Silent Saturday

The day after you lose your best friend is actually worse than the day that you watch him hang. Because at least while you’re watching him die, the whole thing has an air of reality somehow, even if it’s the worst reality you’ve ever experienced. But the day after he’s dead, you wake up with this sense of unreal-ness, like maybe you dreamed it all, and now it will all be put right.

Every corner you turn, you expect to find his face on the other side. And every time a conversation starts, you strain to hear his voice. I think that’s really why we’re hiding. I mean, we’re hiding from the authorities, of course, because if Jesus is… dead, then surely the rest of us are soon to follow. But I think we’re also hiding from seeing him everywhere we used to spend time with him–in the market, at the table, sitting by the sea.

The truth is, it’s the silence and the emptiness that’s the worst of it. Because at least when you’re crying, you’re doing something. Most of us have spent the day together, and sometimes we’ve talked, or prayed, or cried together, but mostly we just sit in silence and stare at the wall, wondering what to do. Wondering how this man who we gave our whole lives to could suddenly be gone.

This man who calmed the storm and healed the sick. This man who brought Moses and Elijah to the mountain. This man who brought a man back from the dead. That’s the hardest part. To know that he could have saved himself.

Or maybe he couldn’t have. Or worse–maybe he didn’t want to.

And why not? We, his best friends, ran away from him at the time he needed us most. We were so afraid. We’re still so afraid. And aren’t we right to be? If they can kill Jesus, what are any of us?

But still, I can’t help but remember all of the moments when each one of us turned our backs on him, the one we swore to follow to the grave–past the grave. And still, we deserted him. So why should he save himself? If we were his best friends, what did he have here? Everyone hated him, even those who claimed to love him. We’re proof of that. So maybe it makes sense that he didn’t throw himself down from the cross as many begged him to do. Maybe it makes sense that he was silent in the face of his accusers even though they had no case against him.

We believed he was the son of God. That emptiness, that silence that follows the death of anyone you love–I’ve never felt it like this. Because he had changed everything, or so we thought. And now we just don’t know what to do.

And for him to die on a cross. On that symbol of the Roman government that we hate so much, that enslaves us, that we believed Jesus came here to finally free us from. He talked so often about loosing the shackles of the enslaved, about how his burden was easy and his yoke was light. But he was killed by that same power that holds all of us in oppression. And if he couldn’t beat it, what chance do any of us have?

I’m trying not to think about all of the faces that are soon to follow in his footsteps. Faces of my brothers and sisters that I’ve spent the last three years living with and praying with and eating with and loving. Faces that I know will confront death sooner than any of us can imagine. Faces I may never see again.

The sky is still dark. The sun has died. The women tell us that when he was on the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Well, that’s how we feel, too.

Veni, Veni

A couple of years ago, I put up a short story for Christmas (which you can find here) which used some characters from my current novel, Go. I thought I’d write another one for this year instead of just cheating and putting up the old one! Enjoy! If you’d like to learn more about the MacMasters, ask me about being a beta reader. I’m hoping the rewrite will be done (very) soon!

“And so man was made higher than the angels, and God said that it was very good.”

It was the first time in five years that the four MacMasters had been in church together. Twelve-year-old Xandri sat between her parents, with Curt, her little brother, sitting on her mother’s other side. It was Christmas Eve, and Xandri could just make out snow swirling around outside the stained glass windows of St. Paul’s Cathedral, in Shadyside, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The huge sanctuary was chilly, but made warmer with its closely packed congregation and the ceremonial candles lit on the altar.

“Humans are in a very unique position,” the priest continued, looking out over the filled pews. “We are the only beings in creation who can neither call ourselves good nor evil.”

Xandri looked over at her mother. Kate’s eyes were fixed straight ahead, but they were rimmed with red, and her hand that clutched Curt’s was white-knuckled. Remembering, Xandri thought. Remembering the only reason why she’d agreed to come to church with her ex-husband.

“The angels were created to be good. They are God’s messengers, warriors, protectors. They follow orders because they are obedient. They are good. We, too, were made good, like the angels.”

Now Xandri looked at her father’s face, taut in the dim light of the candles and lanterns. Tomorrow, the church would be bright, but tonight, the tone was almost solemn. A tone of waiting. The lines in Sebastian’s face were deep. Xandri knew that he was under a lot of pressure–things were hard at the Agency right now. She didn’t know why–it seemed to be financial problems, and Sebastian didn’t really talk about that with anyone–but she saw the fear and the anxiety in his face, his bearing, heard it in his voice. Sometimes, she felt like she knew her father better than she knew herself. She thought for a moment of Astria. Maybe some of her analytical friend’s gifts were wearing off on Xandri.

“But for the angels, the glowing, holy creatures that God created, one act was enough to catapult them out of Heaven, to change them forever from beings of light and goodness to beings of evil.”

This made Xandri think of the glowing creatures–was that the right word?–that wandered so often in the courtyard of the cathedral, the ones she couldn’t find any trace of anymore. She wondered if she believed they were angels. Maybe they were. She had certainly seen enough of other EDIs, short for extra-dimensional intelligence, to believe plenty of them were demons.

“And the demons–they are beings of evil. Don’t let popular culture convince you otherwise. They can do nothing but lie and destroy. Their ability to do good, to serve God, was lost with that one act of greed.”

Xandri didn’t need convincing. Maybe not every EDI was a demon–she didn’t believe they were–but it was obvious that there were many who were irredeemable.

“So, where does that leave us? The creatures that God created good, a little higher than the angels; who, like the angels, chose greed, and fell; and, with our great height of glory, fell to greater depths than even the demons could understand?”

This tweaked Xandri a little. Could Father Steven really believe that? That humans had fallen farther than the demons had? Clearly, he’d never had to deal with real demons. Even the little that she had made her blood run cold just thinking about it. Demons stealing her brother, trying to rip her family apart. Demons tormenting the homeless people on the streets. Demons who kidnapped and wholesale slaughtered fifty of her colleagues less than a month ago. He didn’t know demons.

“But that is not the end of the story, friends. Despite the depths of our depravity, there is something God did for us that he never did for either the angels or the demons.” In an unusual move, the priest walked out from behind his pulpit and down the stairs in front of the altar until he was at the same level as his congregation. “He reached down to the pit we’d dug ourselves,” he began, crouching down and picking up something Xandri couldn’t see, “and lifted us up.” When Father Steven stood back up, he held a toddler who must have been sitting on the floor in the front row.

“So we are the only beings in all of creation who live in the tension. Created to be better than the good, having fallen to lesser than the evil, and held in loving hands somehow in both. Because 2000 years ago, God came to us as a child, in the midst of our evil, to bring us good.” Father Steven handed the child back to his mother. “We are redeemed, but He still restores. We stand with one foot in each world, unsteady as we make the step. But He holds us up.” Father Steven returned to the pulpit. “Let us pray.”

Each of Xandri’s parents slid a hand into hers. It felt like a miracle, like evidence of that tension, that they sat here. The good in the togetherness, the evil in the absence of Nicholas, the other MacMaster child, lost five years ago. The dividing line between the mundane and the unexplainable, already so thin for her family, felt like a breath tonight. But maybe, Xandri thought, evil wasn’t the only thing on the other side.

They finished the service with Xandri’s favorite hymn, its haunting notes following her all the way home.

“Veni, veni, Emmanuel,
Captivum solve Israel,
Qui gemit in exsilio,
Privatus Dei Filio.
Gaude, gaude! Emmanuel,
Nascetur pro te Israel.”

Godspell

My mother’s faith began with a pack of cigarettes
(menthol miracle)
and a nap with a Western Civ textbook on her chest
dreaming of jeans in a sea of togas.
She met Jesus on the Mount
and then in buckskins, asleep,
seven feet tall.
He opened his eyes at her from a wooden sculpture
and sent her an Episcopal priest,
a mountaintop in eastern Kansas.
Whiskey and smoke were His body and blood,
calling the hippy rocker in the 1980s
who wanted nothing to do with this Galilean carpenter.
He was the God of the small things,
the gritty things,
the pot smokers, the drinkers, those who stayed up too late
and were sanctified in the fire of the early-morning radio station.
Seeing visions and dreaming dreams
long after all the drugs and smoke had gone away.
She met Jesus, sharp edges intact,
on the road to Mount Oread.
She’s never been the “church-y” type.

The upside to changing your mind (or, why we argue)

I want you to imagine, for a moment, yourself at 16. If that wasn’t very long ago, then imagine yourself, say, five or six years younger than you are now. What are you thinking about? What opinions do you hold about your life and the things in it? What do you think you know about the world?

Okay, now come back and settle into your current skin. Do you wish you were sixteen again? Or, even better, do you wish you were the same age you are now, except with the same knowledge and opinions you had then?

This is the standard to which we hold those people who run our country. One of our highest values in our leaders, as shown in many attack ads, is that they never change their minds. “Flip-flopping,” or “waffling,” we call it. We bring up things they said in an opinion column twenty years ago and, if they claim to have changed their minds since then, we have one of two responses: we don’t believe them, or we crucify them for it.

Do we want to live in a country run by sixteen-year-olds? Do we want leaders who, when they’re confronted with new data and evidence, refuse to make any revision to what they believe? Or whose constituents won’t allow them to? If somebody’s been in office for twenty years and has exactly the same stances he had then on every single issue, I think maybe he missed the point!

I’ve always been wary of the idea of running for office because I hate the culture of suspicion that surrounds learning and refining your beliefs. If I think all the same things in twenty years that I think now, I’m probably not paying very much attention to the world around me, or at least I’ve stopped trying to learn. That’s not a future I want to create. 

In current political discourse, we don’t argue to learn from and teach to each other. We argue to be right. And it’s got to stop.

There was a great TED talk about the power of debate and the ways in which the world would be different if we allowed everyone in an argument to win–not because they came out correct, but because they came out having listened and learned something.

The next time you have a gut instinct to believe what you’ve always believed and say what you’ve always said just because it’s what you know, see if you can’t learn something from the person “opposite” you. Try to analyze, not whether you have data to back up your claims, but if you could come to your claims from the data itself. And for the love of all that is holy, listen to other people. Because I really don’t want this country to be run by teenagers.

Ashes

“From dust you came and to dust
you shall return.” Empty powder
blown into a strong wind.

A hollow city steeped in darkness,
lifeless shell of a kingdom
with no energy to even let itself burn.

Tears streaked in grey and brown,
stomach barren and eyes raw,
sitting in sackcloth and despair.

Grey memories mix with black earth.
Your grief is fertile ground,
rising with no place left to fall.

All welcome in the Holy of Holies
now. Serve with hands smelling
like His, a fragrant offering.

On the altar, only ashes remain.

From Ashes You Come

“Happy Ash Wednesday” always seems a little bit like an oxymoron. Ash Wednesday, while sacred, is not particularly happy. An Ash Wednesday service is solemn, including putting a cross of ashes on the forehead of each member of the congregation and reminding them, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.”

“Lent,” as I just learned from this beautiful article on Relevant, comes from a Latin root that also gives us “lengthen.” In this cold and difficult time of year, the days are slowly lengthening and more light is working its way into every day. Lent is a time to prepare ourselves for the ultimate coming of that light. The more we understand our existence in ashes, the more awe we will find in the coming of the new life.

This Lent, I’m participating in an Instagram project with The Neighborhood Church, my home church in Colorado. Each day, there’s a word to serve as inspiration to take and post a picture. I want to take it a step further, though–writing has always been an important way for me to engage with my faith, so I’m going to endeavor to write a piece each day, or most days, following the theme. “Ashes” is the inspiration for today, so keep an eye out.

I won’t say “Happy Ash Wednesday.” But, along the lines of C.S. Lewis’s Joy with a capital J, I will wish you a Joyous Ash Wednesday and Lenten Season.

Faith, Obedience, and Wonder

Something I’ve always struggled with is always being shocked when God actually comes through with an answer to prayer. Like, doesn’t praying in faith and obedience mean that I expect God will answer, even if it’s answer I don’t want or don’t expect? Why would I be shocked when God does what He says He’ll do?

Last night, though, it occurred to me that I’m probably being a little bit harsh on something that’s actually really amazing. God tells us to approach Him like little children do their fathers, child-like in our faith. I think we have a tendency to focus only on one side of that. Being like a child in our prayers means more than just approaching our Father boldly with our needs and desires, knowing that He has given us the standing to approach Him with everything, no matter how great or how small.

Think about really innocent little kids, the ones who you think most closely mirror the kind of faith and relationship Jesus is talking about. There’s two parts to this story. If a little kid goes and asks her father to go to Disney World, and her father actually takes her, do you think the awe and amazement she feels when they go actually insults her father? Do you think the father goes, “Well, since you’re not totally taking it in stride that we’re at Disney World, you must have thought I wouldn’t make good on my word”?

I don’t think so! God has given us this incredible set of attributes to be both His image-bearers and beings who can receive His love: He gives us this capacity, through His power, for the faith to move mountains and the standing to ask for it, and yet still allows us to be totally awed and blown away when the mountains actually throw themselves into the sea.

I don’t think it’s because we’re short-sighted or lacking in faith (though we certainly can be both). I think God in His wisdom allows us the capacity for faith and awe at the same time. What better way to worship the God who is both perfectly faithful and able to do infinitely more than all we can ask or imagine? I don’t think God is annoyed when He amazes us–I think He’s overjoyed.

We used to sing this song at VBS when I was little called “Our God is an Awesome God.” I don’t think at that age I had any idea what “awesome” actually meant. But now, I am incredibly grateful that our God is, in fact, awesome in every sense of the word. So let’s approach our God boldly to ask for the desires of our hearts, but let’s also be grateful that He comes through every time, and that, every time, He still inspires awe.

A Lenten Song, pt. 1: Dusk

Washington Monument at sunsetIf you want to see something beautiful
On the first warm day of spring
Put on a good pair of walking shoes
(Even if you can’t find the right socks)
And turn on some joyful music
As you walk out the door and toward the Capitol

The sun is warm on your skin
(Because your skin can finally see the sun)
And for the first time in what seems like forever
The sky is blue and the city comes alive

Between the music
“Shine Your light” and
the people whose eyes are shining
“let the whole world see”
Joy is infectious in this place
And you don’t care that you’re the crazy girl laughing at everything staring into the sun
And seeing all the kids dressed in the colors of a world finally escaping from winter
Unable to stop themselves from running
Across the green earth and around the budding trees
Waiting for something
But they don’t know what
As the dusky sunlight songs float down the mall
And the people from everywhere breathe life bubbling up from the ground
And sense the something about to burst up into the world
Then the sun makes its dive and the cool wind sweeps your breath away
As night slides through the crowd and silences the people
But they dream of flowers breaking through the stones and the color that seeps back into the sky

And the ground vibrates
With the coming dawn