Many years ago, our family watched a movie together that struck the children deeply, The Passion of Christ. None of us have been able to attend a second showing, the images of Jesus nailed to the cross, suffering and mourning so clear, we got the message and haven’t been able to shake it, even during difficult times. I remember Arrow being especially moved and vocal, he was angry at how Jesus was treated, he couldn’t grasp the cruelty. During later years as he moved away from believing, when he resisted going to church and he began to play with other religions during his incarceration, I trusted that the child who once read every book in the Left Behind for Kids series and who ached over this movie still had the seeds of faith within him. No one was witness to his last moments, we cannot say for sure that he called out to God or begged for forgiveness or even rejected it all as he took his last breath. I can only continue to believe that the Holy Spirit was with my son, given to us by God’s Son during his last breaths.
I attended the Good Friday service this week at our church, or part of it. I made it through the beginning songs but when members stood on the altar and portrayed those who witnessed Jesus’s death with an authenticity I could feel and get lost in, I found I couldn’t witness this murder. One young man gave insight into the soldiers who carried out the job of crucifixion, a horrible job that becomes doable when only with detachment, the separation of one’s heart and one’s body. I have been that guy, witnessing horror, participating in the destruction of others by mocking and questioning and above all, not stepping in to say no. Plum asked me the other day if there was ever any kids I didn’t like when I went to school. As I struggled to answer his question, memories of one particular little girl came to mind. She was different, annoying, she was too skinny and wore odd clothes. She had no friends so the day she decided to sit with me at lunch, to join my group, what to me was an implication that I accepted her and maybe could be like her, my fragile identity and need for acceptance from the larger group resulted in a shameful bullying incident that has haunted me for 45 years. When she refused to move even after we told her to, I dumped my tray of spaghetti on her. I cringe as I write this, unable to fathom the cruelty I lived out. When I was disciplined, it was not with suspension or spanking, instead a favorite teacher took me into his room and said the worst thing possible, that he was disappointed in me. That moment solidified for me that I had a choice about how I was going to grow into my character. I could follow the group, I could seek acceptance by behaving horrifically, or I could see the humanity in all around me and choose kindness. I evaluated the popular group I so wanted to be in with and found that I really didn’t have anything in common with them, I really was more like the girl on the fringe. I cannot say that she and I became great friends but I never again rejected her, I did eat lunch with her and I found she had gifts I had previously overlook and discounted. As that respected teacher spoke to me, I lost the ability to detach my heart and crucify others. I didn’t share the whole story with Plum who is kind to the odd kids and would be shocked that his grandma once behaved so poorly. One day though, he will hear this truth and will know that kindness is always our best choice.
Our pastor gave a moving portrayal of the man who hung on the cross next to Jesus, his gasping breaths and last minute acceptance of the offer of salvation, so real and true and horrific, I wanted to bolt from the room. I have been that guy, living a life of deception, suffering the consequences of mistakes that have taken away any dignity or hope, only to turn my soul over to the only One who continued to hang with me, the One who has offered me forgiveness again and again. When I was first imprisoned, when I sat in the jail cell in shock trying to absorb my reality of two and a half years away from my children, I too was gasping for air, only to find it stale, piped in, rife with desolation as others struggled to breathe as well. I begged God to let me die, I sought some means to end it all, the agony of it all wracked my body. Yet in the darkest moments, when I couldn’t escape my horror, I was flooded with the presence of the Holy Spirit, the reminder of the Footprints poem would not leave me, I found a peace I didn’t want, didn’t believe I deserved, as I knew Jesus would carry me when I couldn’t walk. I survived, I healed, I returned a stronger, surer woman who was determined never to be used by a man again, who would seek out God for my redemption always. Unlike the man on the cross, my conversion moment has been stretched over decades, a constant need to turn my eyes away from the harsh realities of this world and focus on God.
Next came the sounds of Jesus’s mother, wailing as she watched her son die. During the last three months as I have sought out God to make sense of my son’s death, I forgot about another mother who lost her son. Alternating between finding comfort knowing God fully knew my pain and being angry that He didn’t stop the loss, I never imagined how Mary must have felt. Yet her son offered comfort even to her in that moment, He instructed another to be her child. He assigned her another son, he solidified that even if she was childless through His death, she would continue to be a mom. He knew they would need each other as they grieved, as mourning threatened to destroy all hope. My wounds are too raw, too fresh, my other child is not joining with me to mourn. Mary’s sorrow was too real to me, I had to leave. As she proclaimed that she didn’t want Him to be Jesus, savior of the world, but just her son, I knew in that moment her mother’s heart just wanted her son back, not this man who made His own choices and suffered the consequences. She couldn’t rescue the baby she had carried, bereft, she cried out at the injustice, at the death of her joy. I have truly been Mary, my son imperfect but loved by so many, he too left way too young, he had much left to do on this earth.
Listening from outside the sanctuary, I heard bits and pieces of the witness of others. I considered that Jesus was someone different to each, multiple levels of mourning and relationship were evident during His execution. Friends and followers watched, confused and searching for answers. Left wondering how it all could go so wrong so swiftly, dreams of a better future shattered, swept away as the crowd celebrated. Considering how my son died as suddenly, warning signs clear just as Jesus foresaw His own death, yet ignored, discounted. Still those around my son mourn in shock. His friends, his family, co workers, teachers, all replaying what happened, searching for answers, desperate to find a different truth than the reality that this was inevitable, that the choices Arrow made led him to his own destruction. Our sins led to the death of Jesus, we are complicit, our very nature made it necessary for the sacrificial lamb to die. Is the same true for my son? What did we miss, what wrongs were committed that encouraged his substance abuse? What more could we have done over the 11 years of his addiction to help him chose life over this disease? Yes, the witnesses to his death are left wondering, wishing for an answer to explain this loss, knowing none will ever bring him back. Hopes for a better future died that morning as they both took their last breaths. The long waiting through Saturday, after that horrific Friday, filled with confusion and seeking ends with the joyous discovery of the empty tomb on Sunday, for the followers of Jesus. My Saturday blanketed Sunday and Monday and all the days after. I’m struggling to get to Sunday, the day of restoration and affirmation.
My son’s birthday falls close to Easter each year. I know there is a story in that, preparation during 26 years to remember the promises of God at the end of the story, to not get stuck in the desolate Saturday of a hard life. As I look back on each year with him, as we baked cakes and blew out candles and sent cards to prison and rejoiced that he was among us for another chance of a bright future, I was being trained, conditioned. Don’t look merely at the emptiness of my heart, rejoice in the transformation of a life. Watch as my sins as a bully in elementary school and his drug use are opportunities to turn toward the light, see grace scatter shame like bits of colored egg shells swept into the trash. The good stuff is inside of us, the flashy colors and decorations an enticement to us to go deeper, find the prize within, to gain nourishment for our souls. Still I am stuck on Saturday, a seemingly endless wait to discover joy again and accept all the grace that Easter brings. I replay the voices from the sanctuary, listening to the witness of believers and doubters alike and know that Sunday will come, one day I too will delight in the empty tomb. Spring is late this year, vacillating between sunny 70 degree days and late snow showers and I find comfort in that. I’m easing into this slow spring season, beginning to notice the birds excitedly chirping, allowing the rain to fall onto my head and sprouting shoots of early flowers to remind that Sunday is around the corner. Embracing the humanity of those who witnessed the execution of my Savior, of those who missed signs to save my son, I realize there is hope enough for me.