LENT Living in the Promise of God

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
5 Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
6 He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
(Psalms 126:1-6 ESV)

Oh, to live in the fulfillment of the promises of God!

To rejoice and know my exile has ended! That I home, in the place of promise, in the land of milk and honey, my land. Where the wadis — the dream streams and rivers that flow only when the seasonal rains come — flow clear and cool and fresh every day! To come back, knowing God has rescued me, redeemed me, given me a full harvest and done great things for me!

So that my sorrow is joy, my grief is celebration, and my nightmares become dreams. So that I can leave behind Springtime Hill (Tel Aviv), my exile home along the rivers of Babylon, and come back to the land — the place, the home — that I was given. That it is well and truly mine again.

Oh, to live in the fulfillment of the promise of God!

I don’t, though. I wake every morning in this אֶרֶץ נוֹד Eretz Nod, this land of wandering, knowing it isn’t my home, knowing I am not going anywhere soon, that the rivers may not flow and the grain may not grow this year because the rains may not come. My mouth may be dry and full of dust. All I have are seeds and sorrow. I weep, still, because I do not have the fulfillment of the promises of God, just the promises. So much warm, still, dry air.

I still have nightmares. And dreams … that are simply dreams.

And yet, I do hold something of the promise of God. I do live something akin to the resurrected life of Christ. Because I share in his life. He shares in mine. I am in him and he is in me. And so, this promise of God is not so empty a promise. It is already fulfilled. In the life of Christ, in his teaching, his healing, his feeding, his casting out of demons, in his proclamation of Good News to Israel and the world, in his life-giving death and in his death-destroying resurrection, I have the promise of God fulfilled.

Wherever I may be, I am home from Springtime Hill, from my mourning along side the rivers of Babylon, from my tireless roaming in the Land of Wandering. Whatever the climate, living waters drench the desert. Grain ripens in the fields, full stalks, golden underneath the late summer sun. There is no drought or famine or war here. The harvest is bountiful. My seeds have grown, and my sorrow is joy.

In Christ, I have a home. I am a blessing. I have descendants more than the stars in the sky. I have an abundance, more to share with all who come. The Lord has done great things for me.

In Christ, the Lord has done great things for me.

LENT What is the Kingdom of God Like?

18 He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

20 And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” (Luke 13:18–21 ESV)

I have, for as long as I can remember, wanted to give my life to God. To serve God. To live amongst people who want to serve God. Praying and worshiping and caring for others, sheltering the wounded, protecting the vulnerable, and finding the lost.

It is all I want. I wanted fame and fortune once, and several time in my life I thought they were in my grasp.

But I want to love my neighbor. And not worry about anything else. I want to live in, and surrender, to the Kingdom of God.

I’d be an urban monk if I could, living simply, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting any of this. Some are clearly called to that kind of life. And maybe I am too.

The kingdom, however, is not so much a place we dwell, surrounded by the artifacts of Christian life, as it is something that dwells within us. It is not the world, and it does not rule the world. It can’t. It dwells within the world, giving us life and breath and sustenance, it is everywhere and in everything, making love possible. Giving love meaning and purpose. It is hidden, brought out only because the bread has risen or because the birds have a place to nest. Because we see what it has done. Is doing.

This kingdom is a verb and not a noun. It is an act, not a place.

This kingdom, it is our sanctuary, but it is not a fortress. It is not an army, and it is not deterrence or fear. It is not that kind of strength. It is the strength to love, this kingdom, knowing that our love is the very leavening and the very branches where sanctuary is possible.

I still want to live a simple life, worshiping God, caring for the wounded, and finding the lost. But I do that not to hide from the world, or not as some alternative to a worldly life. I do that because I am the the kingdom of God when I live that way. When I live as Jesus has called me to live. When I love God and neighbor and enemy … in the world.

LENT By Grace Alone

1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. (Romans 4:1-8 ESV)

What did Abraham believe? A simple promise of children — because Abraham thought his chief servant, Eliezer, would be his heir. Abraham had no children, no one to pass his wealth, his name, his story onto.

But God says no, and pulls Abraham outside. See the stars? You will have more children than you can count. And childless Abraham — desperate, anxious, fearful Abraham — believes. This promise of God.

He will never live to see it. He will die long before his descendants become that numerous. He will father many sons — and probably more than a few daughters too. But he will never to live to see something like that dark sky full of stars. He will never live to see the world full of “his” people.

Abraham trusted God. Trusted a promise. David trusted God, a promise that God forgives our lawless deeds, blots them out, erases them from whatever accounting ledger God keeps.

To live as a people justified by the God who forgives, and covers, who blots out and does not count, means that we must also forgive and cover and blot out and not count each other’s sin. It means we must not continue to hold misdeeds against each other. We are all recipients of a gift, a gift of grace. We have not earned it, no matter what we think. We cannot earn it.

Our redemption is relational. It’s not just a feeling. To be real, we must live it amidst and with other forgiven people. We must forgive as we are forgiven.

And yet, we must also live with the faith of Abraham. The faith that trusts in something it may never see. The world — the church — may never treat us as redeemed people, instead counting our sins against us as indelible marks of “character” that can never be changed. Proof of an essential nature which is so corrupt it is beyond the saving grace of God. We may never live in a world where we are considered forgiven and redeemed people. That doesn’t matter.

We are called to trust. To believe. In the promise of God alone.

SERMON Blessed is He…

Sunday, I preached at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York, where I am preaching next week too. This is what I preached, more or less.

Second Sunday of Lent (Year C)

  • Genesis 15:1-18
  • Psalm 27
  • Philippians 3:17–4:1
  • Luke 13:31-35

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. 33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem. ’ 34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Luke 13:31-35 ESV)

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

We’re going to hear those words in a few weeks, on Palm Sunday, on the day Jesus rides into Jerusalem hailed as a conquering hero and a delivering king.

Today, though, we hear them slightly differently. In a lament and warning. This is, after all, the season of Lent, of solemn introspection, of walking with Jesus as he works his way to Jerusalem, knowing exactly what is coming — triumph follower by betrayal and death.

In fact, our reading today begins with a warning. King Herod wants to kill you, some Jewish religious leaders tell Jesus. Flee, get away from here. Save yourself. Maybe they are fans of his work — after all, Jesus is doing great things. And they want to see him continue, want to see him succeed, whatever that means to them. So go, run away, far away, and keep doing what you are doing. Because otherwise, King Herod is going to put an end to it.

And Jesus … Jesus tells the Pharisees what he is doing, today and tomorrow, and on the day after — on the third day — he is finished. But that doesn’t matter, because Jesus must do this work, must go on his way, must make his way to Jerusalem, to the seat of Herod’s power, to the House of God, and must suffer the fate of so many prophets before him.

I don’t know if Lent is a big deal here. It is in many of the Lutheran churches I have worshiped and served at. We take seriously this matter of Christ’s suffering and his journey to death. It’s a big deal for us Lutherans, and our hymnal is a much more … somber book because of it. There’s not a lot of overlap between your hymnal and that published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

But as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we are a people who take suffering and death seriously. Suffering is not a puzzle to be solved, an inconvenience we seek to overcome, a moral failing that forever stains the one who suffers and makes them less than fully human or less than completely a beloved child of God. Suffering is an inescapable part of the human condition, a huge part of Israel’s story as the people of God dealt with their failure to be the people of God. Israel suffers for its sin and faithlessness, yes — by living under foreign rule, by facing war and famine and conquest and exile. All of these things God promised Moses in the wilderness and they came to pass.

Because Israel forgot who it was, and forgot who had called it into being.

Over time, in scripture, as God deals with this wayward people, God grows closer to them, does more of the work, promises to meet them and redeem them in their poverty, their misery, and their exile.

Until God becomes one of them. One of the people of the promise given to Abraham — descendants greater than the stars in the sky, a land of your own, and a blessing to the entire world. God joins them, in their conquest, in their exile, as they face a brutal occupying army that knows no kindness and no mercy. And a puppet king in Herod, who rules Israel not for the benefit of the people he reigns over, nor for the benefit of the God who called them into being, but for the Romans — outsiders, foreigners — who hold what appears to everyone as real power. Tangible and brutal power.

This is the world God joins us in. He meets the suffering of his people and he heals sickness and casts out demons. Jesus raises the dead, feed multitudes, and proclaims the coming kingdom of God. And he is slowly empowering his disciples — us — to do the same.

But if we’re tempted to think this is a glorious task that grants us power and privilege, Jesus reminds us of something important — Jerusalem is an occupied city, a city inhospitable to prophets like Jesus who come to hold the leaders of Israel, the shepherds of Israel, accountable. A prophet doesn’t just warn of the coming consequences of God’s judgment upon his faithless people, but he also speaks words of redemption. Judgement is never God’s last word on human sinfulness — redemption and resurrection are. And that is always the case, at least until the coming Day of Judgement.

There is no glory in this calling. Not in the crushing adoration of the crowds that follow Jesus everywhere. Not in the confused response of the disciples who cannot seem to keep up with Jesus. Not in the demons cast out who proclaim what no human seems able to confess, that Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, is the Son of God. This is a doomed enterprise, and it has been doomed from the start. It will end in betrayal and arrest, in torture and death. With followers who were once eager to accompany Jesus into death scattered and frightened. And very much alive.

This, my sisters and brothers, is our journey in Lent. This is why we have this season, why we take this journey, why we have a church year. To remember all of the story. Not just the promise of resurrection glory, not just to teach ourselves God’s instructions for faithfully living together given through Moses and the Apostle Paul. To remember Jesus came, struggled, wept over this city he could not and would not save from siege and destruction, and in anticipation of the things to come, he gave in to the betrayal of God’s people and death at the hands of the Romans.

We are making our way to that Cross. There is no escaping it. And sisters and brothers, the Cross of Christ is what the true Glory of God looks like.

It’s hard to think of God’s glory as betrayed and broken, as tortured and beaten, but there it is. Raised high. For all humanity to see.

Now, we Lutherans aren’t completely given over to gloom. We know an empty tomb when we look into it. We know a resurrected savior when we meet him on the road. Well, actually, we don’t, but neither do you. No one does until he breaks bread with us. But we know how to celebrate, how to proclaim “He is risen!”

However, we are not there yet. We are walking, breathlessly, tired, confused, and not sure entirely what happens next, with Jesus as he works his way to Jerusalem, working miracles and teaching wondrous things along the way.

We are the brood under his wings. We are the sheep his fold. And right now, we are with him, moving, never stopping, always in motion. Going his way, to the fate that awaits him. That awaits us.

Death. Resurrection. Ascension. Glory in blood. And tears. And the iron of nails, the hemp of ropes, the painful prick of thorns, the sharp tip of a spear. Glory in an empty tomb, in a wadded up and crumpled burial shroud. Glory in broken bread and a shared cup of wine.

Glory. All of it.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

LENT Bind the Sacrifice

26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 The Lord is God,
and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
up to the horns of the altar!
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God; I will extol you.
29 Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
(Psalms 118:26-29 ESV)

My father and I were sitting in a hotel room in Roswell, New Mexico, during our visit for his mother’s funeral. He was a religious man, a faithful man once, my father, but no longer. Not since college, when he first began to doubt the goodness of God.

Not since Vietnam, when he met the horror human beings could inflict upon each other face to face.

“I don’t understand why Jesus had to die so that we could be saved,” he confessed, almost in a sigh.

It’s an old question — one always willed into existence when we talk of God’s need for a sacrifice to mitigate sin. For many Christians, the death of Christ is a matter of god taking out God’s anger upon God’s incarnate self so that somehow, the books can be balanced and the world can be forgiven.

I looked at my dad.

“That’s the wrong way to think about it,” I said. “Consider the possibility that Christ came forgiving sins and we couldn’t stand it. So much so, we killed him for it. And God gave in to us, to our fear and our violence, the worst we can do, to show us that the death we deal has no power, and that it is not the final answer. Love is bigger than death.”

My dad was silent for a moment. A serious, thoughtful silence.

“I’m going to have to think about that.”

I don’t know if my father has or not. As long as I have known him, he has never been a believer, and I’m not out to “save his soul.” He is baptized, and bears the Cross of Christ already on his body. I am confident of his salvation, whatever he believes.

I look at today’s psalm fragment and I see words we will hear again on Palm Sunday when Jesus and his disciples enter Jerusalem in heady triumph — “Blessed in he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Welcome to the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome by it!

Martin Luther considered the psalms to be the prayers of Jesus. And what a prayer this is! A prayer of overcoming, a prayer of triumph over enemies that surround. A prayer of thanksgiving! The victory of our God over our enemies, our occupiers, those who regularly humiliate and destroy us, is at hand!

Bind the festal sacrifice with cords; up to the horns of the altar!

What if Jesus is a sacrifice? But instead of being God’s sacrifice for sin, somehow, he is ours? A misguided sacrifice given with our own hands, out of fear that he will actually deliver us? That in proclaiming good news, he already has redeemed and delivered us, and we don’t want a redemption that looks like Jesus. That looks like his kingdom. In the Gospel of John, Caiaphas the high priest tells his colleagues as they discuss the mighty works of Jesus and their fear the people will make him king and start a war with Rome that Israel cannot win:

Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish. (John 11:50 ESV)

We always forget, when we speak of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin, whose hands do the sacrificing — ours. We have bound him out of fear, fear that he will change everything, fear that he puts the careful order of the world at risk. We offer him up, in hopes that his death will silence the hope for salvation, will end the possibility of redemption, will prove all his talk of rising from the dead a hollow and fraudulent boast.

And here is Jesus, praying for this. Bind the sacrifice, nail him to the cross!

For this, he gives thanks to the Lord.

So do I. On this road to Jerusalem with Jesus, as we walk, doing miracles and casting out demons, preaching good news as we slowly work our way to that day when he shall show us what God’s glory really looks like, I will give thanks to the Lord.

LENT No Place Left to Run

2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8–11 ESV)

I am broken. I am scared. I want to run away. Far away. To a place where no one will know me, where no one will ask things of me I cannot do, where no one will judge me, where no one will hurt me.

But there is no place to run. Before in my life, I have run halfway across the world to become a new person in a new place, only to find that I’m staring at the same self in the mirror, whether in San Francisco or Dubai or Jeddah or Washington, DC. It’s still me. I cannot escape me.

I have no place left to run. It wouldn’t matter if I did.

Everything I have, everything I am, I owe to Christ. It belongs to him who breathed the world into being, who breathed the Spirit into a huddled group of frightened disciples still unsure of what to make of the fact that he was not dead.

This love, this amazing, astounding, enveloping love — it’s not me. It’s not mine. I haven’t made it. It comes from someplace else, flows through me, seeks the sea. Like water, it mists and flows and babbles and roars its way to an endless, fathomless ocean of love. Where it becomes vapor again, forms clouds, and rains back down upon a parched, desiccated world. Where thirsty creatures, where withered plants, where a dry earth soak it up quickly.

Because there may come a day when there is no more.

We thirst for this love. We grasp and claw and gather and hoard it. We try to make it happen, to fashion it with our own hands in our own likeness and to our own specifications. We try to precipitate it in a lab, engineer it so that it stands tall and strong, speak it into being with our own words. And it sometimes actually looks like this love that falls wet from the sky. But it isn’t. It’s hard and brittle. It rusts. It decays. We can tear it down and blow it up. It dries up and flutters away.

Only this living water that is Christ fills us. Becomes us. Changes us. Makes us people who no longer need to run from our brokenness and our fear. Instead, this love that is Christ — this Christ that is love — makes us people who can look in a mirror and see not our broken and incompetent selves, but the Jesus who rose from the dead.

LENT Love Without Fail

8 Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
9 from the wicked who do me violence,
my deadly enemies who surround me.
10 They close their hearts to pity;
with their mouths they speak arrogantly.
11 They have no surrounded our steps;
they set their eyes to cast us upon the ground.
12 He is like a lion eager to tear,
as a young lion lurking in ambush!
13 Arise, O Lord! Confront him, subdue him!
Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword,
14 from men by your hand, O Lord,
from men of the world whose portion is in this life.
You fill their wombs with treasure;
they are satisfied with children,
and they leave their abundance to their infants.
15 As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.
(Psalm 15:8-15 ESV)

I love David. I truly do. I love him because he is such a sinner. I love David because God loves him, and chooses him, and does not let go of him, no matter what David himself does. And he does a lot. He rebels against King Saul, he steals several other men’s wives (including, possibly, King Saul’s), he fights for the Philistines — the enemies of Israel — with such gusto that the Philistine king is convinced David is of no more use or value to Israel — the people of God.

David hardly lives an upright life. He is not pure and he is not sinless. David makes a lot of “poor choices.” Yet … God loves him. With an unflinching and steadfast love the likes of which we had not seen in scripture until God met David and, well, fell in love with the ruddy-faced little shepherd boy from Bethlehem.

David spends much of the psalms asking God to keep him safe. Demanding that God act to keep him safe and defeat his enemies (which were legion even before he was king — Saul and his armies as well as various and sundry Philistines). And what enemies he has here, in this prayer for help; the wicked who do violence, arrogant men with pitiless hearts, eager young lions waiting to pounce and ravish and devour.

Mostly, they are men who do not seek the better things of God. They seek all the world has to offer — children and wealth. They have all that the world has to offer, and yet, they continue to do violence. Perhaps that is why they do violence, because they only seek the things of this world. And they are not satisfied.

David lives in a violent world, surrounded by people who mean him harm. Who take joy in the terror and brutality they inflict. In that world, he looks to the Lord for protection and even victory. He prays with confidence, knowing that God has not abandoned him in his suffering and will keep him from death.

In return, he will be satisfied. Not with the wealth and treasure of the world, but with the hope that he shall see the face of God, and that in the morning, when he rises, he shall gaze upon the likeness of the Lord.

This is not the self-satisfied prayer of a self-righteous man who suffers a few indignities thinking it shows everyone he has God’s favor. This is the confident prayer of a lost and desperate man who knows that God loves him unfailingly. And because of that, he knows he has already won, he is already victorious, come what may.

LENT Walking in His Way

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:1–6 ESV)

I don’t like pietism. I don’t like sinlessness. I don’t like how church people use it, and frequently how it reads in scripture passages like this. “Do not sin,” the command comes. And yet, we still sin, and for some reason, that’s held against some of us.

Not by God, but by the church. By church people.

The striving is important. I grant that. The keeping of commandments — the effort expended in living as God invites us to live, to treat ourselves and to treat each other — is important. It’s important because it shows what it means to be faithful to God. To a God who has called us, and is faithful to us.

But this journey we take with Jesus, this journey through the wilderness to Jerusalem, to his triumphal entry, to his last supper, to his betrayal and arrest, his trial, and then his execution, this is journey is about so much more than being a good, virtuous, and pure person. It’s about following Jesus — about loving God, loving neighbors, loving enemies, meeting sinners where they are. Pronouncing forgiveness, yes, and telling them to sin no more.

But as John here notes, it’s about knowing Christ is our advocate, forgiving us, again and again, when we fall and when we fail. As we do. Constantly.

To walk in the way of Christ is to walk toward Jerusalem, knowing the same fate that befell Jesus may await us. Confident not only that Christ forgives our sins, but that he rose from the dead.

It’s also about knowing that abiding in Christ, and walking in his way, is about more than being good and pure. It’s about far more than living “above reproach.” It’s about preaching good news, forgiving sins, feeding the crowds, finding the lost, healing the sick, and casting out demons.

It’s also about suffering. And dying. To sin. To self. To the world. Because Jesus proclaimed the forgiveness of God to a world a great deal more interested in other things — power and glory and wealth and success.

An Ash Wednesday Reflection

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
(Psalms 51:1-2 ESV)

I am late to mass. I am late because … because I am late. Because I have never been to this church before. Because I’m taking time out of work, a work schedule that is harried and hurried and busy. Because I had a hard time finding a place to park.

The church is Catholic, and priest wears a chasuble of deep purple, reflecting the color of the day. He is preaching — ten minutes and I’ve already missed the readings — a heavily accented South Asian English. It’s a simple sermon about the meaning of the Lent, about fasting and sacrifice and following Christ to the Cross.

Lent has begun.

And I need this place. This mass. These words. This forgiveness.

I’m a mess. A far bigger mess than usual. My job has left me … gasping for air. I have found yet one more thing I am not good at — the world seems to insist upon finding me things I cannot and should not do, seems to enjoy sticking me in places and among people I should not try to belong to — and I’m addled, desperate, sad, overwhelmed. I waver between a fragile confidence that I can, in fact, do this job, a tremendous desire to pack the car and go anywhere that isn’t here, and the urge to crawl under my desk, curl up in a ball, and weep.

I feel broken. Shattered. Like the glue that holds me together has stopped bonding. Or maybe the atoms inside me are about to fly apart, and I will simply disappear in a blinding white flash of atomic fission, replaced by a tiny mushroom cloud and a burst of lethal radiation. Or maybe — the quarks holding my particles together will simply go their own way, and I will become a naked singularity, benefit of mass, my presence marked solely by what isn’t there and what it destroys.

I’ve not felt like this in a long, long time. And I don’t like it.

So, I need words of forgiveness. Yes, it matters to me that the priest tells me

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

as he smudges a cross on my forehead. It reminds me that no matter how much of a failure I am — and oh, but I am a failure — I face the same end, the same fate, as any successful regional manager, author of books, or real estate speculator. I will die.

It matters that on the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread, and he broke it, and he gave it too to eat, and he told them: “This is my body. It’s yours, given for you, and you eat it when you gather and maybe you will remember me.” It matters that the priest hands me a piece of that broken body, a body no less human and no less broken and desperate than mine, and tells me, “The body of Christ broken for you.”

The saving body, broken for me.

And after mass, after the priest has awkwardly dismissed us all, I kneel before a giant crucifix and I weep. I grasp the nailed feet of Jesus and I weep. This is my Good Friday ritual, a few weeks early.

He knew failure too. Yes, he told everyone he would go to Jerusalem and be betrayed and would be killed and then rise again on the third day. But then … he had to actually face it. He had to actually face betrayal, feel the blows of his accusers, the lash of his torturers, and then … he had to die. Maybe he would rise and maybe … he wouldn’t. Jesus wouldn’t have been fully human if he wasn’t torn by doubt in those last several days.

No wonder, in the garden, he wanted it to end so very differently. Take this cup from me…

In the last several years I have dreamed big dreams. I followed the call of God. I wrote a book. And I failed. At everything.

I feel his feet. I grab hold. I do not want to let go of this dying man. He is dying, this man hanging here. He is dying so that I may live.

Yet he knows failure. He must have wondered, on the Cross, if this was all there would ever be. Pain and suffering and slow death. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

He must have felt like he failed. Utterly. Completely. Spectacularly. For all the world to see.

Are you not the Christ? Then save yourself, and save us!

I want to say I have nothing to show for myself right now but panic attacks and bills I cannot pay. But that’s not true. Five people depend utterly on me. My wife Jennifer, who loved me into this and made it possible for me to meet this Jesus dying in front of me. My foster daughters Molly and Michaela, who both have looked me in the eye and told me, “I hate to think where I’d be if I hadn’t met you.” And “Bethany” and her brother “Adam,” who have started calling me “dad” even though they have good and proper adoptive parents of their own. (Please don’t hate me.)

I am not a failure in their eyes. Because they don’t judge my accomplishments, or my position, or my wealth, or my power. They just love me, because they know I love them. A love like that … cannot fail.

As I set out on the lenten journey with Jesus into what I’d rather was glory but is really the stunning failure of all sorts of hopes and dreams, I want to remember that God’s love is the kind of love that must die first. Must face fear and terror and uncertainty and not flinch. It must be willing to walk into death and not look back.

We dream of glory. I know I have. But Christ died first before there could be any glory.

And so … failure that I am, I go on. Out of love. Out of hope that from love comes resurrection. Because I know how it ends. Because I know what I have to go through to get there. That there is a cross I must bear. Suffering, and sorrow, and fear, and terror. And death.

But I am not forsaken. No matter how alone or lost I feel. Christ is with me. Christ suffered. That gives my life meaning.

And I remember the words of the other priest, the Indian priest, as his thumb traced ashen crosses on foreheads:

Repent, and believe the gospel.