We Killed Him

This reflection originally appeared in the Liberti Church/Restoration Living Lent Prayerbook. If you haven’t already, you should check out this great resource – it’s not too late!

In the days leading up to Christmas this year, one of my favorite snippets of scripture kept running through my mind: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14, NIV). I smile whenever I think about this sentence, and the beautiful meaning that it conveys – the eternal God of the universe put on skin, moved into the neighborhood, and lived a messy, grace-filled life. What good news!

But Christmas is long over, and lately I can’t get this revision out of my head: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…and we killed him.” God became a person, and we said, “Go home.” He tried to show us Himself, and we said, “No thanks.” He fed and healed us and we said, “We don’t need you.” He gave us a glimpse of redemption and we said, “You are not our King.”

I try not to think about this stuff too much because it bums me out – these thoughts are hard because they require real honesty about the part of the Gospel story that isn’t good. I’m partial to the “practice-resurrection” Christianity that sets its gaze on the risen Lord and the empty tomb, instead of the cross. I confess my sins on Sunday and go about my week. Those few moments of honesty and repentance are enough for me, usually.

"Exodus" by Marc Chagall, 1952

“Exodus” by Marc Chagall, 1952

But thank God for Lent, because those few moments are not actually enough – not after what we did to Him. Thank God that those few moments are drawn out to forty days, where I am reminded that before that glorious empty tomb, there was a bloody cross. Thank God for this season that makes me think about who I am (really) and who God is (really). Thank God that Lent isn’t about finite self-loathing or wallowing in guilt, but existential honesty.

As we draw closer to Good Friday, I invite you to dwell in this uncomfortable honesty. I invite you to acknowledge the startling truth that just as his friends and neighbors betrayed and rejected him, we too betray and reject Christ everyday in our thoughts, words, and actions. I invite you to repent. Because it is only through true repentance that we may move on from that ugly cross and joyfully embrace the empty tomb.

Sin is a Gray Area

This post started out as a four-years-to-late ode to my favorite television show, Lost. It was going to be about how what makes that story both so confusing and so compelling is its moral ambiguity. Perhaps someday I’ll revisit that post, but what I have here now is broader and more fitting for Lent.

I’m neither a neurologist nor ethicist, so take this paragraph with an extra grain of salt. Our brains really like to categorizing stuff. Bombarded with information from the second we’re born, we’re constantly interacting with and organizing data and concepts. I don’t know what it would be like to try to function without categories – if that’s even possible. Of course, two of the most helpful categories that we form early on (or maybe are born with – that’s a can of worms to open some other time) are good and not-good/bad/evil. It’s really nice when a person, thing, event, action, or idea falls into one of these categories, and a lot of times this is a fairly simple distinction. It’s good to help an old lady across the street; it’s bad to push her into traffic. Simple.

But sometimes these categories fail us, or at least, are just not sufficient enough. It’s convenient when a person, thing, event, action or idea is (metaphorically) black or white, but more often than not, we encounter a gray area.

Some of us like to take a situation, analyze it quickly, and form an opinion about it, but for many of this world’s most significant points of conflict, this is really tricky. When things go wrong, we want to blame people – usually one person or a group of people that is not like us (e.g. “the Tea Party” or “Russians”). This is in part because we need to point our anger somewhere, but also in part because we want to ensure that whatever bad thing has happened won’t happen again. We want to fix evil. However, when it comes to stuff like natural disasters, mental illness, or even crimes committed by someone dealing with extenuating circumstances, the scapegoat is unclear. Finding a solution to gray-area evils might be impossible, or at least, far more challenging than when dealing with evil that is more clear-cut.

The best example of how I’ve seen this manifested recently is a little strong, so bear with me. I was intrigued last year by our nation’s reaction to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Our society was appropriately horrified and angry. We needed to direct those feelings somewhere, and take steps to ensure that something like that would never happen again. But the shooter had a mental illness, so blaming him and his family was complicated, much more so than if he had been, say, a terrorist with an agenda. So a lot of people channeled their anger against gun-rights groups and petitioned for tighter regulations. Whether or not they were correct in doing that is neither here nor there. What intrigued – and on some level deeply saddened – me was that our large and powerful society was forced to collectively deal with the fact that this world is fallen and sometimes evil stuff just happens, without clear cause, explanation, or solution.

Moving away from this large-scale example, it’s kind of an understatement to say that sin is everywhere. The fall affects every element of our lives and every aspect of this world. While there is that which is clearly good and that which is clearly evil, a lot of conflict is somewhere in between. Good people will always do bad things. Our societies will always fail us. And evil stuff will, sometimes, just happen.

And that sucks. It’s so sad, and so frustrating, especially for a people obsessed with solutions, answers, and progress. But what can we do? Nothing – and that might be the point. We can’t do anything to fix this messy, fallen world, except hope that everything tarnished by sin will someday be restored by grace. That’s the promise of Easter, and sometimes it’s all we have.

Hear, O Israel…

For the past five Lents, I have started and ended each day by reciting the Shema (“hear,” in Hebrew), an ancient Hebrew prayer. Starting around Deuteronomy or so, the Israelites took on this daily ritual, in keeping with one of the Lord’s commands (I assume that contemporary Orthodox Jews do the same).

I don’t come from a Jewish background, and reciting the Shema isn’t a typical Lenten practice, nor is it specific to this season. And yet, I find myself coming back to it each year, in fact, I look forward to it. Right now, I’d like to reflect on why that is.

To start, let’s take a look at this prayer, which is made up of three chunks of scripture:

4Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

 – Deuteronomy 6:4-9

 13So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today – to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul – 14 then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. 15 I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

16Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. 17Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you. 18Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.

 – Deuteronomy 11:13-21

37The Lord said to Moses, 38“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. 39You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. 40Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God. 41I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord your God.’”

Numbers 15:37-41

The purpose of the Shema is simple. God has ordained a nation of people to be His own, and to be like Him. Since they are fallen and prone to further corruption (and…Jesus hadn’t lived, died, or risen yet), the Israelites need to follow a bunch of laws so that they can be set apart and holy like God (Leviticus 19:2). This prayer then, does two things. First, it describes what will happen if the people uphold God’s commands, and what will happen if they do not. Secondly, it also lists several unusual but practical lifestyle tricks to help the people remember who they are, who God is, what He’s done for them, and how to live as His people.

"Ten Commandments," by Marc Chagall, 1966.

“Ten Commandments,” by Marc Chagall, 1966.

The Shema is extremely redundant, and honestly, its practicality makes it a little boring (i.e., it’s not really as awe-inspiring or humbling or whatever as other scriptural prayers like the Psalms). But I think that’s exactly the point. God understands people, and He knows that people need to be entirely re-formed in order to be like Him. And substantial re-formation does not happen by experimenting and thinking outside the box all the time – it happens by fundamentally changing one’s habits, gritting one’s teeth, and practicing tirelessly. The Shema isn’t sexy, because drastic lifestyle changes aren’t sexy.

But I love this unsexy prayer. I love forcing my tired eyes open each morning and night as I read through it. I love that by the second or third week of Lent, I have it all but memorized. I love how it basically recites itself throughout the day, whenever I encounter something that triggers it. I find its monotony soothing, especially during Lent. As I reflect on the fallenness of the world and my own mortality, I love having this sturdy, stable, simple prayer to begin and end each day with. I love the promise of grass, new wine, and olive oil – at the end of winter, these things sound so abundant and satisfying – a glimpse of spring, Easter, and the coming Kingdom.

And, this might sound strange, but during Lent, I like to be reminded of a time when there was no resurrected Christ – only a distant and abstract promise of some coming Messiah, and a whole bunch of laws to cling to. It’s strange and scary to think of a time when people had very limited access to God, when they clung to His words for (sometimes literally) dear life, and when their lifestyles were so fundamentally shaped by their faith. Dwelling on these things helps me to anticipate the Risen Lord a little more fiercely, and makes Easter so much sweeter.

On Lent, Past & Present

273px-Masaccio,_trinità

From “Trinity,” by Masaccio, 1426-28. A fresco located in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.

Today is Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent.

For the majority of my life, Ash Wednesday has marked the start of a forty day guilt trip. When I was a kid, my parents would encourage me to give something up, like candy or cookies. This meant that I would still eat candy and cookies, but I would feel guilty while doing so.

There were several years where I strongly considered giving up shrimp cocktail. It was my favorite food, but I could live without it for a while. However, my birthday always falls in the middle of Lent, and I wanted to be able to request shrimp for dinner. I don’t think I ever did – I just wanted to have the option.

In fourth grade, I gave up Harry Potter for Lent. There was talk of “witchcraft,” and I wanted nothing of it. Also, I was in the middle of Goblet of Fire – the part that’s kind of slow –  but my teacher was really strict about us finishing the books we had started. So I outsmarted her by pulling the “observant Catholic” card.

In fifth grade, I once again gave up Harry Potter. The series was now a global phenomenon, but, having never resumed book #4, I wasn’t really interested. When my friends asked if I had read Order of the Phoenix yet, I outsmarted them by pulling the “observant Catholic” card.

Once, I gave up money for Lent. I understood enough about Lent to know that you are supposed to give up something that keeps you from God. And I understood enough about myself to know that I tend to put my faith in money. So I had my parents take forty days worth of allowance (all $15!) and donate it to World Vision, to help a family in Africa buy a rabbit. That was probably my peak as a faithful Christian – maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to do that again.

For a while in high school, we were pseudo-Evangelical and Lent wasn’t a big deal. That was the most guilt-free I’ve ever been.

In college I made up for this by going all-out: a friend and I endeavored to follow the Rabbinic laws as given to the Israelites in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. I failed miserably, and every non-Kosher meal or iota drawn on a Saturday came with guilt, and sometimes nausea (the first year I did this, I wasn’t able to properly digest pork until July). Those were some of the most intense yet gratifying Lents I’ve ever experienced, but I think they might have missed the point.

To be sure, I still don’t fully understand the “point” of Lent, but I have a better idea now than when I was an adolescent Harry Potter fangirl who loved shrimp. I understand now that the point of Lent isn’t guilt, though it’s probably good to feel extra-convicted for a season.

The point of Lent is to rely on God is ways that we aren’t used to. For example, I don’t typically turn to God when deciding what to eat, because it’s strange and would annoy waiters and baristas  all over Philly. But when fasting from a particular food group, His strength is helpful in resisting temptation.

The point of Lent is to remember our limitations. I don’t plan on it, but I know that I will break Lent this year – probably by the end of this week. When I reach for Half-Blood Prince that happens, I hope to use this failure as an opportunity to be honest with myself about who I am – a fallen human in need of grace.

The point of Lent is to understand suffering. When we fast, we suffer a little. But this pious, optional suffering is luxurious compared to what billions of people go through every day, and, of course, what Jesus went through for us during his final days.

And, even though it is deeply important, the point of Lent is not “giving stuff up.” It’s not so much about what’s in our bellies as what’s in our hearts and minds. The point of Lent is remembering, and mourning.

I’m excited to remember and mourn with you all during this season.

PS – This year, I’ll be using Liberti Church’s Lent and Easter prayerbook, to help me remember, mourn, and, ultimately, celebrate. Click here to download a free copy!