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

 

The recent interchange with a patient is one I have often with others.  They face into death and are overwhelmed by fear.  They know in their minds and hearts that their life both now and forever is in God’s hands.  They trust there is a life after, and that Jesus waits to usher them into paradise.  But they have these two thieves in the hillside of their soul.  One railing against what is happening, frightened and mocking.   Surely this is the end.  Surely the words of faith are only fairy tale stories we tell children.  Surely this is a joke, a mockery, a fear.   So doubts riddle them.  They want to cling, though clinging bring them and others pain, to this world.  Yet part of them, like the other thief, says “I know.  I know there is more.  I know Christ goes before me”.

I can relate with this myself, not as one having faced my own death but as one still coming to grips months later with the death of my dearest and deepest love.   On the one hand, I know that she has been taken out of the suffering of her body, the pain that wracked her days.  I know that somehow, somewhere, she goes on, alive in some new way in all the things that are holy, alive like the saints in glory.  I have even had moments that I felt that brush of loving presence which reassured me that, yes, Micah, I am still here.  My life has gone on in a new way and yours must as well.   But that death was not the end for me.

sitting at tomb 2And yet I still have moments I rail.   Last night I spoke to a friend, admitting, I have moments I am so angry.  Like this thief I want to rail at the Creator and say “Are you not the Christ?  Could you not have saved her?”  I got to watch her as a young, young man, grow rapidly old before my eyes.  When we stood atop that mountain in Los Angeles County, we promised to be there til death we part.  And I thought in my naïve young view of the world we would grow old together.  She grew old before me, experiencing the pain only far older people usually face, ailments I may not know until late, late in life.  She got me by her side in her autumn years.  And I helped make her last few years good.

But I cannot pretend I don’t feel cheated.  I cannot pretend I don’t throw my hands in the air and say “Why?  What did I do to deserve You taking her from me?  Why do I not deserve to have her with me, as I grow old?”  I feel as if a great unfairness has happened to me, and as if I was robbed by God.

This may sound like lack of faith, just as the patients I know who struggle with fear, question, and uncertainty about the ending journey that lays ahead of them, seem so often to those in their families to be struggling with lack of faith.

gethsemane prayerBut if you read the wider story of the passion – not just this snippet in the prayer book – you find Jesus, too, struggled.  He cried, so hard it is like his tears and sweat were drops of blood.  He prayed long and hard for God to take this cup from him.  He did not want to face his death.   He did, with faith, strength, and courage.  And though we can point to many places in the Gospels where Jesus seems to get why it is happening and to be trusting, we can also point to places where he says things like “My God, My God, Why Have you Forsaken me?”   This back and forth my patients experience between deep certainty and hope on the one hand, and fear, confusion, questioning, trying to fight what is coming on the other, is not wrong.  It is human.  And they are in good company, as are you and me, when such moments come.  For Jesus walked that lonesome valley before us.  He too went through this.

black sacred heart of jesusYou know when I first began the Christian journey so many years ago, I had this idea that in Jesus God did something utterly unique. I thought of Jesus as someone, something, more than me.  More than human.  A Superman of sorts in holiness.  But this is not really what the Gospels say or the early church taught.  Jesus is fully Divine by being fully human.   In Jesus somehow the Sacred presence comes to rest in our world by fully entering it.  Jesus is holy not because he has pulled away from the messy, complicated, painful, and dirty things that make us human.  He is Sacred because in some way He has learned to fully embrace and live out those things.

This means, as the early church fathers and mothers often said, that the glory of God is in fact a human being made fully alive.   And what God becomes, God heals.  So that every nook and cranny of our human lives, even the most angst-filled, painful, confusing, heart-wrenching are places lit with Sacred glory, diving light. Jesus has gone ahead of us into our darkest moments, even death itself, so they may be transformed into paths to Paradise.

So our doubts, fears, pains, anger at God, questioning, are not in and of themselves a turning our backs on God.  For God has already been there.  In Jesus the Sacred presence has filled every place heartache, pain, loss, despair, rejection could ever find itself.

In those seemingly lonely moments we can know, we are not alone.  For the Christ is present there, in that moment that feels broken like bread and spilled out like emptied cup .

I’ve found in being with the dying a beautiful old Gospel song that, once I got past some of the language of substitutionary atonement, came to picture for me the hope that Christ has gone before us into these lonely valleys, even into death itself, so transforming them from places of abandonment and despair, into deeper encounter.  I share it with you here:

 

When I come to the river at the ending of day
When the last winds of sorrow have blown
There’ll be somebody waiting to show me the way I won’t have to cross Jordan alone
I won’t have to cross Jordan alone Jesus died all my sins to atone
In the darkness I see he’ll be waiting for me I won’t have to cross Jordan alone

Often times I’m weary and troubled and sad
When it seems that my friends have all flown
There is one thought that cheers me and makes my heart glad
I won’t have to cross Jordan alone
I won’t have to cross Jordan

I won’t have to cross Jordan alone Jesus died all my sins to atone
In the darkness I see he’ll be waiting for me I won’t have to cross Jordan alone
Though the billows of trouble and sorrow may sweep
Christ the Saviour will care for his own
Till the end of my journey my soul he will keep and I won’t have to cross Jordan alone
I won’t have to cross Jordan

I won’t have to cross Jordan alone Jesus died all my sins to atone
In the darkness I see he’ll be waiting for me I won’t have to cross Jordan alone

 

May you sense you are not alone whatever darkness or pain you face.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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