In our house, Christmas is a huge deal. With two children on the autism spectrum, traditions take on a whole new meaning and scale. Anything ever done before must always be done forevermore. As such, our Christmas decorating, cookie making, Advent readings, baking for the neighbors, etc… consumes the entire month of December, and sometimes it can be difficult to remember that there’s a reason we’re celebrating Christmas in the first place. One year, as the children and I were reading the Christmas story in the Bible, I started thinking a bit more about the people in the story, and the below was the result.
What Were You Thinking?
Suddenly out of nowhere, there’s an angel beside you,
speaking words so strange, “With God you’ve found favor.”
What were you thinking, Mary?
Did you believe it could be true?
We’re told you were “troubled”,
but did a small part of you the angel’s words savor?
You’re told that you will be with child; you, who’ve never been with a man.
You ask, “How will this be?” but then you simply obey.
What were you thinking, Mary?
Did you really understand the plan?
We’re told you sang a song about God’s justice,
but is that all you really had to say?
Joseph, you learn your betrothed is with child, and you’re not the father.
You decide to end the engagement, but God intervenes.
What were you thinking?
Did you ever feel like it was all such a bother?
We’re told that you, too, obeyed,
but did you fully appreciate God’s means?
Later, God speaks to you again, telling you this time to run.
We’re not told that you ever questioned the given “why”.
What were you thinking, Joseph?
Did you recognize the importance of Mary’s son?
We’re told you stayed in Egypt until called again,
but were there days when you could only sigh?
Mary, the baby’s about to come, but there you are in a stable.
You’ve been told he’s the son of God, but God can’t even provide you an inn.
What were you thinking?
Did you wonder whether being a mother to God you’d truly be able?
We’re told you “treasured” everything,
but did you realize there was so much more Jesus would begin?
Suddenly there’s a host of angels; you were just minding your own business.
Shepherds, considered the lowliest of the low, but yet now being visited by such.
What were you thinking?
Did you ever imagine God’s son you would someday witness?
We’re told you hurried to see the baby,
but did you grasp that your worship could mean so much?
Dear Simeon and Anna, waiting so very long for this moment to come,
praising God that finally Israel would receive its redemption and consolation.
What were you thinking?
Did you know for certain this child completed your life’s sum?
We’re told you had great expectations for him,
but did you comprehend that he’d be for all and not just the Jewish nation?
Two years of travelling, following naught but a star;
known for your wisdom, you believed the ancient story, which was not even your own.
What were you thinking, Magi?
Did you contemplate what you’d find after a journey so far?
We’re told you gave gifts with certain meaning,
but did you discern the sorrow in which his birth was sown?
So absurd in so many ways, this story we hear at the Christmas season.
If true, though, then the absurdity becomes that much more amazing as I recognize its reality.
What is it I’m thinking?
Do I want to even pursue how genuine it may be, to understand with all my reason?
I’m told that “a Savior has been born”,
but as I search my heart, do I believe its actuality?
I ask what they were thinking, because, even as I question, their story tugs at my heart.
I want beauty and light, hope and joy; I am glad the season heralds the love I want to feel.
What is it that I am thinking?
Do I want to acknowledge that in their story I do have a part?
I’m told that “He is Christ the Lord”,
but will this be the year that at his manger I will finally kneel?
“But how do you know?”
As a Christian, friends are always asking me why I believe in the existence of God and that Jesus Christ is God’s Son. I always answer with my experience and relate stories of what has happened in my life and in the lives of my family and my friends and relatives.
One year, though, I had a particular friend who said that she didn’t like how the Bible left out so much, particularly the thoughts and feelings of the people in the stories in the gospels. She said that we’re just given the basic factual information of what happened whenever someone interacted with Jesus.
I got to thinking about that, and the couple of short stories and poems which follow are what I’ve imagined in my head about some of people in the recountings of Jesus’ death and resurrection
The King and the Convict
Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews is what the inscription says. I laugh at the incongruity of its setting. For, the words are chiseled upon a wooden cross, a cross standing in The Place of the Skull, otherwise known as Golgotha.
What sort of king could this be? A king resides in a palace, not in a death yard for thieves. A king sits on a throne, not a cross for criminals. A king lives to rule over his people, not dies at the hands of the people.
Blood flows down his face from thorn wounds on his head. Flogging lashes upon his back make rivulets of blood down his back. Nails hammered into his arms and legs are clotted with his blood.
“Are you not the Messiah?” I ask. “Save yourself…” I say, and then add with a derisive snort, “and us!” For, this “King of the Jews” was centered between me and another person, one to his left and one to his right. Unlike the “King”, though, no “worthy” inscriptions are noted above the heads of these lowly thieves.
Before I could speak anymore, however, I hear a voice from his other side. “Do you not fear God?” the other criminal asks. Fear god? What god? Whose god? The god of this Jewish King? The gods of the Romans crucifying me?
“We have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds,” he continues, “but his man has done nothing wrong.” Nothing wrong? Nothing doesn’t get you hung on a cross. I was about to say just that when ….
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the man pleads. Kingdom? What kingdom? The man is being crucified. Then to my surprise, I hear the soft but firm reply, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Paradise? What para….?
Without warning, the light was no more. I could not see. A blackness I’ve not known blanketed everything. Fear penetrated my very being, a fear which had nothing to do with the losing battle I was fighting for my very breath.
How long I endured the agony of this blindness I do not know, but I suddenly hear this Jesus of Nazareth speak again. “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” Father? I want to ask who he thinks he’s speaking to, but just then I hear that gasp, the final breath of a dying man.
The very earth startled awake with a tremor as the light immediately returned. A thunderous sound of ripping filled the air. Shocked, my eyes blink at the brightness. I hear from below me, “Certainly this man was God’s Son.”
I turn my head. The “King’s” head is hanging limp. His feet, raw from his attempts to push his body upward, are still. A soldier is piercing his side. I watch as blood and water flow down, proving he is dead.
I want to look away. I need to look away. But I can’t. I just stare as my breathing becomes more ragged. Exhaustion creeps upon me. I struggle to right my body.
Who was this Jesus of Nazareth? What the centurion said… God’s Son…. The memory of the blinding darkness, the trembling earth, the thundering noise, they all rush back to my consciousness as if happening again.
I had mockingly asked if he was the Messiah after I had heard the crowd at his feet taunting him, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, His chosen one.” But… could there have been truth to their words?
Extraordinary pain rips through my body. Crackling fills the air as soldiers crush the bones in my legs. My body slumps downward. Heavy weight falls upon my lungs. I gasp for air, but I know it’s futile.
I catch a glimpse of the soldiers breaking the other criminal’s legs. “Today you will be in Paradise with me,” the “King” had said to that thief. I couldn’t help but wonder… what if those words had been spoken to me?
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” The memory of Jesus the Nazareth’s words to the crowds echoes in my head. Forgiveness… who could forgive this? This agony, being hung on a cross to die like vermin.
A fog begins to cover my mind. Thoughts scatter from my brain. I want air to fill my lungs, but breathing is becoming impossible. I know it’s just a matter of seconds. I rest my chin on my chest.
Last vestiges of consciousness stir in my mind. “It is finished,” he had said just before his final breath. What is finished? Even through the weariness I had caught the triumph in his voice. I close my eyes. Just maybe… the inscription… was right. Maybe… he… was… the… king….
The Money Keeper
“I am condemned,” I say to you.
“By whom?” and “For what?” you will ask,
And whether you’ll understand or not,
To answer you now I set as my task.
I stand in this field, alone,
Thinking of the events of today,
Wondering, “Where do I begin?
Will you listen to what I say?”
My name means “God is praised”,
But as you will learn in my reflection,
He was not praised by me.
I am more aptly named “Deception”.
I was keeper of the money bag, you see.
The orphans, the widows, the poor were my care,
And while I did what was needed,
Many a time, I also took my own share.
I don’t believe the others suspected,
But the beginning to my end
Began some days ago in Bethany,
At a dinner we were invited to attend.
The dinner was given in His honor.
You may know to whom I refer.
You may have heard how He raised up Lazarus
Which caused quite a stir.
Jesus is His name:
Miracle worker, healer, exorcist, and prophet.
While He’s been these to everyone,
He’d not been to me what I covet.
That night I began to realize this,
As He admonished me and the others
For rebuking Mary for wasting perfume
That could have helped orphans and poor mothers.
Granted, concern for the poor wasn’t my motive.
I was thinking only of my greed;
But Him speaking about His death
Upset me and made me worried.
The thoughts stirring in my heart
Might have returned to dormancy
If not for His continued talk of leaving us
Which revealed how trust in Him was chancy.
I almost cannot admit to what I did next.
The whole story must be known, though,
So I confess, that I went to the chief priests
And revealed my heart to be shallow.
I asked what they would give me,
Should I consent to betray Jesus;
And for thirty pieces of silver
I agreed to an act most egregious.
Not until our celebration of Passover, though,
Did I begin having doubts,
That the path I had now chosen to take
Might not be the best of routes.
Given the dusty roads that we walk,
It is our custom to wash before we eat.
Jesus astounded us last night
By humbling Himself and washing our feet.
Usually a job for the low, He explained,
“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
After He said, “You are clean, but not all of you.”
Did He know what I had done secretly?
We began to eat, and He said, “One of you will betray me.”
My heart thudded in fear.
As one after another asked, “Surely not I?”
The truth of my lie He made clear.
“Woe to the one who betrays the Son of Man.
It would be better if he had not been born.”
Dipping my bread into wine, He told me to go quickly.
His eyes were resolute. Mine were forelorn.
I still did not fully understand, though.
I thought I was doing what was best.
I made my way to the chief priests
To make preparations for Jesus’ arrest.
I knew where to find Him;
How often we had met Him in that grove.
I had arranged a signal,
So with that in mind, toward Him I wove.
“Are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”
I halted, not knowing what to say.
As the guards came forward, Peter drew his sword.
A poor servant’s ear, he did slay.
I waited, barely breathing.
Jesus raised up His arm.
“No more of this!”
I could see faces turn to alarm.
He brought down his hand toward the servant.
“Put your sword away! Am I leading a rebellion?”
In surprise I watched as He bent over
And ever so gently healed the ear of that scullion.
What was He doing? Would He not resist?
Instead, “This is your hour,” He said.
“I am He whom you’re looking for.”
The guards swarmed in. Everyone fled.
I myself followed to see what would happen.
Too soon and too clearly, I saw the intent.
Lie after lie was told by one and another.
Only with Jesus’ death would they be content.
Jesus Himself simply stood without a sound.
“Are You not going to answer?” they asked, confused.
Finally, “If You are the Christ, tell us!”
For a moment, I thought Jesus looked amused.
“If I tell you, you would not believe me,
And if I asked you, you would not answer.”
Jesus’ words shot through the air
With the precision of an accurate lancer.
“Are you then saying You’re the Son of God?”
“You are right in saying I am,” He replied.
Caiaphas, the high priest, began tearing his clothes.
“Blasphemy! He is worthy of death!” he cried.
My heart trembled within.
My mind started to whirl,
As words and images of three years past
Started slowly, then quickly to unfurl.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
“If salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?”
“I am the vine and you are the branches.”
“Whoever obeys Me is the one who loves Me, then.”
Jesus conversing with a Samaritan woman.
Jesus speaking to the wind and the waves.
Jesus healing lepers and feeding crowds.
Jesus calling Lazarus from out of the graves.
“I have sinned!” I exclaimed.
That I had betrayed innocent blood, I now understood.
I had sent to His death He, who had only
Shown Himself to be holy, just and good.
I went to the chief priests to return their money.
My remorse was more than I could bear.
But they simply responded, “What is that to us?”
I threw the coins at them in despair.
And now I am back where I began.
I stand alone in this field.
Only at my end has the truth
To me been revealed.
He told us that He was the Good Shepherd
Who would lay down His life for His sheep.
Only now do I see that He spoke
Of a coming promise to keep.
He explained that God loved the world,
And that He sent His Son so we would not perish.
Only now do I realize that it’s not the physical
But the spiritual that one needs to cherish.
All this has come too late for me.
I have sent Jesus to His death.
My only hope is to advise you
With my last words of breath.
I did not know that I needed Jesus to touch my heart.
I wanted only what was tangible and physical.
Now only do I understand that Yahweh’s work is
So much more mystical.
I wish I could remain to speak with you more,
but sacrifice for my sin would be more than I could imagine.
I see no other alternative than for my life
To become just as I am, empty and barren.
I ask, though, that you remember my words,
Spoken in shame and guilt.
Take time this very day to reflect
Upon the ministry Jesus built.
If indeed He is the Son of God,
You have only to gain,
By understanding what I now believe –
That it was for you He was slain.
He stood closemouthed before King Herod. Spittle formed dry river beds, running down his body, over and around dark purple bruises interrupting their paths. His stoic expression magnified Herod’s face, red and distorted by rage. One question after another had been met with only utter silence. The centurion found his gaze wandering to the man’s mouth, swollen at the corners from too many slaps to the cheeks. Only hours earlier, he had listened to this man’s voice, echoing clearly and distinctly into the night.
“Who is it you want?” the man had asked, the force of his tone shocking the centurion. Despite their numbers and the eerie shadows their torches had cast in the olive grove to which they had been led, the man’s words had held no fear, no worry.
“Jesus of Nazareth,” the centurion had replied.
“I am he,” the man had calmly answered back, causing the crowd to slowly hedge away from the centurion.
Before the centurion had been able decide what he should do next, though, this Jesus of Nazareth had spoken again, his voice shaking with impatience. “I told you, I am he. If you are looking for me….” He had stopped speaking to look around, and then had quickly finished with, “… Let these men go.”
Whether the crowd had reacted to the abrupt change in the man’s manner or the fact that he had wanted his cohorts to go free, the centurion had had no time to consider as the crowd had suddenly surged forward to surround the man and his companions. Just as swiftly, one of the men standing behind this Jesus had grabbed a sword and swung it into a high arc. People had scrambled to get out of the way, but one of the high priest’s servants had not moved quickly enough. Swoosh! The sword had sliced through the air and had cut off the servant’s ear. A cry of anguish had been followed by blood spurting like a volcano, and people had begun to run away from the scene when, into the chaos, a loud voice exploded.
“No more of this!”
Turning to the man who had cut off the servant’s ear, the man called Jesus had said, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Then, he had reached out to the side of the servant’s face, covered the flowing blood with his bare hand, and looked up to heaven. When he had removed the hand, there had been no more blood, and the servant’s ear had been fully restored.
Before the centurion had been able to fully comprehend what he had seen, this Jesus had begun speaking again, first to his companions, saying, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and He would not at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled?”
Turning to the centurion and the crowd which had stopped in its tracks at the man’s loud command, he had said, “Am I leading a rebellion that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But now, this is your hour, when darkness reigns.” With that, he had stepped directly in front of the centurion, and the man’s followers, seeing what Jesus meant to do, had turned and begun to flee away from the olive grove, away from the crowd, away from this man called Jesus.
Now, hours later, the centurion was confused. He had followed the chief priests first to the house of Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest, and then to the house of Caiphas, the high priest. To the centurion, the high priests had seemed most concerned about whether this man, Jesus, was somebody called Christ, the Son of God, and the man’s cryptic responses had served only to inflame the members of the Sanhedrin as they hit him with their hands and spat upon him, demanding answers.
“Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God,” they had commanded.
The man had responded first to Annas with “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in the synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said,” and then to Caiaphas with “If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer.”
To the centurion, it had appeared as if this man had wanted to be sent to Pilate, which is exactly where the centurion had been sent next; only Pilate, upon discovering that this Jesus of Nazareth was a Galilean, had immediately sent the centurion to King Herod, where the centurion had been taken aback by the complete silence of this man called Jesus.
He was not surprised, however, when King Herod instructed him to bring the man back to Pilate. Before he could leave with his prisoner, though, he had to watch as Herod’s men wrapped a scarlet robe around the man’s body and placed a staff in the man’s hands and a crown of thorns upon his head. Blindfolding him, the guards began beating him with sticks, mockingly calling out, “Prophesy! Who hit you?” Prophesy!”
The centurion, used to his own soldiers’ brutality, understood what compelled the guards to treat a prisoner in this fashion, but he could not comprehend what it was about this particular man which seemed to ignite such behavior. Blow upon blow the guards thrust upon him, but at no time did the prisoner utter a word. Only muted groans of pain indicated that this Jesus of Nazareth was not immune to his torture. By the time Jesus was released once again into the centurion’s custody, the dried spittle had been joined by rivers of blood, flowing from wounds to his head and his body. In this state, the centurion once again delivered the man to Pilate.
“Are you King of the Jews?” Pilate demanded. He was not pleased to find this Jesus of Nazareth before him again.
The centurion was stunned by the man’s response. “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?” After witnessing the man’s silence with King Herod, the centurion had expected more of the same. He had not imagined that the prisoner even had enough energy to speak back to Pilate in such a manner.
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate asked scornfully. “It is your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” As Pilate’s question burst from his lips, he bounded to his feet and stopped just inches from the prisoner. As the two faced each other, the centurion once again gazed at the man’s face, resolute with an emotion the centurion could not grasp.
“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” The centurion shook his head. Cryptic answers again. What did this man, Jesus of Nazareth, mean by “his kingdom”? How could a kingdom not be of this world? His thoughts were interrupted by an exalted shout.
“Aha! You are a king, then!” said Pilate. The centurion could almost read Pilate’s mind. “Finally, a confession,” Pilate was thinking. What the centurion could not completely interpret was the prisoner’s response.
“You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” The centurion shook his head. Why did the man not speak clearly? What truth? Whose truth? The centurion watched as Pilate waved his hand into the air.
“Bah! What is truth?” Pilate asked. Abruptly he turned and flounced out of the room to the terrace.
“I find no basis for a charge against this man,” he shouted down to the crowds. The centurion could not hear Pilate’s next words as voices from the crowd began to rise in waves. As Pilate continued to speak, the sounds from below only intensified.
“Give us Barabbas!” seemed to be the roar of the crowd. The centurion turned to look at the man, Jesus, who was kneeling, slightly slumped to one side, staring at the floor, as if in a stupor. If the crowd was asking for Barabbas, this man was doomed. Almost as if the crowd had read the centurion’s mind, a chant sprung forth, spiraling, carried by the wind to the centurion’s ears.
“Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!”
The centurion watched as a servant went running to Pilate with a basin of water. He could not hear Pilate’s words, but he saw Pilate wash his hands in front of the crowd. “Was Pilate trying to absolve himself of guilt?” wondered the centurion. Certainly the centurion was in agreement with Pilate that this man, whoever he was, did not deserve to be crucified at the hands of the Romans. Knowing his duty, however, the centurion gave the orders to prepare the prisoner for his death.
An hour later, the centurion was walking behind the prisoner, whose back was covered with the memory of the flogging he had recently received. Repeated multiple red lash marks bore witness to the savage whipping he had been given, and it was clear to the centurion that the beatings and lack of sleep and food were catching up to the prisoner. He stumbled as he struggled to carry the instrument of death he carried upon his shoulders, unable to bear the weight of the heavy wood upon his weakened body. As the man fell to the ground once again, the centurion found himself grabbing a bystander from the crowd, commanding him to take the wooden plank from the prisoner.
They finally reached the top of the hill, “The Place of the Skull”, otherwise known as Golgotha. He gave instructions to the soldiers who put the wooden plank across another, tying the two firmly together. Laying the man on the boards, they placed each of his hands out straight and proceeded to hammer nails into his hands. The centurion heard the crunch of bones being crushed as rivulets of blood radiated outward from the spikes. His soldiers grunted as they hoisted the cross high into the air and dropped it into the hole in the ground designed to hold the cross steady. Filling the hole with dirt, the soldiers gave the ground one last pat and walked away. Unfortunately for him, the centurion had no such luxury. He had to stay and wait, and wait he did.
It was during the sixth hour that the unusual occurred. The sun suddenly seemed to extinguish, and everything became black, blacker than the centurion had ever known. No light seemed able to penetrate the darkness. The centurion could hear people exclaiming and thuds of contacting bodies as feet ran first in one direction and then another. He willed himself to remain still. It would not do for him to desert his post. He called out to his soldiers, learning that they had been trained well, for they, too, were all standing firm, despite their inability to see anything. Again, he waited.
At about the ninth hour, he thought he heard a sound from above him. Straining to hear, he listened as the man from Nazareth softly but distinctly said, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” Before the centurion could even begin to wonder at these words, he was blinded by the return of the sun, brighter than bright after three hours of utter darkness, and he found himself slipping as the earth below him began to tremble and shake. From a distance, a thunderous sound, almost like material ripping, penetrated the air. Almost as quickly as it all began, though, it was suddenly over.
The centurion looked around at the people, holding onto one another and rapidly speaking. Glancing around to make sure his soldiers were accounted for, he turned to check on the prisoner. To his surprise, the man from Nazareth appeared to be dead. His head hung limply on his chest, his body slumped, no longer attempting to push itself upward with its feet for those few gasps of air. Knowing he had heard the man’s voice just minutes ago, he found his gaze moving again to the face of this man whom he had followed around for the last day of his life. Swiftly piercing the man’s side with his spear, the centurion watched as the familiar mixture of blood and water flowed from the wound. Jesus of Nazareth was indeed dead.
He shook his head in astonishment. Could it all be coincidence? The man’s last words and the earth’s upheaval? He thought back to the events of the past day. The unusual arrest, the prisoner’s cryptic remarks, the Sanhedrin’s anger, Pilates confusion, his own puzzlement. Softly to himself, he said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”
Looking one more time into the face of Jesus of Nazareth, he remembered the words of this man to the Sanhedrin. “In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
He still did not fully understand the man’s meaning, but there was one thing he was prepared to say, and he did again, more loudly and clearly this time. “Surely, this was a righteous man!”
“What does Spring mean to you?”
Several years ago, one of my children was given the above question as a prompt, and it prompted me to start thinking myself. The poem below was the result.
The mystery of Spring lies in the Winter that must be:
Old leaves falling to make room for new;
Bulbs hibernating to become the flowers we see;
Waning cold nights leading to morning dew.
The mystery of Growth lies in the Death that precedes:
Flowers dying to make way for the fruit;
Composted nature being a garden’s need;
Branches being pruned for more to follow suit.
The mystery of Life lies in the Birth assumed:
Leaving the chrysalis as the butterfly;
Breath beginning by leaving the womb;
Flowers breaking forth as Spring draws nigh.
The mystery of the God of Spring lies in Who He Is:
Judge, yet Friend to all who draw near;
Lord, yet Father to whom He calls His;
Creator, yet Servant to the world He holds dear.
The mystery of Springtime Easter lies in What Christ Did:
Recognizing our need, He became human;
Dying our death, our guilt He did rid;
Rising victoriously, the path to God He illumined.
The mystery is how Spring brings the Hope from heaven sent:
Delighting in creation’s rebirth, our spirits soar;
Responding to Easter’s call, our hearts repent;
Embracing what is offered, we acknowledge we need more.
The Mystery is that there need be No mystery:
God’s grabbing our attention as we cherish the unfolding of Spring;
He’s extending His love as He has throughout all history;
The only question remaining is what answer we’ll bring;
Will we refuse the call to enter into the mystery;
Or will we accept Him and with the Spring allow our souls to sing.
“But do you really understand what they mean?”
A friend and I were discussing liturgy one day. I love the old hymns and the liturgical prayers and such. My friend thinks they’re a bit “old” and that today’s folks don’t even really understand what they mean.
This past Easter, I got to thinking about that conversation and about the words many Christians recite as they share in communion, where we think about the words Jesus spoke in the gospels, saying that His body was the bread and His blood the drink.
The below reflection was the result.
Good Friday Reflection
Christ’s body, broken for you
Son of God, Messiah, the Truth, the Life, the Way
Physical, skin and bones, human
Beaten, bruised, flogged, bleeding, dried spittle spray
On behalf of, concerning, on account of
The recipient, the person being addressed today
Christ’s blood, poured out for you
Lord, Savior, Shepherd, Emmanuel, Prince of Peace
Life force, pumped from the heart, family descent
Emptied, drained, overflowing, spilling in release
Because of, in place of
The receiver, the beneficiary of His cease
“But I don’t want to.”
When people become Christians, they share what they call their “testimony”, the story of how they came to faith. It’s not something I personally do a lot of myself, though.
A couple of months ago, though, a variety of different things kept happening which led me to believe that I was supposed to write out my story. I really didn’t want to, and I kept fighting with God and whining to my husband about it.
One day, however, I realized I wasn’t going to get any peace until I just did it, and so I wrote the below. It wasn’t easy, and a part of me just wants to delete it so no one can ever see it. For that reason, I’m sharing it below.
Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said, “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” EPHESIANS 5:11-14
Unlike many Christians, I don’t like to share my faith testimony. In fact, I’ve only told my story four times, and on each occasion, I only did so because I felt compelled by God. I prefer to give Christ’s love through my actions. Because God so loved me, I try to love others in turn by caring for them, praying for them, giving to them, and being there for them.
Fortunately, for most people that is enough, and few have actually ever asked me how I came to faith. I think it’s one of the many ways that God continues to shower grace upon me. He doesn’t force me to reveal the shame of what I’ve done in my past. He gives me the gift of being accepted as I am now, not thought of as I was then. Every so often, though, He asks me if I trust Him enough to once again speak, to share with others what being “exposed by the light” can do.
I grew up in a home marred by war. Asian traditions battled against American values, as an angry father and an autistic mother struggled with the demons of their own inadequacy – my brother and I being the casualties of their physical, verbal and emotional assaults. At an early age, I learned that perfection could insulate me from harm and sometimes gain me the love I craved. By my senior year of high school I was the poster child for every parent’s dream daughter: impeccable manners; top student in my class; popular with teachers, my classmates, and boys; involved in a well-rounded array of activities from dancing to drama to writing for the paper to physics club; essentially, a leader, excelling in all I did.
Then, the bottom dropped out of my world.
My mother was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in D.C. for tumors in her pancreas. Overnight I became mother to my younger brother, manager of the family restaurant, and support to my father as he drove back and forth between NJ and D.C. For six months I lived an adult burden as I continued to play the student role, applying to colleges, still participating in all my activities.
The veneer of perfection could not sustain me anymore, and I cracked. I stopped doing my school work. I cut off all but my three closest friends. I became anorexic. I traded in my college boyfriend for the boy voted most likely to end up in jail. By the time my mother came home, just before my graduation from high school, I was a shell of who I had been. By the time I started my first semester at Amherst College, I was engaged to the bad boy who was no less physically, verbally and emotionally abusive than my parents had been, and desperately afraid that I was indeed unlovable.
And that is when I did an unlovable, unthinkable act.
I convinced everyone that I was dying from cancer. From the college administrators to my parents to my friends to my dorm mates, everyone believed I was dying – and I was. Emotionally, spiritually, mentally – my heart and my mind began to deteriorate under the weight of my shame and my guilt. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t get out of bed. I wanted nothing more than to physically die. I had created a prison for myself, and there was no way out.
Or so I believed. God, however, knew otherwise.
When I had arrived at Amherst, one of the first people I met was an older student who lived on the floor above me. He was a Christian, and he had invited me to attend an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship meeting. Over time I had become a part of the group, no one suspecting that my cancer was in Paul’s too “shameful to even mention what the disobedient do in secret” category. As my charade grew, so did my involvement with InterVarsity, and I was asked if I wanted to interview for a summer job at a Christian ministry.
Well-meaning friends wanted to help me out of what they thought was depression over my cancer. Little did they realize that God wanted to expose me for the fraud that I was.
A few days before I was set to meet with a local pastor, I had finally confessed to my father, who had become a Christian a couple of years earlier, that I was lying about the cancer and that I didn’t know how to get out of the situation I had created. As I cried, my father told me that he would pray that God would help me.
If I had known beforehand what God’s help would look like, I most likely would have told my dad to stop praying!
At my interview with the pastor, I said all the right things and behaved in all the right ways, but the God who sees all and knows all helped the pastor to peer past what was right to discover what was wrong. As I was driving home from the interview, he was calling my InterVarsity staffworker, telling him that he didn’t know what was wrong with my story, but he was sure that something was.
By the time I arrived back at campus, my staffworker was waiting for me. He sat me down, took my hands in his, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Is there something you need to tell me?”
It was as if the floodgates had opened. I couldn’t have stopped myself even if I wanted to, which I did not. My heart yearned for the chance to come clean, and I did. I held nothing back as I cried and hiccupped and cried some more through the whole sordid tale.
And when I was done, my staffworker (whose name, interestingly enough, was Paul) gently wrapped his arms around me and told me that God loved me. It was not in that moment, though, but in the days that came that I would learn what a loving God actually does.
He sheds “light to make everything visible” because only then can we “wake up from our slumber”.
I awoke to the realization that God wanted me to expose myself to everyone whom I had deceived, and I was not happy. If it hadn’t been true that I was unlovable before, it would most definitely become my reality once people learned of my betrayal. Emotionally and mentally, they had suffered with me, and my cancer had not been real. How could I reveal the truth?
I came clean to my InterVarsity friends first, believing that at the very least they’d have to pretend to forgive me. Paul held my hand as I spoke quickly and quietly, and when I was done, I sat amazed at the tears in everyone’s eyes as they spoke words of acceptance and encouragement to me. In the weeks to follow, many of them would show up at my door, Bible in hand, to share stories of their own sin and to remind me that God is faithful to forgive.
God’s faithfulness would make itself most evident, though, in my confession to the student body of Amherst. A condition for me being able to remain at Amherst was that I had to acknowledge what I had done to everyone else who had been taken in by my story. Being the untrusting coward that I was, I told one of the deans that I would if she would sit with me and hold my hand as I spoke. She did, and I did.
With my eyes shut, I sat, facing a crowd of students, revealing my shame before them all, knowing that with every word I spoke, my chances of remaining at Amherst sank. If I couldn’t accept myself, how could I expect acceptance from them?
When I finished, silence greeted me in response. I became worried, and I opened my eyes to confront what I thought would be my worst fears fulfilled. What I saw, I couldn’t believe.
A line, a very long line, stretched out before me, of people with their arms outstretched, tears in their eyes, beckoning to me, silently summoning me to “rise from the dead”. For, that is what I did that day – rise from death. I had been dead, wallowing in sin, but God bid me rise to a life of forgiveness and grace and love; and He wanted nothing more than to prove to me that the new life I had chosen was real.
As I stood up to meet that long line, I learned for the first time, but not the last, what it looks like to have “Christ shine on you”. With every hug, I heard God tell me again and again, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” With every whispered word of forgiveness, I felt His Spirit cleansing mine. With every squeeze of my hand, I realized that when Christ shines on you, that is what God sees, and you need not be afraid.
A month later, I stood before another crowd at a morning Easter service. The sun was rising in all its colorful glory, revealing the beautiful mountain-view behind me as I stood in the center of the Amherst College war memorial. It would be the first time that I shared my story in its fuller entirety – a story that began with my shame but continues with a God who loved me too much to leave me in my shame; a story that started with the war I thought had shaped me, but is being revised as I’m shaped by the peace and joy of Christ; and a story that enables me to say to anyone who might need to hear:
If God tells you to “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness but rather expose them”, know that my story is living proof of the wonders that God most assuredly has in store for you. In my case, it’s a loving husband and three wonderful children, family and friends who know me to be honest – sometimes too much so!, and most graciously, the opportunity of becoming more like Christ with every day, week, month and year that has passed since that fateful day when “everything exposed by the light became visible”.