Holy Tuesday, Holy Hope

We want to see Jesus.

Being quarantined has caused me to rummage around in some dusty corners of my house and my mind. Today, I found a stack of old postcards from the days when I was the pastor of Neriah Baptist Church in the mountains of Virginia.

In 1990, before Facebook and blogs and Instagram, we connected with our church community between Sundays with postcards. I prototyped the card on my Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Then I took the prototype to the local print shop every Tuesday. By Wednesday, one hundred cards were printed (not digitally copied but printed) on postcard stock. A church member and I put labels on the cards and mailed them on Wednesday afternoons.

Times have changed—
—and not changed

Of course, the world has changed in big ways. I have too.

But reading those old postcards, I realize. Some core characteristics of my identity as a minister back then ring true to who I have become now. I am older. I hope I am wiser. But. . .

Here is an excerpt of what I wrote on a postcard all those years ago:

The bud of a tulip opening to the world--
arms of God,
cradling the gift of life.

Dew glistening on the morning trees--
teardrops of the Creator,
cleansing the earth of sorrow.

Grass fresh-cut on a spring day--
God's greenness
staining our shoes and spirits with hope.

A spider's web sparkling with diamonds
           after the coal of night is carved away--
the Great Weaver,
connecting our hearts to heaven.

Footprints of a deer along a dirt road--
our journeys toward God
and the impression we leave behind for others.

We stand in the midst of nourishment, and too many starve. Our souls long for the bread of life, for forgiveness from our mistakes. Our spirits yearn to grasp the stars, to see our dreams come true, and yet, we live in a world where too few are given second chances. Lives are shattered by pain. If only we could gather up the little things, the millions of pieces of living that make up the loaf we call the bread of life. If only we could come home to God’s love and find renewal, reunion, love. 

Let us come to the table of the Lord. 
Let us gather up the crumbs and live.

I did not format that 1990 postcard message as a poem. All of the words had to fit on a 3 ½ by 5 ½ card, and I did not consider myself to be writing poetry. These days I am intentional about learning the craft of poetry-writing. And I think–I hope–my theology and faith have deepened over the last 30 years (wow–30 years!).

Some things, though, have stayed steady across time and space—God’s presence and the promise that in life’s everyday stuff, in the places and people we encounter, we can find nourishment. We can find God’s grace and hope and renewal.

Remembering Holy Tuesday

Today is Holy Tuesday. 

The lectionary Gospel text for this third day of Holy Week is John 12:20-26.

“We want to see Jesus.”

John 12

This phrase from the text stands out to me today.

In this story, some Greeks come to Philip and ask if they can see Jesus. The Gospel writer never tells us whether or not these seekers get to meet Jesus. Instead, the story shifts and Jesus begins to talk about his final hours of life and his impending death. 

What happens? Do the Greeks encounter Jesus?

I wonder because of how urgent it seems sometimes that we see Jesus. That we are assured that God is with us.

The urgency has surfaced in my prayers and thoughts in recent weeks:

“Where is God in all of this?”
“Who are we as God’s people?”

We who in these days are looking into the face of human mortality want to know how this pandemic will end. Some of us are searching for meaning in the midst of the mess. Others seek healing and hope. 

I—many of us—want to see God-with-us.

So we come to Holy Week 2020. The story of Holy Week in any year is a gritty story of Jesus’ journey to the cross. It is also a story of how those who journeyed with Jesus looked squarely into the reality of life at its end and caught sight of life at its most radical and robust aliveness. They did this in stumbling and imperfect ways. But they had the chance to see Jesus by facing into what it means to be human and what it means to be people who follow the life and teachings of Jesus even if the road is treacherous and could lead to death.

We have a chance during this Holy Week to stake stock of who we are and who we hope to be as people of faith. The world harbors many death-ways. COVID-19 is not the first threat to human well-being and will not be the last. Some in our neighborhoods and communities have already looked into death’s face because they already were and are wrestling with poverty, hunger, homelessness, sickness, economic injustices, violence, and other life-denying realities.

We join the seekers in today’s Gospel in crying out: “We want to see Jesus.”

Today’s response?

We see Jesus in each other, in the thousands of ways we are finding to care for each other through this crisis. We see Jesus in grocery store workers and health care providers, in workers who deliver groceries and teachers who teach through the storm, in mail carriers and pharmacists and bank tellers. We see Jesus through Zoom platforms and Facebook Live. We see Jesus in the smiles and waves of neighbors whose names we do not yet even know.

But it is more than that. We don’t just see Jesus. We encounter the grace, hope, and love of God that resides in the redemptive arc of the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection across time and geographies. We encounter Jesus by caring for each other in these days when life’s deepest vulnerabilities and its most radical possibilities are laid bare before us.

On this Holy Tuesday I pray for the wisdom to gather up the pieces of our lives that make up the loaf we call the bread of life.

Let us come to the table of the Lord.
Let us gather up the crumbs and live.

Bruised reeds and smoldering wicks

The second day of Holy Week after Palm Sunday is Holy Monday.

Varying traditions tell of several things that may have happened on the first Holy Monday in the Christian tradition. Jesus cleanses the temple on Holy Monday and curses a fig tree (Matthew 21). One of the lectionary readings for Holy Monday tells the story of a woman in Bethany anointing Jesus with expensive oil.

Holy Monday also includes a reading from the prophet Isaiah.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Isaiah 42

Reading this ancient text on Holy Monday during the COVID-19 crisis, my focus was drawn to the prophet’s powerful images of bruised reeds not broken and smothered wicks not quenched. What do these images mean for us as we journey toward Easter on a week when headlines warn of COVID-19 deaths, overwhelmed hospitals and health care providers, and frightening economic vulnerabilities for far too many people?

Many of us see and hear present day human woundedness in these images. We are bruised reeds and smothered wicks. We are people who are faint with worry and fear.

We are indeed worried and afraid in these uncertain days. And one gift Isaiah promises is a Chosen One who comes to our lives to bring spirit-infused justice and tender care.

Another way to think about the bruised reed and smothered wick during this Holy Week comes to mind as well.

The Chosen One does not seek political clout or military might. The Chosen One comes to bring justice but not in the ways the world expects.

In Matthew, Jesus quotes Isaiah 42, and many in the Christian tradition associate Jesus with Isaiah’s Chosen One. On this Holy Monday, we can imagine Jesus as a justice-maker and life-redeemer who defies the ways of the world. Jesus will not stop until he has sown seeds of justice into every corner of the earth. He will see the work of redemption and resurrection through to the end–even through suffering.

But he moves through the world with such care and in such an obtrusive manner that

as he passes through the marshes, not even bruised reeds will break off. Not a twig will snap. His draft won’t have enough force to blow out even a smoldering wick.

Peter Krol

Hmm…what can that mean? Don’t we want to see the footprints–the trail markers–where Jesus has walked so that we can follow? Don’t we yearn for tangible evidence that Jesus has passed by this way?

Because I am spending much of my time distant from friends but close to the dirt in my backyard, butterflies come to mind. I saw my first butterfly of the season yesterday.

As I watched that butterfly dance on the wind, I was reminded of Isaiah 42 and the Butterfly Effect. The Butterfly Effect in chaos theory refers to the idea that small actions have a more significant impact than we realize.

The simplified explanation of the Butterfly Effect goes something like this:

A butterfly flaps its wings in Chicago and a tornado occurs in Tokyo.

What does this have to do with bruised reeds and smoldering wicks during this Holy Week?

Jesus models for us a way to change the world that involves recognizing the power and promise of actions that defy existing structures of power and prominence. Every action we take–even the small ones–matter and can make a bigger difference than we realize.

We are living in times of unsung and unnoticed heroes. Health care providers, public school teachers, ministers, and others are doing everything they can to keep fires of hope burning in all of our lives. Many of them are risking their own well-being to provide this gift.

On this Holy Monday, we can celebrate a Justice-Making Jesus who moves through the earth with tender care for bruised reeds and smoldering wicks even as he resists–and overturns–the unjust power structures that so readily toss bent reeds on the trash pile and extinguish struggling flames.

We can also offer a word of gratitude for those heroes who together in their quiet and often unseen ways are saving our communities. Perhaps without realizing it, we are those heroes too, doing our part to foster the well-being of our cities and towns by staying home. By doing that we are tending to bruised reeds and smoldering flames and in unexpected ways living the Gospel.

a butterfly prayed for me today
or so I imagined 
when I saw her fold her wings
and open them up again as she danced
over a fuschia azalea blossom
in our backyard

i wonder–

did the air around her flutter
as some scientists say though
i couldn’t hear the faintest whoosh

who even notices a bent stalk
in a tumultuous sea of reeds
and yet butterflies push through
cocoons to commune
even with wounded ones

we are dust and ashes 
smoldering wicks
straining to hold the light 

and a butterfly prayed for us today