Holy Saturday’s Hell

Easter Hymn

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

A E Housman

I was introduced to this poem by David Brown at a training event earlier this year. David suggested this was a poem for Holy Saturday.

As it starts, it’s all about the “if”.
What if?
It’s a question that tortures us now, as it tortured Housman:

What if the very thing that Christian hope clings to – the death and resurrection of Christ – was only a death?
What if the dead man Christ knew nothing of the futility of his suffering?
What if, in death, he only added to the hatred of the world?
What if death is the end?

Housman then pivots his poem, his questions, on the “but”:
But if the tomb could not hold Christ,
But if Christ ascended into glory
But if Christ, in glory, remembers human suffering
But if Christ, in resurrection, transforms the darkness of death
Then surely he will see our pain and return to make it okay.

Housman was an agnostic, and this is an agnostic poem.

And is there a more agnostic moment, for Christians, than Holy Saturday?
Holy Saturday lies between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
It is a day of mystery and darkness.

Here is the liminal space between:
Death ………. and ………. resurrection
Darkness ………. and ………. light
Despair ………. and ………. hope
Sorrow ………. and ………. joy
Anxiety ………. and ………. reassurance
Giving up ………. and ………. starting afresh
Pain ………. and ………. healing
Hate ………. and ………. forgiveness
The ending ………. and ………. the beginning.

Housman’s poem is a poem for our agnostic self in our agnostic moments
(And – unless it’s just me – then even priests have agnostic moments!):

The moments in which God seems distant and all we have is unformed questions and silent answers.
The moments of longing that life could have been different, but of facing up to the reality of deep pain and disappointment.
The moments in which we question: Why? What for? Who cares?

Some Christian traditions hold that Holy Saturday was the day of the harrowing of Hell: a belief that Christ “descended into Hell” to liberate those held by Satan’s chains.

While Satan and Hades were thus speaking to each other, there was a great voice like thunder, saying: Lift up your gates, O ye rulers; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates; and the King of glory shall come in…

While Hades was thus discoursing to Satan, the King of glory stretched out His right hand, and took hold of our forefather Adam, and raised him. Then turning also to the rest, He said: Come all with me, as many as have died through the tree which he touched: for, behold, I again raise you all up through the tree of the cross.

The Gospel of Nicodemus

In our “if” moments, our Holy Saturday hell, I wonder if we can hear, even distantly, the voice that thunders to our despair, our hurt, our hopelessness:
“Open your gates, and let me in!”

And I wonder in what “buts” we find glimpses of Christ’s resurrection hope?
But if there can be hope…
But if this is not the end…
But if this is a beginning…

Bow hither out of Heaven and see and save.

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Hieronymus Bosch, The Harrowing of Hell

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“I think we’re nearly there” – Leading through brokenness

The story of The Exodus – the escape over three millennia ago of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt and their subsequent journey homeward bound – is one of the greatest stories ever told. And it begins with a broken man being called to rescue this broken people from a broken tyrant overseeing a broken economy within a broken culture.

I was reflecting with Jim today on the brokenness I have seen lately in people around me, and in myself. This brokenness is not a bad thing: the opposite, in fact. Some of the people I most admire and look up to; those who have taught me how to live well; are broken.

Actually, on some level, we are all broken.

And the more I become aware of the brokenness around me, the more I realise that my leadership – in all areas of my life – must begin in the brokenness.

Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.
Exodus 6:9

The people of Israel were so broken; their inward (and probably outward) cries of pain were so overwhelming, so unbearable, that they could hear and see and feel nothing that didn’t hurt.

We may not be slaves, we may not have experienced oppression to the same degree as the Israelite people under Pharaoh, but life hurts, doesn’t it?

Sometimes, life hurts so much that we can hear nothing but our pain.

Disillusionment, disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, hurt: these things begin to shape our narratives: they become the dominant stories that we tell. We lose sight of the future we were promised. We forget that there might be promise beyond the pain. We become hope-less.

A few weeks ago, I had a particular day where a number of people asked me to listen to their pain, and to pray with them. Thankfully, I had my anointing oil on hand! Following that day, I made a decision to always carry the oil – at least, as much as I would remember to. I think this decision arose from a realisation that I am ministering to a broken people. Not that the people I minister to are an anomaly; rather, I see in them the brokenness that many of us wear as casually and normally as our clothes. With the oil, I am ready to hear their brokenness, to embrace and anoint the darkest of their fears, and to speak words of comfort and hope and freedom.

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But…
Broken people don’t listen.

Why should they?

And yet, the story we have to tell – of resurrection and life and love and hope – needs to be heard.

So how do we tell it?

Anyone called to or engaged in Christian leadership needs to be ready to minister to the brokenness. Sometimes, the pain of our people is so profound – and shapes their story so crushingly – that before we can begin any meaningful work of discipleship or teaching or building up we need to address the pain.

Effective leaders must be pastors, listeners, healers, and encouragers.

If our people are broken in spirit, then the first – perhaps the only – tasks of leadership are:

To understand the brokenness
To listen, painstakingly, patiently, undefensively.
To hear the story behind the story; the meaning behind the words; the pain behind the aggression.
To be able to retell the story back to the storyteller in their words.
To empathise, and not sympathise.
To be there, with no agenda.

To bind up the wounds
To speak little, but incisively.
To offer words of healing balm, rather than explanation, defence, challenge, or frustration.
To embrace, without turning away.

To earn back trust
To recognise this is slow work.
To teach by listening rather than talking.
To offer freedom, autonomy, and space to make mistakes.
To be ready to go back to the work of listening, hearing, understanding, when the pain crowds in and this inner work is too much.

As a church, we are broken, and we have a difficult time ahead. Trust in us as an institution – as with many institutions – is at an all-time low. The narratives all too often turn to desperation, failure, regret. We must learn to lead our people through despondency, through disappointment, through brokenness.

But these things must never come to define our story.

We are broken, but our brokenness is not the end of our story. The great story of the Exodus probably never felt like an epic tale of adventure to the broken Israelite slaves. At what point did they, as a generation, realise the extent to which their story would be told, retold and learned by heart?

Probably never.

My greatest heroes, my cherished role models, are all broken people. But it is their brokenness, and their embrace of that brokenness, that makes them heroic.

We are all on a path through brokenness to wholeness. And increasingly, we need leaders who have walked that path, and who are willing to walk it again with their people; as slowly and as painstakingly as it takes. The best leaders never sprint off ahead. The best leaders stay with – and unite – the group. The best leaders tie up shoe laces and wipe snotty noses and sit with those who have given up and hand out snacks and plasters and jokes and say,

“Look ahead – I think we’re nearly there“.

And there is the wholeness we glimpse in brokenness. It is in the people among us to are ready
to listen,
to hear,
to heal,
to hope.

Everything undone: Shame’s crippling legacy

Shame
/ʃeɪm/
A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.

So many of us carry around a full glass of the stuff:
It laps at our edges, overflows at the slightest knock
It eats away at our self-assurance
Nags at our inner peace
Smothers our hope.

This isn’t the shame you might feel after a particular action or course of events.
This is chronic shame: a state of existence in which you constantly tell yourself:
“I’m not good enough”.

Or just: “I’m not enough”.

When we make mistakes, shame serves a purpose.
It tells us to put things right.
It helps us to become better people.

But chronic shame has no purpose.
Chronic shame is destructive, exhausting, and futile.
Chronic shame damages us, and damages those around us.

It’s outward signs might be subtle:
“I should…”
“I ought…”
“I don’t _______ enough”
“I could do better at…”

There is nothing wrong with these statements.
But sometimes, they become a monologue from which we never break free.
We don’t give ourselves a break.
We don’t reward ourselves for our successes.
We just notice everything we have neglected.
Everywhere we have fallen short.
Everything undone.

Who I am
What I do
It’s not enough.

And the inner language of shame is much more damning
The negative self-talk that shame uses to keep our self in its prison.

“You’re terrible at that”
“You’re an imposter”
“You aren’t doing this well enough”
“Someone else would have done that so much better”
“You need to do more”
“You’re not good enough”

Obligation
(Unreal) expectation
Damnation

These are shame’s legacy.

And then

Anger
Frustration
Hurt

As we take our shame and project it onto another.

“I’m not good enough, so you will never be good enough either”
“I’m not enough, so you will never be enough either”

Shame sets impossible standards
Shame robs us
Of fulfilment
Of happiness
Of contentment

And then we feel shame about our shame.

Emptying that cup of shame is a lifetime’s work
Even when we become aware shame’s chatter
We don’t drop our guard for long before it creeps in again

But perhaps
Just one thought at a time
We can begin to silence shame

One negative thought
Noticed
Captured
And reframed
Is one step closer to living without chronic shame

Be kind to yourself:
Easy for me to say
Harder for you to do.

But small steps of self-kindness
Of noticing our own self-hardness
Might just break the habit of negativity
And prevent a full blown attack
Of chronic shame.

In a mirror dimly: When Mother’s Day seems dark

It’s Mother’s Day, and social media timelines are full of people having a good time. Cooked breakfasts, home made cards, flowers, lunch out and glasses of prosecco. Of course, if you believe Facebook, then everyone else’s family is more sorted than yours. Other people’s kids took the initiative to do something special. Other people’s partners went that extra step further. Other families are happier, more chilled, wealthier, more innovative, and kinder to one another. Other families have more than your own family will ever have. If you believe Facebook.

But, away from the plastic smiles and the posed selfies, beyond the idealistic Facebook posts and the status updates capturing moments of perfection, there will be a million different stories. Stories of pain, grief, and disappointment. Of guilt, loss, and failure. Of hurt, regret, and anger. The pretty pink of the Mother’s Day displays cannot colour the bleakness we go through as we are faced with the stark reality of failed and lost relationships.

Mother’s Day seems bigger and more elaborate each year. For weeks beforehand, shops are stocked with the “perfect” present for mum (as if she wants more than your attention and time and a share in your story!) But this growth in celebration doesn’t reflect the reality that painful relationships, and the pain of good relationships now past, are as real as ever.

What hope is there, beyond the plastic and pink, for those of us who find today difficult? What can help us face up to and confront the day, without just bowing our heads and trudging through?

“Parenting is a mirror that forces you to look at yourself”, writes mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. The child-parent relationship brings out our best and our worst. The naked vulnerability of giving birth and being born remains, for mum and child, in our psyche and our emotions for years after the event. We see our parents and our children at their lowest points, often unmasked and uninhibited, and in their feeble weakness we realise that we, too, are irrational, unreasonable, and scarred.

Two millennia earlier, St Paul had similar ideas. “We see in a mirror, dimly”, he wrote. Paul was writing about love, of all things. Our relationships are, at their best, just poor quality mirrors, dim and dark: offering a shadowy likeness of the pure and radiant love that we find in God who mothers us as Her cherished children.

If my love for my children is a dim reflection of God’s love, then I know that divine love to be wild and untamed, unceasingly lavish and intensely passionate; fiercely protective, always forgiving and endlessly patient.

Some of us have enjoyed the best of parent-child relationships. Most of us will have had a mixed experience, as joy and love blend bewilderingly with hurt and disappointment. Some of us will have had a deeply hurtful experience, or even none at all. Some of us will have known only loss, or emptiness.

In the frailty and failure of our broken relationships, there are always glimmers of hope. A reaching out; a card; a gift; a kind word. A smile from the stranger in the street. A fleeting moment of eye contact. A Facebook ‘like’. A urgent, intense rush of compassion for the person who is hurting. In these snatches of kindness, we see, for a second, a love that is greater than all our failures.

Through a glass darkly: that’s how we see now. But it won’t always be so. Today is a day to hold onto the glimmers, to look at the poor reflections, and to know that this is not “it”. There is more to come: more hope, more love, more fulfilment. It will not always hurt.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

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