The God Who Has Tears…

Several years ago I had a note from a friend, Mako Fujimura, who heard that I was speaking in New York City, and wondered if I would be able to see him in his gallery. The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible had just come out with his paintings gracing the pages of the Gospels, and the whole collection of his paintings were in one place. Could I join him?

And so we lingered our way through, stopping by each painting, talking about its meaning, and its place in the story. When we came to the one he called, “The Tears of Christ,” we stood silent. He in fact had chosen this painting as the frontispiece for the Four Gospels, seeing it as the prism through which everything should be seen. And I told him that the story in John 11 of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus was a line-in-the-sand for me. For as long as I have been able to understand my faith lived out as it must be in the tensions of life in this world— the wounded, bent world that it is —I have seen that story as critical. Simply said, if it was not in the Bible, then it has seemed impossible that I could be a Christian.

To my surprise, and yet not, Mako said the very same thing. I remember looking at him beside me, amazed, as I had never known anyone who saw the story in the way that I did. Not that my reading was necessarily profound— I am only an ordinary man living an ordinary life —but its meaning was critical for my faith, for my ability to have faith.

Our conversation in the gallery was not one we have moving in and out of the relationships and responsibilities that are ours, day after day. Most of life is necessarily more normal. But the question written into John 11 has been a constant through the years of my life, reminding me of what I believe and why I believe. That God has tears, crying out over the death of his friend, outraged— because that is the word that is used twice in the passage, “groaning deeply in his spirit” —has meant almost everything to me. The same chapter has the familiar words, “Jesus wept,” which are meaningful and wonderful as well, Jesus weeping with his friends Mary and Martha in their weeping, a mourning born of empathy and sympathy.

But the second kind of crying is different. Benjamin Warfield, the Princeton Seminary professor of a century ago, wrote a long, surprising, tender essay on “The Emotional Life of Our Lord,” about John 11, seeing Jesus as offering a very different take on the sorrows of life than the Stoics of his day, i.e. who argued that the point of life was to “see” in a way that did not require a response, especially a response of the heart. Warfield said “no!” setting forth Jesus as angry at death, at the very meaning of death, and all that it represents. And a generation later the French philosopher Simone Weil wrote a similar essay, differently done of course, but her coming to faith was through coming to believe in the God who has tears. Both have deeply affected me, forming my faith, nourishing in my frail self the belief that tears matter— and that God in the flesh had them, matters and matters deeply.

In the Information Age, we have 24/7 access to the sorrows and horrors of the world all the time. If one day it is chemical bombing in Syria, then the next it is terrorist bombing on Palm Sunday in Egypt, and on and on and on. There seems no end to the suffering. As I watch the world closer at hand, the people I know well enough to know, there is no one who is without wound. Everyone I know has been hurt, everyone has suffered. Sometimes the sadnesses we know best are very personal, touching us in our heart of hearts— they crush us, bringing tears that last all day long. And other times the griefs are more global, living in the globalizing world as we do. Whatever news source is ours keeps us up-to-date on the very latest outrage, with broken bodies strewn across the landscapes of our minds. And because there is so much hurt, necessarily the spectrum runs all the way from the most intimate to the most universal— and we are expected to respond.

To add to this weight, this winter many of us pondered the pain of the silence of God in the face of suffering as we have watched Martin Scorcese’s film, simply called “Silence.” Endo’s novel-made-film presents its own questions for which there are no easy answers. We see and hear the pain; what do we do? At the end of the day, I know of nothing other than to fall on our knees, confessing, “I believe… help me in my unbelief. Christ have mercy, please, Christ have mercy.” Most days don’t offer the luxury of stewing in our sorrow, because we have to wake up— by faith, with hope, in love —taking up our life in the world. This is what it means to see our lives as a vocation, called by God to see and hear as he does, taking in what is ours, and for love’s sake stepping into life, full of the beautiful and the broken as it is, responsible for what is before us.

To step into life, yes. What is that? Seeing and hearing as God does— like Jesus before us —knowing that “both joy and sorrow are woven into the pattern of our days,” as N.T. Wright offers in his Lenten meditation, Reflecting the Glory. That was true of the one who rode a donkey into Jerusalem, hearing “hosanna, hosanna, hosannah!” knowing that before the day was done, he would weep over Jerusalem. In a thousand ways, those are our days too.

And so as we come to the end of Lent, we have asked friends from all over to reflect on their own lives in light of this week, the week of passion as we call it. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the gold standard for the history of words, “passion” was first used to remember the death and resurrection of Christ. From a Latin root, “pati,” to suffer, we see that it is related to other words. Empathy. Apathy. Sympathy. Compassion. They elicit different senses, don’t they? Some are more attractive, even compelling than others; others repel, at least in theory. Take apathy. The Stoic temptation of apatheia is perennial, almost as old as we are as human beings, i.e. “yes, I know, but what does it have to do with me?” In the very broken world that is ours with so much that wounds, I get that; I honestly do. How can we see sorrow, and not be overwhelmed? How on earth is it possible to see sorrow, to understand the complexity of our lives and the world around us, and still choose to love? In fact, to understand our vocations as just that, no more and no less?

Unless we see our lives rooted in the reality of the tears of God, we have no ground for a response other than our own version of Stoicism. The God of the Hebrew prophets was decidedly different, and the God incarnate in Christ is too. His tears at Lazarus’s death are formative for us, teaching us that some things are worth crying over— because they are so wrong, so grievous, so awful, so unjust, so much not-the-way-it’s-supposed-to-be.

Coming to the end of Lent, this season of reflection on the truest truths about ourselves in both our glory and our shame, we have asked friends across America to write about their lives, full of the distinctive labor and learning, love and longing that is theirs.

We asked them to write something about their days during these Lenten days. Given what I believe to be true about God and the world, what does the passion of these days mean for my vocation? Every one is different, as we hoped, but each is a window into into the life together that is ours. The days between Palm Sunday with its high expectation, and the sorrow that comes over the next six days, has been a remarkably rich source for the Church’s reflection on the meaning of faith for 2000 years— and they still are, of course, until these shadowlands no longer are. 

Here is what they said.

(The painting is Mako’s, “The Tears of Christ” — and for more from Mako, he wrote about tears again. This came out on Palm Sunday morning.)

–Steve Garber–

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A young man came to me with this lament.  I have what others would call a good job.  I am paid well, but I get no satisfaction from the work.  I feel like my job should provide joy and fulfillment for me, and this one doesn’t do that.  I am going to quit, and he did.  He asked me what I thought about his sacrifice to find fulfillment.  My response was this.  Sometimes we must step away, but we must never miss the time when God can use the challenges to shape us for what he wants us to do.  God has given us work to do in this world that ultimately finds fulfillment only in him, in his purposes, not ours.  Consider the story of Joseph.  He had dreams of being a great leader where all would bow down to him.  But it was necessary for God to shape him before he was ready for this leadership assignment.  For 13 years he worked as a slave, and in prison, in a foreign land, and was ultimately forgotten.  The end of the 40th chapter of Genesis says, “But the chief butler forgot about Joseph.”  And the 41st chapter opens, “Two full years later….”  I look forward to talking with Joseph about these two challenging years in particular.  These periods of life are a fundamental part of a career, not a sidetrack.  It was out of this pain for Joseph he was able to do a great task in service to God.  He could not have done this without a period of being shaped by God.  If this was a part of the journey of our King, as we are reminded in this Lenten season, why should we think it should be different for us?  How can we allow God to move the story of our hearts from seeking joy and fulfillment for us, toward seeking true purpose and meaning for the Kingdom of God?

(“Joseph Expounding the Prisoner’s Dreams,” Rembrandt)

— Al Erisman, Seattle, WA —

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As a hospice bereavement coordinator and counselor, the way I see my vocation intertwined with my faith, calling in light of Easter and all this represents is particularly vivid this time of year.  Dealing with brokenness and death all day long would be an utterly depressing hopeless endeavor without the hope of the resurrection to bring the fruition of redemption and healing at the return of the king.  With this truth as the backdrop to what I get to do, it informs my walking with grievers both directly and indirectly as I work with them to hold the tension between the already and the not yet.

— Steve Dalbey, St. Louis, MO —

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During lent I have been studying the gospel of John and have especially thought about John 11 which has the story of Lazarus. The idea that Jesus weeps when he encounters death has stayed with me, suggesting to me that death was never meant to be part of the story. Even Jesus has an emotional reaction to it, though he knows he will soon be doing the Great Act that will conquer death.  Jesus is moved by the same things that move me.  I am grateful for this, while also being grateful for his work on the cross that removes the sting from death and decisively conquers and overcomes it. Thanks be to God!  Allelujah!

— Carrie Bare, West Palm Beach, FL —

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I gave up alcohol and desserts for Lent, not because forgoing some food or drink might make me holy, but that, in forgoing them, I might not be dull to the pernicious reign of my hidden idols with their impotent and insecure narratives. Giving up those very small creature comforts allowed me to see how those subtle stories have worked their way, like yeast, into my heart. Also in Lent, our daughters and I took up Lynne Hybel’s suggestion to read Isaiah 58 aloud for 30 days straight as a way of recalibrating our hearts to God. Reading that one passage over and over, every night, let the Holy Spirit knead us with the good news. But the good news of Isaiah 58 makes one sit up and pay attention: it’s not just that God brings “me” comfort and salvation but also that he empowers, equips, and commands his people—including me, if I aim to be counted among them—to work joyfully for justice, to rebuild roads and repair what’s broken. We all know our world is profoundly broken; and at times it feels as though we (that is: “me”) in the church have so lost sight of the story God wants us to live in and be alive to. The only story worth our very lives is also the only one that’s actually true, a story that reaches into a living eternity rather than succumbing to a deadly end. Here, at last, in Holy Week, we are caught up into the only story worth our very lives, with its steely, historical recounting of Jesus’s arrest, trial, suffering, and death. All else is dross.

— Laura Fabrycky, Berlin, Germany —

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I used to wonder how such an abrupt transition from the celebratory call of “Hosanna” could transition so quickly to shouts of “Barabbas!” and “Crucify” until I considered similar sudden changes in my own life, many occurring in just few moments—let alone a week. Hosanna moments are excitement, but not arrival. They are good, but not the good in itself. They are signs pointing forward. The chasm between Hosanna and Resurrection is paved with bitter cups and silence if we have lost a sense of root. One early Sunday morning a new celebration began; Jesus’ passion week of work became inexpressibly fruitful. It was complete yet not the completest of complete. There will be another celebration coming and this will be sung by a multitude. Until then no moment is left un-turned, every meal has something to be remembered, every interaction even while suffering is a chance to bestow dignity, and every form of work is endured until it is complete. Oh the chasm is long. But until that Sunday morning arrives we find our roots in a “passion work” for Him.

— Delano Sheffield, Kansas City, MO —

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A friend recently said “maybe is the worst answer; yes is best, no is second best.” While the topic was on raising capital funding, I wonder if it applies to all of the “yes” decisions we make. We take the job that promises to finally give us true purpose and fulfillment or pay us what we’re really worth; we give or serve at the non-profit that promises we can end poverty; we invest in reconciliation after the person who wronged us insists they have changed; we change churches or small groups because we’re convinced there is a better way. And with each, our expectations are sky-high. I imagine how Jesus’ closest followers felt about their “yes” during the Passion week and in my mind draw a chart to track the price of their investment. On Palm Sunday they are the next big thing and everyone is envious of their “early-money” on Jesus — there is so much buzz and momentum that it’s almost a sure bet that they’re going to cash-in. But by Thursday something seems a bit off; Jesus is saying increasingly outlandish things and confidence begins to waver. By Friday it’s an all out crash; the bottom has fallen out, the chart is upside-down, and people are calling it the biggest farce in history. The followers expectations are crushed, and they scatter.

What do we do when the expectations we put on our own “yes’s” come crashing down when they collide with the reality of a broken world? Will we definitively change our answer to “no” and give up as some of Jesus’ followers did on that Friday? Will we choose the middle ground of “maybe” and be tossed to and fro by the circumstances as others did? Or can we find a way to hold on to the “yes” through the darkest valley of and arrive at Sunday without wavering? Whether it looks like the best decision or the worst, may we be people who hold on to the yes’s in our lives that are based solely on the promises of God — may we be followers who hold on to the Saturday Yes. 

— Jon Hart, New York City —

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The world is tangled. My life is tangled, mostly because of the tangles in my father’s brain as he succumbs to dementia, and the tangled brain of my brother who is still living in his house. Why does family suffering seem to eclipse everything else? Why is it so hard to see God in the midst of this? It is awful. And yet I do see Him. I see Jesus when I look. I see Jesus, who sees all the unimaginable sorrows of the world—at the same time. Jesus got tangled up in all kinds of messes He could have avoided. This week, two thousand years ago, Jesus, who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame. Jesus looked, and He walked right into it. Because He did, I have hope. Because of what He did, the tangles that torment me are cut. I ache for resolution. But I am free.

(The art is from Bonnie, who has spent her life giving graphic meaning to the richness of faith.)

—Bonnie Liefer, Pittsburgh, PA—

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I was with a group of Catholic friends yesterday and somewhere in the course of our conversation someone mentioned the term, Paschal Mystery.  This is not a term that many in my Protestant tribe use often.  Paschal Mystery…the mystery of how sin was swallowed up in love by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  As I enter this last week of Lent, I want to enter more deeply into this mystery during Holy Week.  How can it be that love is stronger than death?  What does that mean to families in Syria and Egypt and Sudan today?  How are suffering and love so intricately woven together in this mystery of redemption? So my focus shifts now, from the self reflection and repentance of these weeks of Lent, to watching and praying with Jesus as he lives this mystery of sorrow and love flowing mingled down….this Paschal Mystery that is the only certain thing I know.

— Laura Harbert, Pasadena, CA —

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Mothering brings me to the end of myself, causing me to wrestle with my limitations, and recognize my deep longing for the world to be as it should. So too with Lent.  As I enter this Holy Week and all its familiar traditions, scriptures, and rhythm, I am reminded that I need to hear this story of Christ’s passion again. Children beg to hear the same stories over because they bring comfort to the soul and restoration of the spirit. As with children, so too with me. Just because I know the end of the gospel story does not mean that the power of it is any less compelling. Keeping myself immersed in the truth of the gospel message and my deep need for the renewal of my mind and heart is vital as I gently lead those children entrusted to me to our Savior. Like fasting and prayer, mothering is a spiritual discipline causing me to peer deeply into my own flaws and frailty. It is there, in the place of childlike vulnerability and trust, that I can say, “Tell me that story again.” And the Lord of the universe tells it.

— Julie Johnson, Ithaca, New York —

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In my work I send students overseas to study abroad. Two big parts of that are: 1) to provide them with training and put policies and procedures in place to manage risk and help them stay safe and 2) to prepare them to encounter “the other” in ways that allow them to grow in their knowledge of themselves and understanding of the world and, we hope, thereby grow in their love and care for a broader segment of God’s creation. This is a challenging time to be helping students think about both safety and “the other.” How does one think about risk in a world where shopping in Stockholm turns out to be dangerous? How ought we measure the importance of safety when so many in the world are left directly in the path of lethal harm day in and day out? And how does all of this interact with how we think about and encounter “the other”? The world, in all it’s physical and cultural diversity, is magnificently beautiful, but it is also desperately broken in ways that are so complex they sometimes seem to defy all efforts at resolution. What does all of that have to do with Holy Week?

I think about Jesus, for whom not a single soul was “the other”, but all were intimately known and loved in a way that was worth his risking all for their salvation. I think about the last supper, when he gave his disciples a new command, “Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”, and about the earlier story he told in answer to the question “who is my neighbor”. I think about his prayers in those last days for his followers – present and future, that they would know themselves loved and so love others. And then the scene in Gethsemane, when he willingly offers himself up, knowing what is to come. It is always risky to know another, to come to love the other – to let them into your heart and mind and change the way you see things. I am asking my students to take this risk on purpose, betting that the risk is worth it. God asks us to give all we are for the sake of his new Kingdom, without so much thought to what it might cost us – promising his presence and guaranteeing that the end will prove worth it. I want my students to stay safe, for sure, but when push comes to shove I very much hope they learn enough to risk love.

—Laura Carmer, Wenham, MA —

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A few years ago, during a darker time in my life, a dear friend came to visit. Without any fanfare one afternoon, he simply took my hand, placed a piece of flint in it, and covered it up with his own. No words were needed. I keep that flint with me wherever I go, as a reminder of how we humans help carry and cover each other during our times of deepest heartache. Most of all, my friend’s gift is something I can physically hold onto when I need to remember (and remember and remember again) that yes, there was the darkest day when Jesus had to set his face like flint and head for Jerusalem. I cannot fathom his courage and perseverance, but I do know his courage is my hope, his perseverance is my strength, and his love is my shelter, now and forever. I have set my face like flint, and I will not be ashamed.

— Leigh Vickery, Tyler, TX —

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In this Passion week, I’ve been led to reflect on Jesus’ teaching that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer many things. What a contrast it was to the expectations on that Palm Sunday when he entered to the sounds of praise and adoration. Indeed, what a contrast it was to the disciples’ own eager dreams as Peter rebuked him who seemed to have forgotten so soon the great revelation that he is the promised Messiah. Apparently, not every revelation comes with a guarantee it will be interpreted correctly. And in my own vocation as a teacher, I am often confronted with this gap between revelation and interpretation, between optimism and biblical hope. In this gap, we eagerly look for evidence around us of a kingdom of righteousness and peace, only to come face to face all too often with our broken world. And yet there too in the gap we are called to stand and intercede and teach again the meaning of the Christ, his suffering and passion “for us” (huper hemon) that we too will attain the resurrection.  

— Tae Sung, Riverside, CA —

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Who do you say that I am?  It’s the central question of the Gospels and one that I believe, is most poignantly asked as Jesus rides in on his donkey on Palm Sunday.  His unmistakable message on that triumphal day is that He is a mixture of King and Lord and Savior – The Promised One come to make peace amongst the nations instead of conquering a peace for one nation against another. He proceeds to the temple with the rebuke that it ought to be a house of prayer “for all nations” (Mk 11:17), he challenges the disciples in the upper room with a new commandment toward radical love (even of their enemies) and the week concludes with the curtain ripped and the Roman Centurion – of all people (the man whom the crowd thought was their enemy) proclaiming the answer to his Palm Sunday question:  “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk 15:39).  So as we enter in to the Passion drama:  Who do you say he is? And is he big enough to unite us?  To make the Centurion and the Jew and the Gentile alike….worship?  Let us have ears to hear.

— Jay Simmons, Austin, TX —

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Passio

Each day a story of suffering, victims assaulted from without.
But Jesus set his face like flint for Jerusalem,
Through whom all things were made, in whom all holds together,
Walked intently to the passion of the cross.
The wood longed to release him, the nails to surrender integrity,
All creation to serve its master,
But Christ held them firm, in suspense between earth and sky.
“Not yet. Not yet.
The poison is not yet drawn,
The wrongs not yet atoned.
It is not yet finished.
Tim is not yet free.”

— Tim McConnell, Colorado Springs, CO —

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This year is a transition period for me, leaving me feeling like a field that is being ploughed up to ready it for a new planting. The process of the aftergrowth from the past harvest being ploughed under as the soil—my life—gets dug into and turned over and broken up has been disconcerting and even painful. Old wounds that were not completely healed but just buried under busyness and the illusion of moving on have been uncovered in the process. I have wept over past wrongs done to me and my own sinful response to them, when I turned not to open my heart to God’s love and mercy, but to futile attempts to build a wall around my heart. I’ve grieved over the death that such efforts have brought and how my sin and brokenness necessitated Christ’s suffering and death on the cross.

As we contemplate once again the final week of our Savior’s life before He went to the cross, I am filled with gratitude for his willingness to pay my ransom along with my sadness at the high cost of sin. I have been deeply moved by the intensity that Jesus demonstrated in carrying out his vocation during the final week, though knowing as he did that he would die. But, he also knew that “you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” (Psalm 16:10) It is that hope in the resurrection that is foremost in my mind this year. Because Christ did rise again, I have hope that the ploughed-up field of my life will again produce a harvest, perhaps more abundant than ever before.  

— Patricia Boyle, Pittsburgh, PA —

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Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  (John 12:24 NRSV)  Why do we grow wheat?  There are many uses for the all-purpose grain – flour is transformed into baked bread, pasta dishes, breakfast biscuits and pie crusts. All are made for people to enjoy.  But, there is one darker purpose, which is not for our enjoyment at all and which is the one Jesus speaks of here.  For wheat to fulfill its purpose of delighting human beings, some grains must fall into the earth and die, and thereby bear much fruit.  There has to be suffering and death for there to be an abundant harvest that can be enjoyed.  In his book reflecting on the death of his son in his prime, American philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff says, “So suffering is down at the center of things, deep down where the meaning is.”  Yet, as Wolterstorff himself reflects further, it is hard to understand why this must be so.  “Why does God endure his suffering?  Why does he not at once relieve his agony by relieving ours?” (Lament for a Son, p.90)

— Uli Chi, Seattle, WA —

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My garden lies barren and dormant after a long, gray winter. It somehow reflects the sadness in my heart as we grieve broken relationships and the death of loved ones. Can life ever come back to this place? Can these things be restored? Just when it all seems too sorrowful, too impossible, spring creeps in with purple crocuses, yellow buttercups, and red tulips. Blooming white phlox and then the hostas push up from the soil and miraculously unfurl their leaves. Hope, life, color flood the scenery and remind me God is not done. Despite bare branches that may remain outside my farmhouse window, I rejoice this Holy Week with the whole of creation for the life that is coming and for He who has overcome.

— Angela Correll, Stanford, KY —

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One devotion I read this past week emphasized how Jesus is fully aware that He came with the purpose of dying. This realization stayed with me for days as I go on through life’s routines. He is very clear about His calling as the Savior of the world, to die for us. I couldn’t help wondering how many of us are aware and clear of our callings. As I often talked with many young women, I often talk about callings. Last night we invited two young couples who are newlyweds over for dinner. Over the meal, this topic surfaced inevitably. Again, my heart went to these young faces, eager to listen and learn, torn between the realization that looking for– and following– God’s calling might, or often, clashes with personal ambitions, either ours or our closest ones, and the yearnings to be obedient to God. Letting go of any personal wishes or ambitions, or dying to self, if you like, is never easy. We have so many “But ….” For me, the challenge might be the expectations from my culture that educated women have to join the marketplace, just because we are educated. For other women, it might be the yearning to be close to their children while they are working their ways up the corporate ladder. Not every woman is called to be a stay-at-home mom like me, nor to be career women. We all need to seek and find our very own callings and vocations. Every calling, every vocation, every occupation has its own crosses to bear, so many deaths to go through repeatedly as we go through them. But they also have their rewards and meanings as we take our part in God’s work in this world. “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John12:24).

— Lily Endang Joeliani, Bandung, Indonesia —

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I have found my way, somehow, into a home whose surrounding grounds are purposed for grazing and the livestock occupying it want nothing more than to fulfill that purpose. On a dairy farm nestled between the animated mountains of upstate New York, I see and feel Jesus. The trees dancing outside my window and decorating each elevated ridge are slowly resurrecting and regaining their color. It’s as if the ascending hills in either direction echo the humble descent of   Jesus into that little village on the Mount of Olives. I am awakened to recall the height of hope as the people cried “Hosanna” (“save us now”) and I am grounded as I realize our cry today is not much different. Soberly, I work to make sense of the reality of the two. That as we once called for Him to save us – our lamb being led to slaughter – we are still crying out for Him to come, die, and resurrect over and over again in our lives lived every day.

For me, this week which accents the passion of our Christ equally accents the reality of my need for His passion. I am brought to my knees as I remember the lifting of His cross which led to the lifting of my head. With this in mind, Lent looks less like objectives to accomplish with hopes of appeasing my own guilt. It is more of an opportunity to join in the suffering of Christ through the submission of my flesh, with hopes of aligning with His spirit. It is an understanding that our ability for progression is activated within our time of reflection. It is a prayer, in the midst of a broken hallelujah, for Jesus to continually reveal himself as He did in the days leading up to the ultimate outpouring of His passion. It is resting in the goodness of our Big Brother which overflows onto us just as the ascending hills eclipsing this dairy farm in upstate New York seem to flow from one range to another. I have found my way, somehow, into that overflow. May I want nothing more than to allow it to fulfill its purpose in me.

— Enitan Coker, Falls Church, VA (from Atlanta, GA) —

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Midway between threescore and ten and fourscore years I feel the weight of wanting to capture what last words I might want to share with those close to me even as Jesus did during his last days on earth. As a teacher of juniors and seniors in high school, including one granddaughter, I found myself in the Apologetics classroom last week praying to be able to convey something of the “heart” of Jesus’ passion, not simply the “head” of the theology of the atonement. It was our last class before the Easter break, and I confessed to them I felt really inadequate to communicate the love of Christ that this next week speaks of. So after we read and discussed much of I Corinthians 15 together where Paul so cogently summarizes the gospel and the crucial nature of the resurrection, we turned to Genesis 15, eliciting some odd looks. My students know this old guy can be weird and the connection seemed “random” as they would say. So as we read the story of God’s covenant ceremony with the long suffering Abraham, we reenacted the scene where the animals are torn in two and placed on the ground to seal the agreement of promised vast land and multitudes of people who would become the countless progeny of the patriarch.

With two young men taking their place on the floor representing the ripped, bloody “body parts” of cattle and sheep and goats, I proceeded to pass between them as the smoke and fire of God. Of course, this was as weird as they anticipated, and we had a bit of fun with it. But then, we discussed the meaning of how a covenant was sealed in those days, with each party saying in effect, “You may do so to me if I fail my part.” Then I said what God taught me years ago, “This is the first, clear instance of the gospel where we see God’s character fully revealed. Why is that?” I think they began to get a glimmer, if just a little, of what it has taken me decades to begin to grasp. We saw together that God stood in the place of Abraham as well as in his own place, in effect saying if Abraham’s heirs broke the covenant of faithful following, then He would take the consequences on himself. And that he did—that he so terribly did. Jesus Christ, ripped apart by nails and lash and thorns, bleeding profusely in his last moments on earth, suffered physically yet more so in the despair of abandonment, to fulfill the covenant made two millennia earlier. All this so that those of us who believed in him by faith might not have to suffer our deserved lot.

But that is not the end of the story either, for we explored further that not only did Jesus suffer in ways we cannot imagine for us he also suffers with us. And this is where it becomes difficult to teach. Some teens have known suffering—anxiety, depression, divorce, shunning, failure of admission to a college. But with six decades of life more than they, I want them to know that to follow Jesus means suffering even as he told us–yet not alone. He suffers with us. How long it took me to understand that truth, in faith, yet how tenuous that faith is when I actually suffer. As a teacher, I find I must content myself in this realm of true knowing that not all lessons are learned in a classroom and not all lessons are learned in one sitting. I want them to know this, too, and to be patient with themselves as God slowly reveals more and more of his love in his suffering—and experience in ours. Lent is the time to try to move that knowledge a bit deeper and Easter is the time to rejoice in the truth the resurrection of Jesus holds for us. Yet it is also time to prepare for the heartaches and joys of the rest of life and this is why this annual cycle of remembering is such a precious and terrible gift to us all.

—Ray Blunt, Alexandria, VA —

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My family has a tradition during Lent that involves us giving up dessert from Monday through Saturday and then we feast on Sunday with a range of tasty treats, which we enjoy together.  The longing that each member of our family experiences during the fast is satisfied beautifully every Sunday with thankfulness that is apparent to everyone.  This yearning is also evident in my role as the Headmaster of a K-12 Christian Liberal Arts School where I lament the way that our modern technocratic culture undermines the piety, innocence, and attentiveness of our students as we try to instill in them a joy of seeing how the various disciplines that they are studying are all held together in Christ (Colossians 1:15-19).  I also mourn the growing rift in our partnership with parents who increasingly view education through a very utilitarian lens rather than one that is preparing their son or daughter to live as salt in light in a culture that is increasing turning away from seeking Christ.  Finally, I humbly pray that God help my unbelief so that I can do a better job of responding to these situations with grace and love rather than with frustration, which only shows my lack of faith.

— George Sanker, Charlottesville, VA —

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Although I am coming into this Holy Week weary and less focused on Christ than this time last year, I also feel a moment-by-moment awareness of the now-but-not-yet. And for that reason, I can’t help but feel connected to the Lord, because that it is His plan for us here. Embracing and submitting to that framework for the world and for ourselves can be frustrating, like a warm-up stretch with no game in sight. But the doing the opposite, possessing a fixed mindset, is all the more exhausting and painful. As a first year teacher, I struggle to maintain a long-term vision for my abilities, which can in fact only grow stronger with time and experience. I must remember, too, that the moments of today only capture a snapshot of my students’ skills as readers, writers, and thinkers. Their growth, which also extends to more important values of character, and God’s good plans for their lives are not limited by the halls of their high school. 

We are always waiting, and that waiting is supposed to change us. We wait for Christ’s arrival in human flesh at Advent. We will wait this week between Palm Sunday and the Last Supper, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, the Crucifixion and the Lord’s triumphant Resurrection. We wait in an extended engagement throughout our time on this earth for what we are really made for – a marriage to our Lord in heaven and the manifestation of the New Heaven and the New Earth. But if we let it, we can let the daily newsfeed and toil of our world lull us into believe that the kind of waiting we are made for is anything but an active anticipation.

Recently, my students and I have been studying Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and one of her token characters provided an unexpected reminder that Jesus came to challenge the complacency we don’t even see in our own lives. Just as He is not satisfied with the way our world works and yet loves it still, we are called to that same mission. That is why, I think, the Prince of Peace came with “a sword” and not a pat on the back. When He came, “He thrown everything off balance” (A Good Man is Hard to Find”). We are reminded of this as we undertake the work of waiting for and actively seeking the transformation of both ourselves and our world. We have an opportunity once more to celebrate this marker that Jesus once came to disrupt our world to the glory of God and He will come again to renew and restore it forever. 

— Tim Hilliard, Fairfax, VA —

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Seven years ago I was walking on a winter night through a frigid park with a friend.  I was in the midst of a family tragedy and sensed God was quite silent.  I told my friend that I hadn’t really prayed for months and didn’t miss it.  “How can I believe in God and not want to talk with Him,” I asked.  My friend’s wise counsel (possibly inspired by our surroundings) was simply, “your relationship with God is frozen.  It’s how you protect yourself.  It’ll thaw, it’s just frozen for a while.”  Higher education as a social institution in the U.S. seems similarly on ice.  Education has been replaced by information transfer and business-model-efficiency.  After a career in the college world I often don’t even ask what happened to the vibrant, life-giving setting I once experienced.  As I was restored from my personal tragedy, I saw God appear little by little not unlike a thaw that breaks the cycle of “always winter but never Christmas.”  It was not unlike the thaw from twenty three students I spent spring break with on an educational excursion to Puerto Rico.  Engaged, anxious to understand, trying new things day after day, and wanting to talk about things that matter: on the bus, in the rain forest, at the cabana or just walking.  It felt like a resurrection.

— Brad Frey, Beaver Falls, PA —

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I find myself disappointed with God. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres” (Psalm 137:1,2). Walter Brueggemann in his book The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith defines exile as, “Displacement and alienation from the place that gives identity and security, from all shapes and forms that gave power to faith and life.” Yet the Apostle Peter has the audacity to call Christ followers “exiles,” to even define God’s people as they sojourn by this very core identity of exile. Peter goes even further by calling us what one without goodwill towards the God of the Bible might consider a cruel and capricious act of divine sadism, “elect exiles.” It is as if to say God ordained that I wander through the world without “identity, security, from all shapes and forms that gave power to faith and life” (Brueggemann). God does want me to prosper does he not? He did come that I might have life and have it abundantly as the Apostle John passed on, right? So why am I so disappointed?

I’ve been disappointed with God since the fall of 2015 when my father was first diagnosed with the sinister disease of Lewy Body Dementia. LBD is a lesser known form of dementia than Alzheimer’s, in some ways more cruel as little LB proteins in the brain rob their victim first of motor skills and then begin to create an alternative world in the victim by producing hallucinations in the back of the brain. Those hallucinations cause the afflicted one to see people and things that are not really there. So while my dad lives only with my mom and sister, he is convinced that there are thirty people in his house most of the time, including little children at his dinner table. He wonders how he will feed all the little mouths, and some of the others who sleep in his bed and hide in his closet and come into the house through secret tunnels from under the house, dad’s convinced, mean to cause him harm and to take his money. It’s just one terrible nightmare that never quite goes away. I hate Lewy Body Dementia, just as I hate the evils this last week I witnessed on the news feeds regarding the atrocities in Syria. And while I know that God is never the author of such evils, I also wonder why as the Sovereign One, such things have been ordained for God’s people all over the world. I miss the dad who laughed so easily, who got on the floor when my kids were little and found so much delight and joy in them, but now is mostly stern-faced and agitated in their presence. I’m sad that LBD has robbed my dad of some of his very best gifts as a great father and an even better grandfather.

Holy Week from Sunday to Friday is particularly about the disappointment of the people spilling over by week’s end. Palm Sunday represents hopes that trace back to a history of sorrow and unspeakable tragedies that had been inflicted upon God’s people going back eight centuries, from the domination of the Assyrians to the Babylonians to the Persians and then the Greeks, then Romans. An exilic identity was all the people had known, and they wanted more. But because their disappointment turned sinister by week’s end and Jesus knew that it would, he also wept as he enters Jerusalem. The people of the city did not see “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42). As elect exiles in the middle of Holy Week, will we see the way of the exilic road as the way of the Kingdom? Will we also see that in Jesus’ cry of dereliction on Friday, the Elect One par excellence, the Chosen Son, enters our exile with us in love? We so often become disappointed with things as they are, this we cannot avoid. What we do have a part in determining is where our disappointments go. Where will they go?

— Michael Hsu, Vancouver, BC —

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When will the suffering cease? My heart is sorrowful for the pain of this world – pain that is found in a cancer diagnosis, in Syria for the past several years, or in the cry of a heart in the face of abuse. It seems as though suffering is becoming even more commonplace.  Maybe this simply implies that I am growing up and feeling more of the broken-heartedness of the world. We approach this life with such high expectations -we hope to graduate, get a good job, have a nice family, be respected in society. We certainly do not hope to see our family members in pain or members of our society hated. Our high expectations are crushed by the realities of a broken world, but thankfully we are not left in that brokenness.

We live in a now and not-yet tension in that we have some of the realities of the Kingdom of God here on earth, but we also wait in troubled times with anxious hope for the day when Christ returns. As a Christian, the only way I can think to get through the every day suffering in this broken world is by looking to the hope of the resurrection. We serve a King who has suffered the most, to the end of the earth and back so that we don’t have to.  Even when it seem like there is no way it could get worse, there is a worst that Jesus has already taken and conquered for us. As I ponder the week of the Passover coupled with the sorrow I feel here on earth, the only way I find any peace is by looking with hope at the resurrection of my Lord and to the day when He again returns. 

— Ellie Groenendyk, McLean, VA (from Sioux City, SD) —

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This lent, like others before, I spent time with God, looking inside myself for patterns that need to die along with the death of my Savior.  Instead, another truth emerged.  Perhaps it found me as I contemplated the poverty I saw on my trip to Kenya last month or the constant atrocities that happen every day in our world.  I feel like I am suffering from the weight of all that is wrong, like the suffering of Christ which we anticipate this time of year.   Isaiah 58 gives us a list of transforming behaviors toward the poor or needy and as I read it, I just felt more tired, more old and worn out!  But then the Spirit took me back to the verse that says, “I will always show you where to go.  I will give you full life in the emptiest of places – firm muscles, strong bones.”  That is what I tend to forget when I focus on things I can’t understand.  Yet here is God, transforming in spite of our world or my sin.  Here is Jesus going to the cross, in spite of his goodness.  Surely this is “the emptiest of places”  and I know there is an invitation for a transformed me.

— Boni Piper, Seattle, WA —

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Being an artist, I am going to answer with paintings.  These two panels are part of the Lenten series at All Saints Church in Princeton.  They are designated for Lenten reflections leading into Good Friday.  Each panel is 48×60″, diptych.  Sumi ink, Cinnabar and Gesso on Canvas. 2016

Cinnabar mineral pigments are very heavy, so they sink in between the canvas weaves, and they seem to absorb the light in to tiny “black holes”.  Christ’s suffering is both anticipated and depicted in the painting.

— Makoto Fujimura, Princeton, NJ —

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The time of Lent… let me start out with the music that plays a role for me in this time. It is Arvo Part with his Kanon Pokajanen, “Canon of Repentance,” by Cappella Amsterdam. It is of an austere beauty and I find it best just to sit and listen. It is touches my often feeling so inadequate in being able to do enough in this crying-out world, only scratching the surface so much of the time. This last week I saw a photo exhibit by Henri Cartier Bresson. Taken in different countries of Europe, he captures ordinary people caught at the right moment. Seeing his work there was such a feeling of warmth, almost soothing, remembering that it’s all right just being one of those ordinary people.

— Tineke Adeney, Apeldoorn, The Netherlands —

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For me, Holy Seasons like Lent and particularly Holy Week, tend to heighten my senses and stir my curiosity and sensitivities. The mysteries of things unseen connect my own soul with the groaning of all of creation, and this moves my imagination in a more tender and raw way toward the deep heart of God for his people. Allowing myself to be sensitive and open to the voice of the Spirit has been a particularly vulnerable place for me at times. In order for me to move in surrender and obedience, be poured out for the church, and be an encouragement to my pastor in the journey, it is required that I be emptied. Giving life to things unseen and not yet made real to the senses requires courage, faith, exposure, and sometimes great physical, emotional, and mental sacrifice. Despite this cost, there are visions and ideas which I can choose to enflesh. I’ve come to see that creating through Scripture is a way of bringing the kingdom of God to life here and now in some small way. So, throughout Lent, I’ve tried to clear my schedule. Especially entering Holy Week in anticipation, I am watching and waiting. I was drawn to the beauty and mystery of the Church at a very young age as my mother sought shelter with me there. So as I sit reflecting on my deep love and heart for the Bride of Christ (feet still splattered with indigo and gold stain from my painted response to worship yesterday), I know my story as an artist and daughter of the Church has been deeply intertwined and ordered with purpose from the beginning. Growing up, I always struggled as an artist to find my place in the story and family of God. However, in recent years I have begun to see myself as called and implicated to create, and I have been blessed with fresh awareness that creating is a restorative act. I feel now a responsibility to the bride of Christ to be an open vessel, allowing the spirit to breathe life and hope through the works of my hands as he desires. I deeply believe that beauty is meant to stir our hope in the truest of truths, and the kindness of the Father. Beauty is meant to nourish weary souls, reminding us of the end of the story when all shall be made well. As I enter this week realizing how small I am, I do so with the knowledge that glimpses of His glory are saturated with his grace and loving kindness. He remembers we are only dust, and He will not show more of himself than we can bear. But still, I’ll be watching, waiting, and holding my breath (and my paintbrush too) in hopes of capturing and imaging something of his heart that might bring life to others.

— Gina Hurry, Birmingham, AL —

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 So what? This is the question I ask myself each morning this Lent as I leave my home to go and work in the inner city of Pittsburgh and begin my day.  So what?  I am a primary care physician, working with patients suffering from severe mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction these past 20 plus years, and I know, it is easy to become cynical, jaded, and give up on them.  This past year, I have seen my far share of patients that have overdosed on opiates, patients here one day and gone the next.  Under bridges, in the back seats of abandoned cars, in old tents, and in homeless shelters, they live and end desperate lives, lives that they would rather escape from than go on with day after day after day.  Life rejects life.   What do you say?  How do you get someone to care about his or her life enough to turn around and get help?  Some do take the help our team offers, some think about it, and some just turn and go the other way. So what? Does Jesus care?  As I look now to Holy week now, let Christ’s passion, suffering, death and resurrection be my guide.  Christ, looking out on the crowd, seeing those that would choose the sacrificial gift of life that He offers and others turning and screaming “crucify him” but yet He did not turn His face away.  His face, full of compassion and mercy and love, telling us all to “come, lay your burdens at my feet and take my yoke upon your shoulders for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” reminds me that I don’t need to always know the difference I make, but to know that it is Jesus that changes hearts if they let Him. Like the crowds in Jerusalem during Passover, they have a choice to accept or reject. My vocation is to share that heart changing love day by day by day, with gladness and singleness of heart by grace and with thanksgiving.

— Todd Wahrenberger, Pittsburgh, PA —

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Here I sit in my comfortable chair. A mug of coffee beside me. My slippers are lamb’s wool and leather. The heater is pulling chill from the morning air. Bird song is so loud it’s audible through closed windows. A pillow lies on my lap to prop open the Bible just so. It’s the third day after Jesus died and Mary is weeping and heartbroken because he is gone. Disappeared. No one knows where. During this Passion Week, at some point, all that’s gone wrong in life might bring tears of sorrow or repentance to any of us. Perhaps for the babies in Syria who were gassed last week. For my friend whose stage of cancer has been up-ticked. For the Coptic churches bombed a few days ago. Or maybe for my private sins hidden from you. Is it because my human suffering in the face of the world is so small it allows me to sit calmly rocking and sipping as I watch the sky flame apricot and blue? I should probably crumple with a sense of shame and despair. But today I don’t. My face drinks the rising sun. Some of this calm is because Jesus found Mary on that day long ago. And with all that is in me, I believe Jesus will find all his dears – no matter how far our ashes scatter. I can sit here because something powerful is building in the cosmos and one day this Savior, this Lamb we know as Jesus, will turn feral and fierce. It was the lover St. John who wrote about Mary and who later wrote the book of Revelation with the eye of one who has truly seen and knows that for all the suffering that exists there is recompense coming – a time when the Christ of God will destroy all those who destroy the earth. This hope is a hard, slow understanding and words of comfort for the mother whose children drowned in the Aegean sea as they escaped Syria are beyond me. But where else do we go than to the cross? All my bets are on him. And so be it. Amen.

— Margie Haack, Savage, MN —

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I have often stood next to Mary in my imagination when I hear the story of John 11.  This Lenten season, I find myself standing close to Martha.  She meets Jesus after her brother has been buried for a few days, her heart heavy with unanswered questions. Jesus didn’t come in time.  This is not what she expected.  “Lord, if you’d have been here, my brother would not have died.”  Tenaciously, she affirms her faith, but with a hint of self-protection, “I know you will raise him up in the last day.  I know you can do all things.”   With great gentleness, Jesus responds not with answers but with his presence.  “Martha, I am the resurrection.”  Even before he demonstrates resurrection, he is the resurrection. I’m a songwriter by vocation, and in the craft of writing gospel songs, I’ve found Martha’s question prompt’s another fruitful question. What rooms in my life have I pushed a stone in front of?  What desires do I lock up with logistics and practical cynicism?  Jesus comes to meet us before the ‘raising up,’ and airs out the rooms that have grown stale and hidden within our hearts.  God is patient in the days of lent, patient in promise, present in our sorrows.  He brings us back to life, not just in the last day, but in this day, too. For friendship and for flourishing, he gives us songs to sing us forward, and walks with us along the road.

— Sandra McCracken, Nashville, TN —

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