Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Grape #30: Holy Week Reflections

Without fail, whenever Holy Week arrives, I'm brought back to every other Holy Week I've gone through before, every time I've watched the Jesus of Nazareth Miniseries, every passion play I've witnessed, or mass, or ritual, or stations of the cross.

It all begins, of course, with humility. On what we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. Hardly a bells-and-whistles entrance, I think you'd agree, but enough people know who he is now after he's been teaching and preaching for three years across the region. So here he comes moseying along--I always think of Eeyore--and just like his ride, he smiles sadly and says, "Thanks for noticing me."

Okay, so maybe that's not what he said, but you understand what I mean? He wasn't exactly screaming out for people to notice him. Still, they did notice him. They did know who he was, and they did recognize the beauty of the moment. They laid down palm fronds before him in tribute to both him and his ministry. It was beautiful.

He spends the week with his disciples, and he tells them to prepare the Passover meal later in the week. This will be the day we now call Holy Thursday. He dines with his friends, and starts to tell them what will happen next. And they're riveted, absolutely riveted. "Wait, what is he saying? This is all going to happen now? This weekend?" Imagine you're out to dinner with friends, and someone tells you they're about to be arrested, tried for treason, and killed the next day. You'd stop eating and stare at him with wild eyes, too. "No," you'd say, "that can't be true."

"No joke," he says, "In fact, the person who reaches for that yummy basket of breadsticks at the same time as me will betray me this very night." And by the time they're out in the olive garden, full from dinner, they forget. They fall asleep. He shakes his head at them and looks up in prayer. "Dear God, for Passover this year, won't you please let this cup pass over me? Can't we do this some other way?" He pleads to God for intercession, but nothing happens.
"In Gethsemane, the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from him. It did not. After that, the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed." - C. S. Lewis
Good Friday arrives, and within just a few hours that morning, he's tried and sentenced to death. The disciples seem to have slept in that morning, because most of them weren't even aware this was happening. In his darkest moments the night before, they slept, and in his final hours, they slept in. As they woke up late and had breakfast, maybe an egg sandwich or bagel, he was being whipped. Someone even cut out a bunch of thorns from a rose bush and crushed it on his head. "Here's your crown, king!" they laughed. By noon, his body was nailed to two pieces of wood, and he was left to die...slowly.

Holy Saturday's the day when nothing happens, and there's a supreme holiness in that. When you've spent the last two days thinking and praying about the awful end to Jesus's life, you're suddenly faced with this empty hole in your life. Tears may come, just as they do when you're a day apart from a loved one's death, but at the same time, you're left feeling empty. Robbed. Uncertain of anything.

But then Easter Sunday arrives. You've finally convinced yourself your loved one is gone. The awful hours of the previous two or three days are behind you, but now you reach the tomb and find it empty. Impossible, you think. How could this be true? The resurrection is at the core of Christian theology, but even if you have trouble believing that Jesus rose from the dead, body and soul, there's still the truth as shared by so many in the years afterward.

"We saw him appear before us." "We touched the holes in his hands and feet." "He walked with us on the road to Emmaus."

These were people who Jesus told to their faces what would happen, and even they didn't believe him. Peter, his closest disciple, denied even knowing him! They fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane when he needed them most. They slept in the next morning while he was beaten and crucified. And when the women of their group ran to them and said they saw him alive, risen from the dead, risen from the tomb, they made fun of them. "You silly women don't know anything," they mocked, "Why should we believe you?"

So when we read about all of this, including their amazing stories about finally seeing him themselves, talking to him, touching his hands and dining with him, we see real people telling their real stories without sugarcoating anything. "We didn't believe either," they're telling us, "and we know it all sounds crazy, but it's true!"

Holy Week comes just once a year, but we go through it over and over again in our lives. Every time someone close to us dies, we experience all the pain and doubt, lethargy and hopelessness the disciples felt. Our faith is tested, and we may even scoff at those who try to tell us they've seen the resurrected spirit of a loved one in person. But it's true--all of it!

All theology aside--and I personally don't believe a whole lot of things traditional religion has taught me--the soul does survive death! Holy Week is an opportunity to reflect on all of it: the death and the life, the empty hole and the empty tomb, the darkness of this world, and the light of the next. "We didn't believe either, and we know it all sounds crazy, but it's true!"

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Grape #29: Irritable Scowl Syndrome

You've no doubt heard about bitchy resting face, a syndrome that's not so much intentional as it is unfortunate. Irritable scowl syndrome is similar, but it absolutely comes with intention.

The serial scowler either knows they are, or simply doesn't care. They make no effort to conceal their distaste, for that would defeat the purpose of scowling in the first place.

A scowl is meant to convey distaste and judgment. It is intended to communicate disagreement with the hopes of changing the situation at hand.

When afflicted with ISS (Irritable Scowl Syndrome), you walk around with hatred. You see a car parked badly, and you scowl. You see a teenager dressed in a way you disagree with, and you scowl. You see a post on social media you don't like, and you scowl. You see a person you dislike with a smile on their face, and you scowl. You see a problem with your meal at a restaurant, and you scowl. You see a scowl, and you scowl.

ISS is common in people over 40, but it's also common in people one day of age and up. In rare cases, Irritable Scowl Syndrome can cause Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and just as often, Irritable Bowel Syndrome can cause Irritable Scowl Syndrome. Talk to your doctor about almost anything, and you may soon find yourself with Irritable Scowl Syndrome. Four out of five doctors have Irritable Scowl Syndrome, and it is contagious.

There is no known cure for ISS, but encouraging your face to move in the upward position rather than downward is a good place to start. Practice in the mirror if necessary. Just think of happy things, and see if that helps. In clinical trials, some patients observed that simply loving people rather than judging them helped remove the scowl immediately.

For more ways to help reverse the process of scowling, please visit Spirituality With A Smile on Facebook, or subscribe to this blog.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Grape #28: Doubling Down On Kindness

Very often lately, I've heard about how a political candidate is accused of saying or doing something heinous, and instead of apologizing, he doubles down on his hateful rhetoric a day later.

So today, to help balance the universe out, I thought we could look at ways we can all double down on kindness in our lives.

The kind thing to do is holding a door open. The double-down kind thing to do is holding the door open with a smile or a happy comment.

The kind thing to do is letting someone pull in front of you on the road. The double-down kind thing to do is waving them in with your hand.

The kind thing to do is smiling kindly at a stranger. The double-down kind thing to do is really meaning it.

The kind thing to do is pointing out some water or mess on the floor, so the next person doesn't slip. The double-down kind thing to do is cleaning it up yourself right away.

The kind thing to do is putting your phone down on the table while you're sitting with someone at a meal or a party. The double-down kind thing to do is putting your phone away completely in your pocket or purse.

The kind thing to do is not replying in a nasty way to a hate-filled post on social media. The double-down kind thing to do is posting something love-filled in response.

The kind thing to do is fully listening to someone tell a story. The double-down kind thing to do is not one-upping them once they're done.

The kind thing to do is giving your loved ones all your attention and love. The double-down kind thing to do is giving all your attention and love to those who look, pray, and speak differently than you do.

The kind thing to do is appreciating that we're all different, and we're allowed to have different beliefs from one another. The double-down kind thing to do is opening your mind to really learning about other cultures and beliefs.

The kind thing to do is liking this post on social media. The double-down kind thing to do is sharing it. *smile*

Reply here or in the posting you saw this from with your own double-down suggestion. The kind thing to do is ______________. The double-down kind thing to do is ______________.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Grape #27: The spiritual response to bullies

I'm an easy target for bullies. A lot of people see me as a pushover, or weak, someone who they know won't come back at them with the same intimidation or mean words they throw at me. 99% of the time, that's who I am, and I've always regretted the times I lashed out in response.

Growing up Catholic, we watched the entire Jesus of Nazareth miniseries every year in high school. I got to know Jesus first as the Son of God, and later as my friend and brother. I've realized over time how much his message has been co-opted by the Pharisees of today, but when I look at the man himself, well, he continues to be one of my greatest role models.

Remember the old "turn and offer him your other cheek as well" slogan? Eugene H. Peterson, my favorite biblical translator, phrases it this way:

"Here's another old saying that deserves a second look: 'Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.' Is that going to get us anywhere? Here's what I propose: 'Don't hit back at all.' If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously." (The Message, Matthew 5:39-42)

How many of us are capable of doing this? But even more important than that, how many of us believe Jesus was right? How many go to church on Sunday nodding their heads, yet support hate-filled political leaders on Monday?

Jesus said this when Peter drew his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane: "Put your sword back where it belongs. All who use swords are destroyed by swords." (The Message, Matthew 26:52-54) Does this sound like someone who believes in putting even more guns into more hands? But I digress!

We're living in a very strange world in which people use their religions against other people instead of fusing their souls with other people as children of one, love-filled God.

Bullies come in every religious cloth and many outside of belief too, of course. On one side there are religious people who bully others into an ultimatum of dogmas set up against the possibility of eternal damnation, fire and brimstone. And on the other side are comedians mocking religious and spiritual people alike for wasting their time on an invisible, nonexistent deity. Each of these are flanks of far too many in the center: folks who are being taught by osmosis from their favorite news network or preacher that hatred is okay now and then, because it keeps us safe.

So what do we do when we're bullied by someone dead set in their love of hatred, or their casual affair with closed-mindedness? How do we spiritually respond to bullies?

By taking a deep breath--or twenty--and calming the storm within us. When someone says something mean or hurtful about us or our black, Muslim, gay, trans, Spanish, or Chinese friends (and so on), we must let the wild waves churning within us be still. We must find that inner peace that we had as children, the inner peace we all had and still have within us. And once we get to that place, we can respond to the person or situation with love.

Is this easy? No.

And I'm not putting myself up on some pedestal either. I'm just the typist here, not the example. I struggle with all of this just like you do. And that's what this is about anyway, isn't it? Realizing we're all in this together?

The elevator filled with all kinds of people and beliefs, religious and political, gets stuck between floors, and we have to decide to either be at peace or be in the perpetual storm that does nothing but hurt us and others.

The spiritual response to bullies is peace and love. It's the solution that requires no fists or swords or guns or bullying words of any kind. It's the solution that may even mean getting punched in the face or the shirt stolen off our back.

Can we defend ourselves and our neighbors from suffering and death? Can we take up arms against a sea of troubles if the sea of troubles is threatening to crash onto the shores of our homes and souls? Well, what did Jesus do? He was arrested, peacefully. He was beaten, severely. And instead of just being killed, he was killed slowly up on a cross for all to see, as the hot sun beat down on his hungry, thirsty, bloody body.

I'm not suggesting you go that far! That isn't my purpose!

I just want you to see how far from that you've gone when you insult someone's race, religion, sexuality, or identity in any way. I want you to see how far from spirit you are when you help bullies succeed, when instead of helping your sisters and brothers who struggle to put food on the table (whether or not they treat themselves to a new pair of sneakers), you instead vote for political leaders who preach vile, evil hatred every chance they get.

Deep breaths, deep breaths, Sean. I'm trying!

I understand now why Jesus lashed out at the money-changers in the temple, but instead of making that one instance of anger the center of my approach, I remember how kind the man was most of the time, how much he preached love and forgiveness. I remember how amazingly, freakin' sweet he was all the time. And it helps me still the storms of anger others have stirred within me.

I continue to pray, as I hope you will too, that we may all strive for greater peace, both in our world, and in our hearts. The storms will keep coming at us all the time, and they'll show up in all sorts of disguises and phrases, even from people smiling and pretending to be good. But when we trust in and swim in the calm waters deep within us, we can better react to the hatred. We can, and we must. This world needs us to try harder.