On the other side of the cross: the grace that carries you forever

“Let grace be grace.” The invitation has wound its way through Lent, summoning me to surrender to love in all sorts of ways. But it’s in one moment on Good Friday that I experience the magnitude of this grace most clearly.

For a moment on Friday morning as I read John 19 I am his mother, watching him hang on the cross, hearing him speak to me, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to his best friend standing beside me, “Here is your mother.”

I want to protest, “Forget about me! Look at you! You are scarcely able to breathe for the pain, the weight of your own body suffocating you!” I’m wringing my hands now. “Oh, how can I help?” It’s all so backwards, so upside-down. Surely this moment at least, this moment of his suffering and death, should be about him, about me caring for him.

But, no. Here on this day when the world is coming to an end, when my heart is hanging there with him on the cross, he tells me that my needs matter. Even here.

This love is too big. I can hardly breathe. I watch him rise again, pressing his feet against the stakes to gulp another lungful of air, and as I watch, I realize:

It’s not “even.” It’s “especially.” Especially here on the cross my needs matter.

That’s why he’s on the cross at all—because I matter to him. Because my needs matter to him more, even, than his own life.

This is the wild, crazy, ridiculously extravagant love that dies to meet my needs for healing, forgiveness, and a certain knowledge that I am forever loved. And this is the love that rises again, carrying me with him into the present, the future, always enfolded in this strong and gentle love that is enough for every need.

Someone sends me Flora Slosson Wuellner’s meditation and I find myself pausing over every line, noticing how the risen, living Christ is with me on the other side of the cross, still carefully tending every need within me and loving me into strength and wholeness.

“The risen, living Christ

calls me by my name;

comes to the loneliness within me;

heals that which is wounded in me;

comforts that which grieves in me;

seeks for that which is lost within me;

releases me from that which has dominion over me;

cleanses me of that which does not belong to me;

renews that which feels drained within me;

awakens that which is asleep in me;

names that which is formless within me;

empowers that which is newborn within me;

consecrates and guides that which is strong within me;

restores me to this world which needs me;

reaches out in endless love to others through me.”

~Flora Slosson Wuellner
, in Prayer, Fear, and Our Powers, Upper Room Books, 1989.

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I’ll be away from the blog for the next few weeks, first for the next intensive week of classes in my journey deeper into listening and helping others listen, and then for a couple of weeks of rest and celebration with family. As this new season of resurrection life begins, may you know Jesus loving you in each place of longing and need, and I look forward to listening with you again here soon!

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Paintings by Patricia Herrerra.

Why I mourn the cross this year—and why Jesus doesn’t

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Lent, and especially this week between Palm Sunday and the cross, sometimes feels to me unbearably heavy. The one I love is walking to the cross—because of my sin. How can I bear to watch? How can I bear not to? I want to be with him. It hurts to be. I feel so helpless. So guilty. So ashamed.

But when I look from the cross to the face of the one on it, I see him looking back at me, something far different in his face than in my own. Love, not condemnation.

I look away, unable to bear the love that is breaking me open. I have to look back, to see if he is still looking at me. He is. Still looking, still loving me, his eyes teaching me what he wants my heart to know: I am worth it. 

The strong shadow of the cross stands behind what seem to me the most beautiful words in the Bible, calling me to speak them as my own: “I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me.” (Song of Songs 7:10) Jesus went to the cross as Saviour, as obedient Son of his Father. He also went as Lover. Groom. Soon-to-be husband.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy. . . and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Eph 5:25-27)

In this week between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, Jesus seems to have had a wedding on his mind. The two parables He told about the kingdom of heaven being like a wedding were both told in this week leading up to the cross. (Matt 22:1-14; 25:1-13)

Even the Sadducees frame their trick question concerning the resurrection in light of marriage. Jesus replies, “Don’t you get it, guys? After the resurrection, people don’t marry each other.” One wonders if he isn’t thinking, “. . . because you get to marry me,” when he follows their conversation with the declaration that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30)

I’ve not eaten a meal with friends knowing it was my last before leaving the world. But even final meals before moving across the world are, for me, difficult affairs. Full of aching and sadness. Certainly not something I “eagerly desire.” I think Jesus could only say “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” because He was looking past the cross to the consummation. “For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 22:15-16)

The last conversation Jesus had with his friends was framed by His desire for union. It started with words straight from the Jewish betrothal ceremony:

“. . . I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:2-3)

It finished with a prayed expression of this same deep longing,

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am. . .” (John 17:24)

The cross is where Jesus proves his (un)dying love, His eternal commitment.

This is where he makes us His forever, strikes from our wedding vows “‘til death do us part.”

Here he removes our rags and clothes us in the fine white dress of his own making – of his own being – preparing us to be His bride.

We are so close, here, to his heart. So near to the wedding banquet and the intimacy that follows. Here at the cross, he does everything needed to make us his. Here he offers himself to us in that most vulnerable of conditions, utterly exposed, stripped not only of clothes but of all that we would consider beauty or basic human dignity. Stripped so that the naked glory of His blinding, sight-giving love could be visible. And he waits, the waiting itself the most vulnerable of postures. Waiting for us to look and, in the seeing, to learn to trust his love.

It is four years since I first saw Jesus thinking of a wedding as he headed to the cross. That year, I couldn’t mourn, because Jesus wasn’t mourning, and how do you mourn the greatest love in the universe? But this year? This year I hurt because I love him and I don’t want him to hurt. I don’t want to be the one to make him hurt. I mourn his pain. I mourn my sin that caused that pain. I grieve that I can’t help him in his pain—the pain he is suffering for love of me.

I look, and even as I hurt, I love him for every word, every action, every minute of his surrender to suffering that speaks such love. I love every detail about him that declares it done, me made perfect, made his. His eyes reach to me, telling me that he has never questioned whether all the pain was worth it. It was.

The long-spoken words echo through his silent surrender to the flogging: “You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride.” Beneath his cry, “It is finished,” I hear his now true declaration, “All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you.” With the tearing of the curtain, the final destruction of all that divides, He cries for my response, “Open to me, my sister, my darling, my flawless one. . . Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.” (Song of Songs 4:9, 7; 5:2; 2:10)

The too-good-to-miss news of where Jesus was born

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It was two nights before Christmas and I’d slipped into my common refrain of wishing I had a better self to offer Jesus—less fearful, less selfish, better able to trust. I didn’t sing that refrain long, though, because I let the thoughts become a conversation with Jesus, and he has a way of speaking into these conversations exactly what I need to hear.

So I told Jesus that I wished I had a better self to offer him, but I didn’t have a better self, and I couldn’t seem to make the self I do have better, so I was offering him again the only thing I have to offer (which just happens to be the thing he really wants)—my real self. I told him that even though I sometimes hold back in fear or selfishness or pride, the deeper part of me longs for him to be at home in me and to live his life out in and through me. Peace began to creep in, as though that deeper part of me sensed that Jesus had accepted my ongoing welcome and was loving me in it. And then the thought came, and with it, tears:

Jesus was born in a stable.

The warm, though prickly, straw of the manger welcomed him, the gentle lowing of cattle sung him to sleep, the breath and bodies of animals warmed the space in which he was born. And those same animals dropped pungent cow pies and sheep dung and wakened him with their noise just after his mama had finally rocked him to sleep.

Jesus’ newborn lungs first gasped air thick with the scent of dung.

He made his first home, as he’s made every earthly home since, where homely welcome and glimpses of earthy holiness sat side by side with all manner of things that irritate and smell and need to be disposed of.

Jesus is no stranger to mess. He is not afraid of my brokenness, not ashamed of my sin. He has breathed it in, carried it inside himself all the way to death, then come out the other side having left sin and its consequences gasping their final death-rattling breaths in the grave.

Jesus just asks for a stable. He can be born just as well in a stable as in a sterile delivery room—thankfully, since I for one do not have a sterile delivery room to offer him. He just asks for a welcoming stable, and his presence, as he grows there, slowly turns it into a clean and beautiful home.

What your heart needs for all the days after Easter

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My Easter weekend was messy. I wanted to stay and comfort Jesus in the garden; I soon asked him to comfort me instead. I wanted to love Jesus in his suffering, to focus on him, to serve him; I couldn’t get my mind off keys lost and assignments unfinished and the floor that needed sweeping. I found myself sitting squarely among the disciples who fell asleep, denied, betrayed. Who ran away. Who failed.

But in that place my heart understood. The cross speaks truth: I can’t do what I want to on my own. I can’t love, can’t listen, can’t trust. Can’t fix myself. But the cross speaks another truth too, about who Jesus is.

I’d been watching Jesus walk toward the cross. His friends and family should have been supporting him, serving him, comforting him as he walked that long road. Apparently they shared my inability to fix themselves because Jesus was the one who stooped and washed their feet, prayed and broke the bread, spoke three chapters of encouraging words and prayed tenderly and confidently for them in their hearing. His friends weren’t able to give him the hour of comfort he asked for; he left them to sleep and got on with loving them all the way to the cross. With one of his last breaths he entrusted his mother to his best friend. With another, he begged forgiveness for those who had put him on the cross.

He rose, and his loving continues. Once more, he is the one comforting, strengthening, encouraging. “Peace be with you.” When he should be the honored guest, he takes the role of the host, leading the Emmaus couple through the Scriptures, taking bread at their table, giving thanks, and breaking it. Building a fire on the beach to cook breakfast. Summoning the fish to the nets of his friends. Jesus is always the host.

The pastor says the manger was a clue. Manger: those six letters in English an animal feeding trough, in French the verb “to eat.” Right from his birth, Jesus was serving himself up. (Thanks, Pastor Tim!) Here, here alone, at the manger, the cross, the empty tomb, here, at the Lord’s table, enfolded in the arms of the risen Jesus, is our nourishment, our satisfaction, the only One who keeps us alive and lets us grow into who we’re made to be.

All weekend I kept wanting to step out of the mess and into the celebration. I finally found a truer celebration in the middle of the mess. This, after all, is the reason for the celebration: Love comes into our mess. Even when Easter dinners have to be cancelled or challenges press in close around the table, the celebration goes on. Because Jesus is the meal. Jesus is the celebration. Jesus is the one who offers himself again and again in our doubt and fear and confusion, in our longing and inability and aches, declaring forgiveness and sufficiency, satisfaction and completeness. This is where joy is, finding Jesus present, alive and laughing and loving, right in the middle of our mess.

When you’re so aware of your humanness

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Revisting this post from the archives because—really?—so much of what I need to remember to dare to take this long Lenten journey with Jesus is right here.

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Someone asked her the question, “How do you identify when you’re doing something out of excellence vs out of perfectionism and striving?

Holley gave several responses but this one captured me most: “When I’m doing something out of perfectionism I always feel fear. Our bodies usually tell us when we’ve slipped into striving.”

I’m starting to learn that this is one of the gifts of being body interwoven with soul and spirit: if I pay attention, my body can be a window into what is going on more deeply in me.

The problem is that often enough I’d rather not see. Even when my body is shouting at me through tense muscles, sleepless nights, and irritability, it’s quicker or easier or less scary to take a zopiclone or an ibuprofen and press on with my usual life—or let the illness become a new place to hide—than to stop and sit quietly with God in the discomfort and ask “What’s really going on here? What am I trying to hide from myself and from You? Why am I afraid to come out of hiding?”

Our culture trains us to hide or override our creatureliness. My medical training ingrained this in me still more deeply. On my first night on call I was taught the words I was to live by: “Eat when you can, sleep when you can, pee when you can.” In a busy twenty-four hour shift, racing from room to room, there wasn’t much room to be human.

I soon learned that doctors are expected to be people who, at the end of a sleepless thirty-six hour shift, can still think clearly enough and respond quickly enough to be handed a scalpel and the life of a patient. There’s no room for error, no room for slowed reflexes or lapses of judgment. No room to be human. And so I learned to ignore the messages my body was sending me. My body shouted louder. I bought industrial strength ear protection and kept on working. And in the process I forget (if I ever knew) that the body is a gift, one of the primary ways God communicates the state of the soul and reminds us that we are not God but creatures, small and dependent—and meant to be.

I hadn’t known that in plugging my ears against my body, I was also deafening myself to the gentle voice of God.

I keep needing to begin again.

She looked straight into my eyes and spoke the words. Slowly. As though my life depended on them. “Carolyn, remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” I could feel the gentle pressure of her finger on my forehead, marking me with a cross of ash. Ash. Dust. A reminder of my frailty. But not a splotch or a splash or a shapeless blob but a cross, all of my dusty creatureliness gathered up here, safe in the One who Himself became dust to hold my dust safe in the eternal Love of the Creator. I am dust. And I am His.

Just before we were each marked with the cross, we’d read Psalm 103 and I’d realized all over again: I can dare to remember my dustiness because God remembers too.

“. . .for He knows how we are formed,

He remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14)

And—(this is what I need to know!)—

“This remembering on God’s part evokes in God an act of gracious fidelity. The reality of our “dust” does not evoke in God rejection or judgment, but fidelity.” (Brueggemann, “Remember, you are dust.”)

It’s so clear, there in the psalm:

“V. 14 stands as a pivot point between two crucial affirmations about God. Just preceding this verse (vv. 11-13) human transgressions are noted by God and removed; they are made distant, removed as an immediate danger and threat. No big accent is placed on human sin. Human sin is acknowledged and then ignored. What counts is God’s gracious act of removal. . . .

Just following our pivotal verse 14, human finitude and mortality are recognized by God (vv. 15-18). God knows we are going to die, and this awareness evokes in God deep, caring concern:

The steadfast love (hesed) of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting . . .” (Brueggemann)

He sums it all up with this enfolding that gives us a safe place to live our frailty:

“Thus Psalm 103 surrounds our “dust” with all of God’s massive faithful power.”

I’d sat, the next day, and picked up the small wooden cross off the table between us. I was preparing to share my heart and I’d known I needed to cling to the cross as I faced my vulnerabilities. The conversation got messy. Or, rather, I did. Tears running down my neck and the pile of soggy kleenexes growing. Our time was full of precious moments of daring to be vulnerable and finding myself loved by God in that place. But I’d hesitated as I’d lifted the small cross from my lap to place it back on the table at the end of our time. I’d been blowing my nose. I hadn’t washed my hands. I’m a doctor. I’m supposed to know better. What was she thinking? Unable to let it go, I emailed to apologize and say that I wouldn’t pick up the cross again. And then, receiving her reassuring response, I realized: I’ve missed the point of the cross if I think I can only cling with clean hands. There’s room for all of me at the cross. Room for my frailty and room for the part of me that wants to hide it, room for the tears that make my nose run and room for the part of me that fears what others will think, room for the bossy perfectionist that wants to ditch my messy body and come to the cross with just my soul, and room for my body that is pushing itself forward and insisting that it wants to cling too, it wants to kneel and dance and cry and be part of worship and brokenness and grace and finding my whole self loved.