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Reflection

Tonight was a beautiful and meaningful night. Friends and family members gathered in a small chapel to mark the end of a chapter, to pray for the beginning of a new one, and to Praise the Author of our stories. It has been a creative and redemptive process preparing for this night – from choosing the songs, preparing the liturgy, choosing the passages to be read. Oh how I deliberated over what Scripture should be chosen. But on Friday, I sat at work with a book and felt God say “this one.” I looked it up (Luke 23:32-43) and decided that it fit. And then I felt God say, “And you will speak”. Now I came up with every excuse in the book. And God gently spoke into each reason I offered.

People have asked me to share my reflection/sermon. So here it is. An earlier blog post was the beginning of this, so you may recognize some of the themes and even some of the paragraphs. Oh we also read Philippians 2:5-11 – so you will see references to that passage throughout.

May the words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer

I grew up in a tradition that emphasized that the penalty of my sin was death and that Christ paid that penalty. We’d read the Passion in the Gospels and see how we participated in crucifixion. As a child, I would sing the great hymn “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”. A doctrine of utter depravity informed my utter need for a Saviour.

As amazing as this is, I wonder if Christ’s work on the cross is something more than just paying the penalty for my sins. We gather tonight because of a story – one of abuse, rejection, and imprisonment. Each person here has participated in the drama of this story through prayer, support, friendship and love. We come together over a story of violence, and in the words of Phil Zylla read at the beginning of the service, we share

asking the honest question “why?” untroubled, finding a solidarity, a kinship in loss.

Violence demands an answer. I have been offered many answers over the years. Yet each of them has failed in some way. I’ve often said that if someone wants to get a message across to me, they should set it to music, and I will hear it. Canadian singer/song writer Steve Bell wrote a song that when I heard it I was sure that it was written for me and over time it has provided the answer to the question of violence.

Somebody’s gotta pay for this/ Nobody gets away unless somebody dies/ And it’s confirmed that there’s been pain/ Enough to satisfy the rage/ from the losses she’s sustained since age thirteen/ Only then can the rest go free.

In response to the news of my stepfather going to jail, I’ve had people suggest to me that justice is now being served and therefore I must be happy. Indeed, he is now facing the consequences of what he has done and a gruelling court proceeding is finally over. But there is really nothing he can do or endure that will make up for what I’ve experienced. If I want an answer to the violence I have endured, I cannot look to my stepfather. In Steve Bell’s words, He doesn’t have “enough to lose to pay for this.” He simply cannot pay the price for the pain he has caused me and the many people who are affected by his actions.

Steve wrote this song after a series of three dreams after learning of a situation of someone he cared about. The first dream, he was standing in front of the perpetrator, with a gun in hand and ready to shoot. The second dream, he again was standing in front of the perpetrator, with a gun in hand and ready to shoot, though this time, Christ stood in between them. The third dream, he stood in front of the perpetrator, with a gun in hand, and Christ said, “Shoot me instead.

This is not some meek and mild Jesus. This is One who, being in very nature God… made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant. This is a Jesus who gave up everything to take on my punishment for the sin that separates me from God. But more than that – this is a Christ who died to satisfy the rage of the losses I’ve sustained by age thirteen. This is a Christ who cares enough about me along with the other orphans, widows and lepers of society to avenge their cause. This is a Christ who answers the cries of the violated.

The prophet Isaiah speak to a Christ’s suffering:

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:2-5

This is a Christ who, again in the words of Steve Bell, chose to pay the price, on a tree, silently and still, just long enough to kill. It is a Christ who sees our pain and anger and says, “I can take it, give it to me.” It is a Christ who allows himself to be wounded beyond what my mind can comprehend so that not only can I be saved, but that I can be healed by his wounds and be given peace.

This is a love that I have begun to experience the depth and width and breadth in this journey. However, Steve Bell sings that this is a “kind of love that changes everything”. I think we see this poignantly in Christ’s words on the cross. 

He was hung with criminals, as a criminal, and mocked for his innocence. Christ left the throne of God to get involved in the messiness of humanity for its salvation by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.. He was offered wine vinegar to drink – something that the poor drank. He was mocked for being King of the Jews.

And there he stood, looking upon the people watching and the rulers sneering at him, and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

If I were to find any pride or satisfaction in Christ avenging my cause on the cross, this profound prayer humbles for me. I cannot comprehend the amount of suffering Christ endured, the pain of being mocked by those he came to save and heal. And certainly my first words would not be to pray for those who hurt me in the midst of my pain, let alone pray that God forgives them.

This is the kind of love that changes everything. This is a love that was pierced for my transgressions, crushed for my iniquities. And I cannot bask in this love for long before I see that this is the love I am called to – to forgive and pray for my enemies, to forgive and pray for those who have hurt me. Indeed, we are taught to ask God for forgiveness of our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Christ’s death on the cross is a love that changes everything.

This Gospel reading includes a short exchange with Christ and the other criminals that is not detailed in the other gospels. As I’ve pondered these words, I see a great hope that speaks into the situation that gathers us hear tonight as well as other situations we find ourselves in. One of the criminals acknowledges that he is suffering because of his own wrongdoing and that Christ is innocent. And he turns to Christ and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Christ’s responded with “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

I think this exchange is important. While the others were mocking Jesus, this criminal got it. Peter – the disciple who enthusiastically claimed he would follow Christ to prison and to death only a day before – denied knowing Christ. The disciples fell asleep when they were asked to keep watch and pray. In the other Gospels we are told that the disciples hid after Christ’s death because they were afraid.

But was this criminal saw who he was and who Christ was. To me, this speaks great hope into a story that is not over. God can and will continue to work in my stepfather’s life, in my family’s lives and in my own life. God isn’t finished yet.

Awhile ago, I visited a community that ate and studied Scripture with people who had been in jail. Before we broke into small groups, one man – an ex-convict – gave a monologue on grace. It was a profound moment that brought tears as this man talked with God saying, “You want me? But I have nothing to give. Are you sure? What about all the bad things I’ve done?” God used an ex-convict to teach me about grace.

Steve Bell proclaims in a lot of his concerts that he is here today because Canada’s most unwanted men in the prison where his father was chaplain took an interest in teaching him to play the guitar.

Just when we reach a point when all is lost, God seems to throw in a wild card that we weren’t expecting. My most profound experience of God’s presence was in the midst of a gruelling cross-examination. My most profound experience of God’s love was when I gave up on life only to discover that God wasn’t finished with me yet. I learned to delight in God’s ways after months – or rather years – of complaining over and over about the ardious wait.

But then, isn’t this the way of God? To orchestrate beauty and grace in the midst of the messiness of humanity? To choose “the lowly things of this world and the despised things to that no one can boast before him?” (1 Corinthians 1:28-29).

I leave you with the words of one of my favourite poets. Anne Sexton was deeply troubled most of her life, but had periods of closeness with God and wrote some of the most beautiful descriptions of what life with Christ looks like. This poem has become my prayer as I see what God has done through the events that bring us together tonight and as I look to life in this new chapter.

I’m mooring my rowboat

at the dock of the island called God.

This dock is made in the shape of a fish

and there are many boats moored

at many different docks.

“It’s okay,” I say to myself,

with blisters that broke and healed

and broke and healed –

saving themselves over and over.

And salt sticking to my face and arms like

a glue-skin pocked with grains of tapioca.

I empty myself from the wooden boat

and onto the flesh of The Island.

“On with it!” He says and thus

we squat on the rocks by the sea

and play – can it be true – 

a game of poker.

He calls me.

I win because I hold a royal straight flush.

He wins because He holds five aces.

A wild card had been announced

but I had not heard it

being in such a state of awe

when He took out the cards and dealt.

As he plunks down His five aces

and I sit grinning at my royal flush,

He starts to laugh,

the laughter rolling like a hoop out of His mouth

and into mine,

and such laughter that He doubles right over me

laughing a Rejoice-Chorus at our two triumphs.

Then I laugh, the fishy dock laughs

the sea laughs. The Island laughs.

The Absurd laughs.

Dearest dealer,

I with my royal straight flush

love you so for your wild card,

that untamable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha

and lucky love.

Amen.

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  1. Vera L
    January 25, 2013 at 9:40 am

    My dear Elizabeth I am so proud of you and as I prayed for you duing the meeting with such sorry in my heart because I felt of all people I should be there, however distance made that impossible. I love the picture of you and with my family standing with you. I prayed for you during the time of the meeting that God would give you the strength and the words to expess your innermost feelings and by reading your message, my heart was stirred again and I said “thank you God” for you and the courage you had in your faith was able to expess to your friends and family. I am sure He has great plans for you and He will use you to comfort others as you bring glory and honour to His Name. I wish I could just put my arms around you and hug you but just take this as that is what I have done. I love you Elizabeth you are special and I want to continue having you share with me the things that happen and your ljourney as you put this in the back burner and get on with your life. Love Grandma

  2. January 29, 2013 at 10:26 am

    my goodness… what an honour to be part of your story in this way Elizabeth Áine Achimah. I’m convinced God’s grace is some sort of multi-dimensional matrix the implications of which we can only guess at. But every so often, like this story, and this name, we get a shutter-speed glimpse. And it is sufficient… thanks.

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