Thursday, March 28, 2013

Water and Wine, Part One

It's Holy Week.

For many people in the world, this week represents the last few days agonizing of Lent - and, for Pittsburghers, it's the last chance for a really great fish fry until next year.  It's the last chance to grab the good Easter candy (yes, I'm talking about those amazing Sarris meltaway eggs), and the last chance pick up a dozen extra eggs to boil and dye.

For many people, that's all this week represents.

I admit that I haven't really been in "appreciation and reflection" mode this week.  I had five (FIVE!) interviews lines up this week with different local companies, and I've been directing the youth group's play, as well as helping prepare for tonight's Seder dinner at church.  But the Lord led me to a short but intense and beautiful devotional for Holy Week, and it's definitely forced me to rethink a lot of the images we associate with Easter.

The Crowds

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.  A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,  “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” - Matthew 21:6-10

In ministry, we often site the crowds that followed Jesus as fickle and flighty.  Well, yes, they were.  They cried "Hosanna!" one day and "Crucify Him!" a few days later.  But I don't want to focus on that aspect of the multitudes.  I want you to imagine with me, just for a moment, being in that throng of people who watched as Jesus entered into the city.  How exciting it must have been!  Really - compare it to the Olympics being hosted in your hometown, or an international celebrity stopping by your neighborhood.  This was so far beyond "exciting".  For the people who believed He was the Messiah, this was a prophesy fulfilled!  They were living out the very words of the Old Testament prophets!  They must have felt joyful, and humbled, and grateful - and maybe a little intimidated!  After all, people must have heard stories that this Jesus could see right into the very heart and soul of a man, gauging his intentions and attitude.  Kinda scary.  But incredible.  

For the people who did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or who had not yet decided what they believed, it was still a time of great anticipation.  Regardless of who they believed Jesus to be, there was no doubt that he was a controversial figure, a bold preacher, and a man of unusual character.  Anything could happen once He met up with the religious folk.  A good old-fashioned scandal would have been just as juicy and intriguing in ancient Jerusalem as it is today.  Of course it would be thrilling to have Him visit their hometown!  If nothing else, it would boost the economy and give everyone something to talk about over dinner!

Yes, the crowds later turned on Jesus.  But right now, in this moment, in the picture that Matthew paints for us, they are zealous, alive, full of excitement, wonder, and hope.  The environment must have been electric with anticipation.  Would today be the day that another lame man walked?  That eyes born blind would see?  Would this be the day that a barren womb was healed, or that depression was lifted?  Miracles aside, the ancient prophecies could not be ignored; if this was the promised King and Savior, then the people's freedom from Roman rule was fast-approaching.  The way they saw it, a great rebellion was literally bubbling up from within their ranks.  Their freedom was so close at hand it was almost tangible.  Excitement must have buzzed through the crowds, all the way from the old-timers who had to be supported by stronger friends, down to the children who had recited the prophecies as they learned to read.  

The day of salvation had come!

The Communion

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”  Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the  covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” - Matthew 26:26-29.

At my church, we celebrate communion once per month - usually on the first Sunday.  It is a time, for us, of reflection, and appreciation.  We do not believe that the wine (juice) and bread are the actual body of the Lord; we believe that they represent Him only.  However, as such, they are reminders to us of the great sacrifice Jesus made in laying down His life for us.  His body was broken and His blood poured out for our healing, wholeness, and salvation.  For our strength - that we may be bold for Him.  For our peace - that we may know His promises are true.  For our hope - that we have a place in Heaven because of Him.

As the disciples were eating with Jesus that evening, I wonder if any of them - other than Judas - knew how true His words really were.  Did they think that He was talking about dying in a battle against the Romans?  Surely most of them still thought that Jesus was going to mount a valiant horse and march on Rome for their freedom.  Did they think He was speaking poetically?  Could it even be that some of them were thinking of other things entirely?  

So often we pick apart the actions of the disciples and criticize them.  We nail Peter for denying Jesus.  We shake our heads at James and John and their mother for trying to bargain their way to the right hand of Christ.  And of course, we gasp in shock at Thomas's inability to believe that Jesus could actually be resurrected.  

But they were men - everyday, ordinary men - who were hand-picked by Jesus not because they were anything extra-ordinary, but precisely because they were like us - those whom He saw before him on the cross as His great prize.  He chose these men - laborers, uneducated, hard-working - to represent us.  We can relate to them, their confusion and bewilderment, even if we would prefer to think that we would never have betrayed Christ, or denied Him, or doubted Him.  Truth is, most of us are lying to ourselves!  

And here, they shared a final holy meal with him, representing the time, centuries before, when the Lord spared his children during a dark time of slavery and oppression.  He rescued their lives, then loaded them with wealth and began to lead them to their new home.  

Did any of the disciples have the slightest clue that their friend Jesus was in the process of doing the same for them?  Once He rose from the dead, he unlocked the riches of Heaven, access to the Father, and the promise of a glorious home forever with Him?

Would we have had a clue, had we been sitting there with Him?

I'll continue this train of thought with The Cup and The Cross, later this week.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Who's the Victim?

In general, I prefer to stay away from hot topics and current events.  Mostly because I find that the news media rarely reveals more than one side of the story - although there are usually several that should be explored.

Still, the whole Steubenville rape tragedy is something that has been rolling around in my mind a lot lately.  I am hearing so many different opinions, and a lot of them seem to me to be fueled by nothing more than outrage.  From the students who accused the victim of ruining their lives, to the reporters who lamented the loss of the rapists' "promising futures", to the feminists who are squawking against the double standard, to the media "geniuses" who concluded that the best and most important "lesson" from the rape case is that social media can be dangerous...I think many people are missing the point.  The point is that, as a culture, we don't respect women.

This past weekend, noted speaker, writer, and women's advocate Lee Grady taught at my church.  On Saturday night, he spoke to both men and women about many of the terrible things that happen to women - on a regular basis - across the globe.  He talked about female genital mutilation, spousal rape/abuse, and many other things that saddened our hearts.  He said that much of the violence continues because women have been taught to accept it.  

How are things different in America?  They aren't.

For all of our "modern" ways and our first-world lifestyle, I challenge you.  Think about it.  If women in South America have been conditioned to accept physical abuse because it is an "understood" part of marriage according to their culture; if women in Africa hold their own screaming daughters down as they are circumcised because it is "necessary" according to their culture, we are no different.  Women in America are being taught by the media that their bodies are of no value unless they are changed - shaved, enhanced, diminished, colored,  plucked, clothed - in a way that is more appealing to men.  It's an easy brainwash, if you start out young - which, of course, we are.

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Many of my peers have babies and toddlers now.  I'm learning from their blogs and from other social media that many of them, regardless of their religion, agree with me that something is very wrong with what the media is teaching our children.  It's as though young moms and dads have had their eyes opened - they see the commercials and products aimed at their babies as though for the first time.  They are shocked to read articles about children in first-grade referring to themselves as "fat".  Some of them don't like the idea of Disney princesses, because they're afraid their girls will think that finding a "prince" is their only job in life!

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Yet the self-esteem-crushing industrial monster, fueled by the masses, blazes ahead, marketing also to teens and young adults.  What do we have available for them? The Twilight series, one of the best-selling trilogies of all time, which features a young woman who is actually in an abusive relationship (read a clear, simply-worded explanation here).  We're teaching our daughters to desire men who control them and manipulate them, who won't allow them their independence.  I am by no means a feminist in the extreme and somewhat twisted sense of the term, but I can definitely get on the wagon with them concerning this.  Bella is a poor excuse for a heroine!  Instead, my children will admire brave Princess Leia, who got down in the trenches to fight a rebellion.  They'll watch the adventures of clever Martha Jones, who overcame unrequited love and accomplished her goal of becoming a doctor!  They'll read about historical heroines like Anne Frank, Harriet Tubman, and Ruth, Deborah, and Jael of the Bible.  They'll read Jane Eyre and learn that a woman does not have to compromise her standards to find true love. 

At the same time as it has been repressing women, our culture has allowed, encouraged, and instructed men to take advantage of women doing just that - because such actions, of course, make them "manlier".  Men who are respectful of women's boundaries are shamed by their peers, considered weak or feminine - unable to "score".  Men who are sensitive are sometimes negatively labeled as "gay".  We reward brutality with scholarships and idolization.  We allow child abuse cover-ups on a huge scale, which in turn allows more children to be abused as leadership "figures things out".  Our popular music tells young men to "get some" without any thoughts about the future - or the past.  That's pretty dangerous.  Ask anyone with an STD - if you find someone willing to talk about the experience.

Can you see what I am getting at?  The Steubenville tragedy was awful, and yes, a lot of lives were ruined by the actions that took place that night.    Whatever poor decisions she had made - and I do personally believe that heavy drinking, regardless of age, is always a poor decision -  this girl absolutely did not "deserve" what she got.  No one stepped forward to help this young woman, because no one really thought anything bad was happening.  Their perception of the situation was influence by both alcohol and the effects of the media, which teaches that "she probably wanted it anyway".  Their obsession with social media allowed them to witness the events as through a lens, like they weren't even participating.  Just think!  If someone had been brave enough or angry enough to step in, maybe this wouldn't have happened!  Maybe reputations and friendships would have been preserved and the community would have remained intact.  

If we put out efforts into raising a generation of young men and women who respect themselves and each other, maybe the media will have less and less of these stories to feast upon.  

Eventually, that bloated beast just might starve.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Mom's Eulogy

I decided to post the eulogy I wrote for my mother.  I know there were several people who wanted to come to the memorial but could not - mostly because they were out-of-state, and early March weather doesn't exactly make for friendly traveling. 

Yes, I wrote it the evening before I presented it.  It's not because I'm a procrastinator (although I am exceptionally good at that).  It was just that I had absolute confidence that God would give me the words, put together in the perfect way, to honor my mom. 

From my friends' reactions, it did.  Amen and amen.

Once upon a time, there was a little red flower growing in a field.  She was surrounded by beautiful daisies, vivid wildflowers, and bright violets.  When the golden summer sun warmed the earth, people came to the field to laugh and walk and enjoy the weather.  Those people picked the daisies, and the wildflowers, and the violets.  But after each visit, the little red flower was left in the field, wondering why she wasn’t chosen.  Perhaps the caterpillars had chewed holes in her leaves, or her petals weren’t as pretty as the others.  Her only friends were the bees that buzzed around her, gathering pollen for their hives.  As summer faded into fall, the little red flower prepared to sleep for the winter.  She took a final look around her the lonely, empty field – the daisies and wildflowers and violets had all been called beautiful and given new homes.  Winter came and went, and when the spring sunshine woke her, the little red flower’s blossoms opened again.  Immediately, the bees rushed to greet her.  This spring, however, there were more visitors than there had ever been.  The little red flower apologized, believing that she couldn’t possibly have enough pollen for every last one of them.  The bees laughed, and said they would visit the rest of her family, too.  The little red flower didn’t understand until she looked past the bees into the field around her.  It was full of little red flowers, just like her, smiling in the sun and waving back at her.  During her lonely winter sleep, the little red flower’s roots had spread, taking the place of the daisies, and the wildflowers, and the violets that had been chosen instead of her.  The little red flower would never be alone again.

That fable is adapted from a short story written by Cynthia Marie Thielet.  I share it because I want to point out that there is a difference between the facts of her life, and the truths of it.
The fact is that my mother was born on January 27, 1955, to Andrew and Margaret Kuskil.  She grew up in and around Carnegie and Bridgeville.  Her childhood had its happy moments – visits to Cape Canaveral, carnivals, picnics and other adventure – but the truth is that much of her childhood was very difficult and fraught with physical and verbal abuse. 

The facts are that my mother married, had two daughters, and divorced.  The truth is that my mother had the strength to keep from passing on the abuse to her own children, and broke a cycle of violence that had lasted for generations.  The truth is that my mother worked tirelessly at minimum-wage jobs to support my sister and myself.  It was not uncommon for her to come home from work with burns on her arms from the chemicals she used at the dry cleaners, or from the hot oil she used as a grill cook.  The truth is that my mother put her daughters before her own social life, mostly keeping close with only a few trusted friends but rarely going out with them.  The truth is, she sometimes had a temper…and the truth is, my sister and I knew how to push her buttons.  The truth is, with God’s help, after the divorce my mom eventually found other ways to love my father, even though they had fallen out of love with each other.
The fact is that she struggled with illness that eventually left her unable to work a conventional job, and she ended up moving to Kentucky as a live-in- caretaker for an elderly man.  The truth is that his family quickly adopted her as their own, and always saw her more as a beloved sister than a nurse or a maid.  The truth is that my mother didn’t know how to live unless she was serving other people.  When everything else in her life seemed to fall apart – her marriage, her relationships, her health – she fell back on her role as a caretaker.  It had become her identity and it gave her strength.
The fact is that, in the little personal time she had, my mother wrote poems and short stories, and humorous letters filled with silly drawings and sketches.  The truth is that my mother herself was the little red flower in her story, never entirely confident in her own abilities, but unknowingly creating family wherever she went.
There were a few common threads in the tapestry of her life – threads that spanned the whole 58 years.  One of them was an unmatched love for animals.  Her sister Theresa, who is quite ill herself and unable to be here today, shared with me a story of my mother rescuing frozen puppies in the dead of winter.  She also told me of the intense loyalty her sister inspired in her pets – on one occasion, her miniature terrier, Tiny, went after a German Shepherd that attacked my mom.  Tiny, although severely injured, survived – no doubt due to the great care she received!
I frequently joke that my mother was like Disney’s Snow White, especially in the scene where all the woodland creatures come flocking to her.  During her life, Mom rescued or raised cats, dogs, fish, rabbits, parakeets, chickens, baby robins, hummingbirds, a horse, and at least one groundhog – that I am aware of.  When I was a child, neighbors came to our house with strays, asking if my mom could help.  In most cases, she helped by adopting them!  We were never without at least two or three animals in the house.  She truly had a God-given gift that allowed her to understand them in a way that most of us cannot.  Although she never did figure out how to get them to do housework – maybe that does only happen in the movies.
Another thread that was woven throughout my mother’s fifty-eight years was a quiet faith in God.  She was raised Catholic and inexplicably turned away from the religion when she was thirteen – but she never turned away from God himself.  When she left Pittsburgh for Kentucky, I felt that I had failed as a daughter – she had raised me but I was not able to take care of her in return.  Little did I know that God was beginning for my mom a beautiful season of healing.  In Kentucky, among her new family and friends, she found peace and forgiveness – mostly, I believe, she finally learned to forgive herself for the mistakes she’d made over the years.  It was only during this time that my relationship with her was the one I had always wanted – we spoke more regularly than we had before, and we spoke with more affection and laughter than we had in many, many years.  We exchanged stories about our pets, and she sent me toys for my two cats.  We wrote to each other, and I did teach her how to send text messages.  As she was writing to me, I learned that she had also begun writing to my dad’s side of the family –her former in-laws.  When my parents divorced, my mom allowed herself to grow distant from his family.  I believe it was a way of protecting herself.  For several years, I mentioned them infrequently to her, for fear of opening a wound.  Yet, in his wisdom, God took her physically away from them, and allowed her heart to once again draw near to them.  After a time, she started to write to them, sending the same silly doodles and funny letters she was sending to me.  And, in the end, I believe my mother made peace with the rest of my family, and, more importantly, with herself.
It is not for this reason alone that I know my mother is in Heaven right now.  She was a good woman who worked hard.  She was a fierce Mama Bear who protected her children the best she could.  She was a loyal and faithful supporter to those people she called friends.  But none of those wonderful attributes ensured her place in paradise.  My mother was not religious in a conventional way – but she loved her Jesus.  In fact, although my mother was not a church-goer, I believe that her servant’s heart and humble spirit spoke for Jesus in a far louder voice than her weekly presence in a pew ever could.  She loved to read her Bible.  In her last years, I believe she began to understand what it meant to really put something in God’s hands – after all, she was several hours away from her daughters and couldn’t do much for us but pray.  Of course, we know that prayer is a powerful weapon, and one of my mother’s last tasks on this earth, I believe, was to learn how to fight with it.  The letters she wrote to my husband and me were full of encouraging prayers and even poems about God’s love. 
In an equally encouraging letter about God’s love, the apostle Paul talks to his friends about the truth of death for the believer.  This is the Message translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13.  And regarding the question, friends, that has come up about what happens to those already dead and buried, we don’t want you in the dark any longer. First off, you must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word. Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus.   And then this: We can tell you with complete confidence—we have the Master’s word on it—that when the Master comes again to get us, those of us who are still alive will not get a jump on the dead and leave them behind. In actual fact, they’ll be ahead of us. The Master himself will give the command. Archangel thunder! God’s trumpet blast! He’ll come down from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise—they’ll go first. Then the rest of us who are still alive at the time will be caught up with them into the clouds to meet the Master. Oh, we’ll be walking on air! And then there will be one huge family reunion with the Master. So reassure one another with these words.”
And so, yes, I have hope.  I mourn because I have lost my mother – and you, who have come today, mourn with my family.  I speak for my whole family when I say that we thank you for your love, your prayers, and your presence here with us during this time of sadness.  But I cannot mourn for my mother.  She is with her Savior, whose love and sacrifice she accepted and who has already welcomed her to her eternal rest.  She is with her three grandchildren, who went before her into the arms of Christ.  She is celebrating with the countless others who have opened their eyes in glory, to find that their earthly pain, fear, and sorrows are gone in the all-consuming light of God’s love.
The fact is that my mother passed away on February 8, 2013.  The truth is that she is alive and whole in Heaven, and she is in my future.  She is in the future of all who have received Christ’s love.  Those of you who knew Cindy will see her again.  And those who have yet to meet her…I think you’ll like her quite a bit.