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The past 12 months or so have seen the most drastic changes in my journey within Christianity, and I find myself engaging with it through two different images. The first way in which I see my relationship with the Christianity of my heritage is me standing along the coast and hurling it at the sea. In a sense, the Christianity I knew and have been shaped by is no longer something tenable in my life. The second image that comes to mind is the dramatic, edge of the cliff rescue scene. Every great action movie has a scene in which the hero is gripping onto the hand of someone dangling off of the edge of a building, a cliff, or something else from which one dangles from in fear. In this scenario, though, I’m not the one pulling anyone or anything up. I dangle. And sometimes the people dangling and holding onto the saving hand decide that it is better for them to let go and yield to the certainty of gravity. In this scenario, I’m not sure whether I get pulled up or let go. Suffice to say, my relationship to the faith that nurtured me is tenuous at best. And for any one reading this who is where I am, or has been there, it can be a weird and uncomfortable, confusing place.

Somewhere in the midst of my seminary education faith became really complicated. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews claims that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is that something by which we participate in the story of God. But this statement from the epistle is an oxymoron. Faith is the assurance? Anything which is assuredly so cannot be faith. By this definition of assurance, I have lost faith. But in its wake I announce hope. I have a hope that aligning myself in the story of Jesus is a life-giving and others-focused way in which I can make sense of life, even change lives, circumstances, moments; a way that challenges and questions the powers, inequality, exclusion, and lives differently. I have a hope that this both reveals God and experiences God.

But all of this crumbles when other people––those whom I claim to live for––need my faith more than I do. When my sister––suffering the side-effects of chemotherapy––asks me for prayer through the painful sores on her tongue, she needs my faith. She needs a faith I’m not sure is in me. When a friend comes face to face with the darkness and comes to me for light, he needs my faith more than I do. When I face that darkness myself…

I’m left to sit in this chair and face the darkness with resilience. I’m left to listen, to grieve, to hurt, to enter into your pain with you, to curse that which steals life from us. And to dance when life comes back, when light comes through. This is how I pray for you. This is what my faith looks like for you.

Though I want to lower you all through the roof and bring you to the feet of Jesus, I don’t have the arms to dig through it.

Station 12 – Jesus dies on the cross

From the planks of the cross Jesus quotes the psalmist’s lament, echoing the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the moment of his deepest pain and sorrow Jesus utters a lament of abandonment and disorientation. We cannot allow this cry to affirm that Jesus was ever forsaken, out of touch with the Holy, and left alone. When we do so we remove the presence of God from pain and claim that God is absent in the hurting of others and in the hurt that we experience ourselves. Nor can we leap to the opposite extreme and affirm that the death of Jesus was divinely demanded by God. The act of Incarnation planted the Divine deep within the soil of creation so that God experiences life with us in all seasons. Denis Edwards writes:

The Holy Spirit is with Jesus in his suffering and death, transforming suffering into redemptive love and bringing life out of misery and death. This line of thought can be taken further. I believe it is important to insist that the cross itself cannot be thought of as directly willed by God. God does not plan or want the evil act of crucifixion. This was an arbitrary, ugly, and sinful act performed by a number of human beings against one who was innocent. In this way it was like many other murders and executions then and now. God does not will any such horrors. This is why Edward Schillebeeckx can say that “first of all, we have to say that we are not redeemed thanks to the death of Jesus but despite it.” He insists that it is only in the overcoming of the evil, in its transformation by God that we can think of being saved through the execution of the innocent one. The Spirit of God transforms the brutal and wicked act of crucifixion into an event that brings healing and liberation. God brings new life, freedom, and healing through the cross, because the destructive act of crucifying Jesus is transformed by the power of the life-giving Spirit into the vehicle of resurrection life.[1] 

Prayer: May I never assume You have forsaken me. May I see you in the darkness and hear you in the silence. May my life be transformed by the act of suffering You endured on the cross. 

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1. Denis Edwards, Breath of LifeA Theology of the Creator Spirit (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004) pages 82-83

Station 11 – Jesus is crucified

We’ve followed Jesus on the Via Dolorosa and have made it to the top of the Golgotha–the place of the skull–where Jesus will find himself being executed between two criminals. The Gospel of Luke recalls the harrowing scene:

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”

The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine and vinegar and said, “if you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

The mob mentality has carried the momentum of the violent procession from its inception at the sentencing of Jesus to its climax as soldiers hammer nails into his hands and feet, fixing him to the cross. Jesus became the scapegoat for the crowd. Richard Beck writes:

A Scapegoat for the collective misfortune was identified. And in that moment of identification, group solidarity miraculously reappears. Once-fractured individuals now stand together against the scapegoat. The violence of the group is brought to bear upon the One to save the Many, and the sacrifice occurs. And in the wake of the sacrifice the blood lust of the now-unified group is sated. Peace returns.[1]

It is against this backdrop which Jesus utters the words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The Gospel accounts draw to a tense close with the delusional inversion of justice: the man who healed, empowered and gave life to many is broken, disempowered, and robbed of life.

On Good Friday we cannot afford to look away from the cross, but must stare into its brutality and recognize the depths to which God’s love will descend. We recognize our faces in the crowd surrounding Jesus. The mob takes the form of a culture addicted to consumption, to comfort, luxury, and entirely self-oriented. We idly stand by and watch the horrors before us, paralyzed in the face of power, collectively negating the pain because it is not our own. The cross as the center of the Christian faith demands that the darkness of our world be looked upon and brought into light. I don’t know how to do that, nor do I claim to be a light in such darkness. However, as we push back the darkness in our lives we reveal the light which we carry into dark places. We follow Jesus into the dark. This is terrifying and disorienting and difficult beyond belief. This is taking up our cross and following Jesus. There are many days that I do not have the strength or the will to do so.

Prayer: Jesus, may I see you in the darkness and approach you. 

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1. Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), page 96.

Station 10 – Jesus is stripped of his clothes

When the procession finally reached its destination, Golgotha, Jesus’ humiliation continued as he was stripped of his clothes. The dehumanization embedded in this act reaches beyond Jesus and grasps at the hands and ankles of everyone surrounding the scene. It is often difficult to imagine the brutality and cruelty involved in the torture and execution of Jesus. Beyond that, our aversion to stare into the face of pain causes us to jump over the suffering of God, or justify the suffering by elevating it to become the will of God and a necessary component of the carbon, human Jesus; we tell ourselves that he had to suffer in this way to mend the chasm and rift between humanity and the Divine.

As crowds amassed around the hill where Jesus would be put to death, the onlookers were stunned and struck with fear at the power of the authorities. This was the price for acting out, for speaking up, for protesting, for siding with the under privileged and unprivileged. In the face of injustice, I am constantly stunned and numbed and unsure of what I can do to make a difference. Often times I resign to ignorance and pretend that I am unaware so that I can continue in habits of consumption that are damaging to people and the earth. This is the way in which we cope. I am an onlooker and a participator in oppression to the extent that I prefer to consume and satiate myself rather than serve others and risk my status and reputation and comfort and luxury for the sake of others and for the earth. 

The mob mentality struck Jerusalem on the day that Jesus was murdered. The thirst for violence and the quest for a scapegoat took over. Upon the ones whom it did not completely take over, a paralyzing silence and numbness fell over them. We remember Veronica who bravely stepped out into the procession and wiped Jesus’ face. This simple act was one of desperation that signified her resentment of reality and was a small action of protest demanding great courage.

As we reflect on Jesus encircled by crowds who do nothing to stop the violence unfolding, I am torn by the memories of the news story from Richmond, California that made national headlines. On October 24, 2009, a fifteen-year-old girl was brutally beaten and raped by a group of men outside of the homecoming dance at her school. This act of inhumanity, cruelty and depravity lasted more than two hours. Police and news reports state that there were as many as 10 men involved in the attack and another two dozen people stood on the sidelines and watched. One of the young people who witnessed the event made this statement:

“They were kicking her in her head and they were beating her up, robbing her and ripping her clothes off; it’s something you can’t get out your mind. I saw people, like, dehumanizing her; I saw some pretty crazy stuff. She was pretty quiet; I thought she was like dead for a minute but then I saw her moving around. I feel like I could have done something but I don’t feel like I have any responsibility for anything that happened.” [1]

The eyewitness account is heartbreaking and disturbing. The indelible imprint of violence shakes, stuns, and disrupts us. The events that took place that night completely disrupt our senses and elicit outrage. In light of Jesus entering into humanity and suffering alongside us, we must say that Christ suffered tremendously on October 24, 2009, and we must also say that Christ suffers tremendously with all victims of violence (as well as with the perpetrators of violence). What is our reaction to violence? Does it disrupt and disturb us? Does it do so more if the victim’s skin looks like ours? If they were one of us? How does the cross influence the way we look at violence?

The suffering of Christ on the cross demands our attention, as does the suffering all around us. It can often be difficult to relate to and be moved by the idea of Jesus dying on the cross. It is not real to us. It has been spiritualized and has lost the capacity to disgust and disrupt us. But when we look into the depth of humanity’s oppression and violence and ability to remove any shred of humanity from another, we look into Christ crucified.

Prayer: May I not be numbed and ignorant of the injustice and suffering of my neighbors, but see, weep, and wage peace with my life.

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1. http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/local/east_bay&id=7111732

I’m one of those hopeful dreamer types. I like to see the good in people and situations and feel that dwelling on the negative requires far more energy than the alternative, and can also be destructive. However, as I’ve become more perceptive of my optimism and how others live out their optimism, I have recognized how optimism left unchecked can stain one’s view of reality and the ways in which one engages the very real suffering and injustice present in our world. Over the past few years I have begun to grow into a space where I am gaining the ability to lean into the dark realities of life without white-washing them. This is a difficult process and I attribute a lot of it to the privilege of not ever experiencing suffering or great crisis. My comfortable life has not led me down the roads that far too many walk daily. May comfort never lead me into complacency or apathy.

I used to feel compelled to view every event of human history through a hopeful lens that sought to reconcile all pain, grief, suffering, and injustice as somehow being used for God’s glory. I was convinced that all things happened by way of God’s will. Though I may or may not have ever seen how an event may be used by God for a greater good, I trusted that all the pains of life would somehow be redeemed and flipped on their heads. All of this was because I believed that God was good, and that God was intimately involved in the inner workings of the world within history. I still believe God is good, but I no longer believe that God works in the same ways that I once did. I have since come to reject those understandings of God, history, and suffering.

I share this because I strongly agree with Douglas John Hall’s critique of North American Christianity as a faith that embraces an official optimism. It is not hard to see where Christianity gets this optimism from. The Bible is an incredibly optimistic text. Hope is woven throughout the Hebrew Bible by the threads of covenant, promise, and faith. Even in the midst of exile a strand of hope hung over the edge of despair as God’s people told stories of deliverance from Egypt, of divine intervention, of being chosen by God to reveal love and goodness to others. Even though they attributed their sufferings to YHWH, it was also YHWH who restored them and showed them mercy. Read Lamentations 3, for crying out loud.

That strand of hope continues through the Second Testament as well. A concordance search for the word “hope” churns out dozens of results. Hope is a good thing, and I wouldn’t be who I am today had I not been shaped by hope. But there is a problem with hope that has been becoming increasingly clear to me. Hope can immobilize. When hope holds out for payment in the near or distant future, one is more likely to go bankrupt, so to speak, in the present. There is a tension between hope on one side, and fear and worry on the other side. My predilection toward hope tends to push out worry and fear or anxiety from my realities and this has caused me to fail to take appropriate and timely actions to various situations. I think it is essential that we hold these two paradigms–hope and worry/anxiety–in tension, and approach with caution and suspicion when we are confronted with too great a hope or too great a fear.

This hermeneutical approach finds friction when we get to Matthew 6 within Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

When I read these words, I cannot help but fumble over how Jesus can speak these words of hope to a marginalized and oppressed community. Beyond that, how can we read and speak these words today in the face of suffering, pain and injustice all around us? How do we read this text from the First World? Does this trouble you at all? I have my own thoughts about this, which I will share, but I’m curious if anyone else has wrestled with this and come to any conclusions about the practicality of hope and Jesus’ words here. If so, please share your thoughts and stories.