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The Treasonous Act of Small Children Waving Branches

 

For twenty minutes yesterday, young children and palm branches surrounded me on all sides.

Like many churches, we have a Palm Sunday procession to mark the beginning of Holy Week. When I dropped my Kindergartner at her class, I offered to stay and help. My church family has literally hundreds (if not thousands) of children — so organizing this march was no small feat. I was responsible for only a handful of children waving palm fronds, but even so, getting everyone up the stairs, through the hallways, and lined up in place took some doing. Especially when one child’s branch lost its leaves (after being used as a sword too many times) and when another needed an emergency trip to the restroom.

All this adorable chaos made me wonder about the actual “Triumphal entry.” On this day, Jesus completed his long trip into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Jesus rode on a donkey, and crowds gathered (as they so often did) and threw their cloaks on the ground; others cut down palm branches and placed them on the ground. Given the symbolism of the time, this was red-carpet treatment. Others in the crowd ran ahead, shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Still others ran behind him. A red-carpet and a ticker-tape parade.

After just ten minute of keeping eleven Kindergartners marching with their branches, I wondered: was someone coordinating the original triumphant event, or was it a truly impromptu expression? What sort of massive headache was this, for whomever was in charge?

But more, I wondered about the parents who came, and brought their children. We know they were there, because later on in Jerusalem children were still shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” at the temple–and this caused a scandal.

In fact, all of this was a scandal. Every piece of imagery in this parade was rich in royal and Messianic symbolism – from the donkey, to the branches, to the cloaks on the ground, to the words the crowds and children shouted and sang. All of it meant “Jesus is our new King! He’s the one we want!” This is a pretty neutral and safe thing to do in a democracy that values free speech, but dangerous insurrection in a political climate where the Roman government frequently tortured, killed, and publicly crucified anyone who suggested treason. All of it suggested that Jesus was not only King, but the Divine, Messianic King sent from God to save the people from oppression once and for all.

Treason and blasphemy. Each punishable by death.

Those in power — religious or political — could not help but hear this message; and they could not let this message go unanswered.

What sort of desperate hope and courage would it take to send my child to wave a branch and shout a song with a message like that?

If we think we can understand the feelings of that crowd, I think we deceive ourselves.

Yesterday, after too many minutes of keeping wiggly kids from wrestling each other or running down the hallway, our turn finally came. Waving our branches and straining to see parents in the crowd, my small group of Kindergartners proudly marched up and down the aisles as the worship leaders led our own crowd of thousands in song. We celebrated and waved and marched happily. We were merely following family and community tradition, the safest, most nurturing thing in the world.

But those first families, who brought their children, to lay cloaks and branches and shout and sing about their allegiance to the new Messianic King…they were publicly inciting treason. And with the long, painful history they had with oppressive governments and public crucifixions, they couldn’t have lost sight of that for a moment.

The week did not unfold as they had thought, though in some ways as they knew it must.

I watched my own adorable children joyfully waving palm branches and singing, as I do every year, and wondered: could I ever find the courage to stand against an unjust empire (and it’s corrupt religious leaders) in such a public way? Even if it put my children’s lives in danger?

This crowd did. I remember them, these parents, too, this Holy Week.

In the first Holy Week, God’s Perfect Love entered the hate-filled realm of injustice, power, and politics. He showed us what happens to such powerful, fearless, self-giving Love.

And that, even so, this Love triumphs powerfully in the end. He showed us, gave us, the way of Salvation.

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Advent, Hope, and the Chicago Cubs: a Devotion on Devotion

14572263_10154092126768214_5738134130707280860_nHope deferred makes the heart sick,
    but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Proverbs 13:12)

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for
    and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)

 

With the dark days of a Chicago winter upon us, hope can feel in short supply. Add in the most divisive political season most of us can remember, and despair can make the heart sick.

In the meantime, you’ve almost certainly heard the news: last month the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908! I’m fairly certain the cry of joy could be heard from outer space. I know the gathering of five-million people celebrating in Chicago was seen from the skies—the seventh largest human gathering in all history.

It was difficult to carry on normally during those weeks, due to the agony of near defeat, the tension of games too close to call, the ecstasy of victory. And the fact that I was unwilling to wear anything without the Cubs logo emblazoned on it (preferably Cubbie blue).

You might have asked yourself: all this for a ball game??

Well, not exactly.

There’s some powerful alchemy that goes into the emotions we feel around something like this; a recipe that gets at what we humans are to the core and what inspires us to move forward. It’s about individual and community identity, about our placement in the world and in time. It’s about the deeply physical, social, and spiritual elements of hope.

The last time the Cubs played in the World Series (and lost), the year was 1945. World War II had just ended and my Cubs-cheering Dad was only four months old. The last time the Cubs won the World Series it was 1908. World War I was still in the distant future. My dad—and his dad—weren’t cheering because they weren’t born yet; my great grandfather probably wasn’t cheering either, having just immigrated from Sweden and busy setting up the family farm.

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The baby in the high chair is my dad, the year the Cubs last played (and lost) the World Series

That’s a lot of generations ago. That’s a long time to hope for something unseen.

And so, entire generations of Cubs fan were born into families long-hoping for victory, only to live their entire lives and never see it. They birthed children who were taught to do the same, for generations. By the time my children were born, they were handed not only the words to the song “Go Cubs Go” but the weight of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents who had waited, and hoped, and died without seeing their hope come to fruition.

Yes, but it’s just baseball. They weren’t hoping to see peace come to their homeland, a return from exile, or the coming of God’s final redemption—as so many have throughout human history. That’s true. This is a baseball sized hope.

But when you have the privilege of witnessing something your father’s generation longed to see, and your grandfather’s, and great grandfather’s—and they didn’t, but never stopped hoping, and passed the dream on to you—well, that becomes something bigger than just a ballgame.

This is about loving each other through the ages, and not just today; about faithfulness when it’s difficult and not just when its easy. It is the deep love and loyalty that families feel for each other, the longing one generation has to be united to the ones that come before and behind. It is where we find the strength to move forward, to train up our children, keep the faith, work for redemption and a world made new. There’s power when you believe an ancient dream may finally be realized. It’s about a heart sick from hope deferred, now rejoicing in a tree of life.

The very biggest and best stories are passed down this way; the most transcendent hopes are woven through the generations.

Outside of professional sports we have real lives, with real hopes long deferred. We look at the legacies entrusted to our generation, and wonder if we’re worthy to pass them forward. We trudge through suffering and wonder if we’ll see these longings fulfilled. So we stay faithful in the little things: getting up each morning, caring for family, friends, and neighbors, serving in our jobs, seeking after God, keeping the faith. We long to believe that this everyday-faithfulness is worthy of the legacy of hope, that we are keeping the course for those that came before and those that came behind.

That’s why these small tastes of victory mean so much to us. Spoilers that hint at the end of the story: the ancient hope of our mothers and fathers is alive, even if we won’t taste the fruit in our lifetimes.

There’s a wall at Wrigley Field where fans have chalked the names of their loved ones who hoped to see this day but passed on months ago, years ago, decades ago. Those who have gone before us. Sons and daughters have travelled to far-off cemeteries to listen to Game Seven with the mothers and fathers who longed to listen to such a game their entire lives. Friends are getting tattoos in honor of dearly departed loved ones they wish had lived to see this day.

It is this sweet fulfillment of generations longing together that was tasted, in a small but meaningful way, by millions of Cubs fan now, finally, in 2016.

 

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Springtime Girl

This morning after everyone else had left, S and I finished getting ready for preschool. We found matching socks, and braided her hair. With her backpack on, I saw my big girl off.

At lunch time, she jumped out of the neighbor’s car and ran to house, backpack bouncing behind her. With shining eyes she showed me her painting and hung up her jacket.

After lunch, I lifted her up into the air. “What will I do without you next year, when you don’t come home at lunchtime?” I asked. She giggled, and I could tell how excited she was for this big change, the adventure of a lifetime. Kindergarten.

In these early days of spring, the realities of next fall are shrouded in mist, as they must be. But they remind me to enjoy every minute of these springtime days, the play-dough and tricycle mornings of the innocent preschool years.

After ten years, the brightly colored things of preschool are fading into the rear-view mirror: nursery songs, puzzles, games, ABCs, colors, and shapes. Coming ahead are chapter books and birthday parties, homework and friends. Strange, how these things have built themselves into my understand of life and family. Strange, how certainly they will be left behind.

I love you, my big girl, my four-and-three-quarters daughter, my baby. You are so eager to meet the years before you; and I am so privileged to walk alongside you.

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A Tale of Two Callings

I have the honor today of guest posting for the blog series “Women in Ministry” hosted by Katherine Willis Pershey.  I’d love for you to hop over and have a read!

Here’s an excerpt:

I was at a minister’s conference recently, chatting with my tablemate at lunch. She is an ordained Pastor, Spiritual Director, Chaplain, Licensed Therapist, and Healing Prayer Minister. I was excited to talk with her because her schooling and interests so closely line up with my own. But then she asked about my ministry. I stumbled around for words but came up short, mumbling something about being busy with my kids while supporting my husband in his work. I left the conversation feeling that somehow my life had gone terribly wrong.

Continue reading…

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Seperations

Several years ago I heard the most amazing of news – there was, within my own body and self, another person just beginning to be created. For months I carried this reality around with me like a fragile cup of wonder – I was no long merely myself. I was myself plus someone. Someone who was me-yet-not-me. Someone who would one day break off from me and be an entirely separate person. But on that day and for that time we were truly one.

I remember the day he was born, and the astonishment I felt at this most amazing of events – here, from my body, was another separate person.

Nine months after that day he slept in his own room for the first time, having spent the first nine months sleeping alongside my bed in a co-sleeper. The shock of this separation made me reel; not only was he outside of my body but he could spend long hours alone in a room without me. We would pass this time apart, neither knowing what the other was doing, this one who just months before could not be extracted separately from my body.

Three and a half years after that I dropped him off for his first day at preschool. He readily walked through the doors and I found myself on the other side. He had experiences and conversations and snacks and friends that I would never know anything about. This caused me to reflect on the thoughts and ideas and feelings he had daily that were secret to himself alone, and I realize how very far from the womb he had traveled in four short years.

Yesterday I dropped this same person – clad in Angry Birds t-shirt and backpack, full of personality and opinions – at Kindergarten. Next week I’ll merely open the house door and watch him climb unto the big yellow bus parked outside our home.

For him, I’m sure, the process of separation has been gradual and slow, each step coming at just the right time. But for me, I transitioned from “labor pains” to “school bus” in just a bit more time than it took to earn a Bachelor’s degree. His rapid growth no longer leaves stretch marks on my stomach but the marks are made to my soul as I strain to keep up.

My father once wisely noted that the birth and childhood “firsts” of our first born are as much about ourselves as it is about them, as we encounter for the first time these life experiences we could hardly know existed. In this new season, I find that he is right. My other children will one day start school for the first time, but this time is, for the entire family, the First Time. Somehow today I am not only letting go a little bit more of A, but letting go, period.

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Very Behind

So I’m doing this A-Z challenge during the month of April, but I’m falling behind. I think today is supposed to be X, but I’m writing V…and that’s only because I did both T and U yesterday and skipped K weeks ago. But oh well, better late than never. Its not like the last letters of the alphabet are going anywhere in May.

Falling behind is not something I do very often. I am, in fact, the girl who wrote five research papers during Spring Break my Sophomore year in college because I just needed to know they were done. That’s a poignant example, but that’s how I do most things in my life. If you invite me to your house I’ll probably show up 15 minutes early on accident. I can’t help it.

But these days, all my time and energy easily go to the most urgent things on the list – taking care of my kids’ most basic of needs and keeping on top of my part time job. Then comes the important things that will become urgent most quickly if left undone – cleaning the kitchen, washing the clothes, going to the store. If there’s anything left it goes to the third tier of urgent whatever that happens to be on any given week – the broccoli plants that will wilt if not planted, the folded laundry that hasn’t been put away in 10 days, the bathrooms that haven’t been cleaned in (indistinguishable mumbling).

If I had my preference, I’d still be working ahead. My house would be clean and organized, I’d be doing any number of fulfilling and educational things for my kids and for myself. There are a lot of things I’d like to be doing right now that are just not rising to the top half of the list. But that’s how things go with three little ones.

Recently I had the chance to chat with a panel of published authors. When I described to them a bit of what was on my plate they looked about to swoon with exhaustion. One asked if I would ever like to write something to be published and then stopped herself. “You have many years ahead of you to write, but this is your only chance to have a three year old.”

She’s so right. Someday, my house will be tidy and my lawn will be mowed and my hair will be cut and I’ll be reading books and writing down my ideas and spending time with friends. There has been time for that in the past but this time I get to wake up every day and see these lovely faces. This time, and never again. I’m going to keep falling behind and drink them up, every drop.


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My aim is to awaken myself and others to the creative, redemptive work of God in this present moment. I am striving to see beauty, learning to expand my perspective, praying to keep my eyes and heart open.

Connect with Catherine at www.catherinemcniel.com.

 


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