Sunday, March 30, 2008

Hang on for spring

Driving to church today, I thought, couldn't we just postpone the Easter season until it starts to feel like Easter?

It was a cold, gray day today. There has been little or no inkling that spring is just around the corner--or around any corner in this latitude. All the effort that goes into celebrating Easter and the Sundays after Easter seems wasted. It's like using a tiny space heater to heat the backyard.

Of course, we'd be in a pretty bad fix if we waited to celebrate Easter until we felt like it. That Easter feeling can come and go in a flash. I had it and lost it this afternoon while singing "Awake My Heart with Gladness." In stanza three, between "Now nothing ever saddens" and "The joy within my heart," I stopped feeling glad.

What happened? Well, I thought of things that do sadden my heart. I thought of dead loved ones, of loneliness and weakness and of how much energy it takes to push back gloom and find hope. Is it really there? Like crocuses or early tulips under the dead leaves? I haven't looked for those yet this spring.

I got back into the hymn in the stanza sung by the choir alone. The hymn writer's imagery is vivid in this verse. "My Lord will leave me never/Whate'er he passes through." Christ is on the move, but he's not leaving me? How can this be? Ah yes, this stanza starts with "I will cling forever/To Christ, my Savior true." I'm seeing myself hanging on for dear life, literally, as Christ charges through the dungeons of hell, breaking chains and crashing through prison gates. Yow! The hymn says "I follow him through all." In my mind, I'm like a cartoon character. My feet are not touching the ground.

The next--the final stanza--brings us to the heavenly gates. The transition seems abrupt. (Wonder how many of the original German verses were left out?) And it's not all warm, springtime, feeling happy about Easter. "Who there my crown has shared/Finds here a crown prepared/Who there with me has died/Shall here be glorifed!"

Sharing the cross, dying--that would include living through some cold and gloomy days in March--real ones and metaphorical ones.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Called to misery

I direct the 5th through 8th grade choirs at a Lutheran grade school. Last week we rehearsed music for Passion Sunday, including Psalm 31, the Psalm appointed for the day. Instead of having all the children muddle through the verses together, verses that contained some pretty big words for fifth graders, I decided to assign three of the four choir verses to soloists—to eighth graders with strong voices and good vocabularies.

So there we were, in junior high choir, rehearsing the antiphon that would precede the psalm and the psalm itself. I called out names as we sang the psalm, asking first one student, then another to sing by themselves. At verse 11, I called on Forrest.

Forrest is the backbone of my junior high baritone section—a half-dozen twelve, thirteen, and fourteen-year-old boys with changed and changing voices. Forrest is a talented vocalist and a good musician. He’s also got, well, rather a lively personality. I don’t think he can walk the length of the upstairs hall without doing something goofy—especially if his friends are watching.

The part of Psalm 31 that we sing on Palm Sunday is all about misery. Another more serious member of the choir sang:

Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble;
my eye is consumed with sorrow, and also my throat and my belly.

The choir chanted the congregational verse together, then Forrest sang:

I have become a reproach to all my enemies and even to my neighbors,
a dismay to those of my acquaintance;
when they see me in the street they avoid me.

He finished, and the room went up for grabs—laughter, hoots, jeers. Maybe you’re a little too far removed from junior high and adolescence to appreciate why, so let me explain.

It was as if Forrest had been tricked into saying some pretty awful things about himself—using words from the Bible. It was an uncomfortable shock—more for his classmates, I think, than for him. Forrest was focused on getting through the long phrases. His peers heard him—and the psalmist—give voice to an adolescent’s worst nightmare. If you were to paraphrase the verse for them it might go something likes this.

I have become the person that nobody likes, not my friends, not my enemies.
I am a miserable human being, so unattractive that nobody will be my friend.
When people see me on the street, they cross to the other side.

The junior high students laughed at Forrest, because of his surprise humiliation and exposure to ridicule, but they also laughed because they recognized their own fears and insecurities. When you’re fourteen and don’t have a lot of self-control, that shock of recognition may bring laughter. If they had been singing those words as a group, they probably would not have taken them so personally. But put the words of pain and embarrassment in the mouth of one representative class member—one who usually finds it hard to be serious—and the shame that the psalmist was describing was laid plain before them, right there in the room.

Last Sunday, we understood the words of Psalm 31 as a description of Jesus’s shame and humiliation, which was described more explicitly in this morning’s reading.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” asks Pilate. “You say so,” says Jesus, and he says no more. He does not defend himself. He does not explain that he is king of all things everywhere, yet different from any king ever seen on earth. Pilate offers the crowd a choice between releasing Jesus Barabbas—literally, Jesus, son of the father—and Jesus of Nazareth, and the crowd calls for Barabbas to be let go and the Messiah, son of God, to be crucified. Jesus is flogged. The soldiers of the guard put a royal robe on him and a makeshift crown of thorns. They mock this king, as he faces his own death. They parade him through the streets of Jerusalem, nail him to the cross, and at the foot of the cross, they throw dice to see who gets his clothes.

What was Jesus, our brother, thinking during all of this? What kind of thought bubble do we picture floating over Jesus’ head?

“If only they knew I’m doing this all for them.”


“We’ll see whose mocking who when I burst out of the tomb on Sunday morning.”

Sometimes we think about Jesus’ Passion that way. We focus on the divine Christ on the cross, on God having a plan that was much bigger than that of the chief priests and the Roman governor. We like to be in the know about Christ’s triumph over death. This gives us a certain confidence in the unsettling painful, embarrassing moments of Holy Week—like teens taking refuge in their pop culture coolness.

But when Jesus stood before Pilate, he was human, and suffered as a human. He did not – could not?—defend himself before Pilate. He was too weak or too shaky to carry his own cross. He was rejected by his own people, deserted by his disciples, and forsaken, it seemed, by God himself. What was he thinking? From Psalm 31:

I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind
I am as useless as a broken pot.

Who wants to identify with someone in that miserable state? Who wants to be him?

Yet shame and humiliation and suffering come to all of us, because that’s the way life is, and because we are so good at taking what’s bad in our lives and making it into something worse. We are in that miserable state, and Jesus has come to share it with us.

Recognizing that can make us uncomfortable. We may not laugh with the shock, the way the junior high students laughed at Forrest, but we may try to look the other way, try to distance ourselves from such misery.

But if we keep our eyes on that suffering and dying servant, we see a new kingdom coming into being, a kingdom in which the meek inherit the earth and the last are first, a kingdom in which caring for the least of his brothers and sisters is caring for Jesus.

He calls us to his misery, to take up that cross and follow.

Monday, March 03, 2008


My daughter, a young woman who has Down syndrome, is in the chorus of her high school’s production of the musical Crazy for You. How wonderful that she is included!


Here’s what inclusion looked like: Eliza and her friend, another young woman with Down syndrome, dancing and singing in the back row, behind everyone else. Eliza is four feet, eight inches tall. The chorus members stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of her, wearing heels. They’re of normal height. They faced forward. They did not interact with her. On opening night, from the audience, I caught only split-second glimpses of my daughter, and I had to crane my head this way and that and sit up very tall to do so.

Of course there were lots of parents in the audience looking for their children. A woman behind me said to the person sitting next to her, “Where is she? Where is she?” And then a few moments later, “Oh, look, she’s so beautiful.”

I think my daughter is beautiful, especially when she smiles with joy and delight. Did I ever get to see that look on opening night? No. I was looking through the legs of all the dancers, trying to pick out her shoes—flat Mary Janes rather than the character heels on everyone else—trying to discover where she was. I never saw her face long enough to know if she was enjoying herself.

For the second show, on Sunday afternoon, I had green room duty. During rehearsals there has been a teaching assistant present for the special ed kids. But for some reason, there isn’t one for the three performances after opening night. So I and the mothers of Eliza’s two friends with Down syndrome who are in the show have volunteered to be there to help the girls. It’s hard for them to put on pantyhose by themselves.

Yesterday’s matinee was my day in the green room. The show’s brand of inclusion looked even worse from backstage. After walking the girls upstairs to the stage when it was time for chorus entrances, I waited in the wings during their numbers. I watched them perform—two girls (one was sick) dancing by themselves at the back of the stage, behind a solid line of others. Like ugly ducklings shunted off to a corner of the room so they won’t be seen. It is an image that will stay with me for a long time.

In the dressing room before the show, the cast members—approximately 75 kids—participated in vocal warm-ups. They joined hands in a circle and listened to the director’s praise and instructions. My daughter and her friend sat on the floor outside the circle, looking on—until I made them get up, pushed them toward the other kids, and made the normal teens aware of their presence. As those kids “circled up,” nobody had thought to come over and urge or invite these two “special” girls to be part of the show community. Nobody.

I don’t know how things got to be this way. I don’t attribute it to maliciousness. I know that special needs kids can marginalize themselves and need lots of encouragement in situations that may be overwhelming for them. I know that having a teaching assistant present during rehearsals can mean that the special kids come to depend on the TA instead of becoming independent. The normal self-absorption of teenagers can mean that the regular kids never interact with, much less assist or enjoy the special ed kids. I also know that there’s so much to do in getting a show up and running that some details—like my daughter—inevitably fall by the wayside. I also know that plenty of people would take the attitude that my dismay and anger about the show is my problem, perhaps attributable to an inability to accept my daughter‘s limitations. And that I should just be happy—thrilled even—that my daughter gets to be part of the show.

Only she isn’t really a part of the show. Of course, she doesn’t realize that the audience mostly can’t see her. She wears a costume and make-up. A few kids in the cast greet her. One young man, whom Eliza knows from church, warmed my heart yesterday. When Eliza said to him, “Marek, you’re doing a great job,” he replied, “You’re doing a great job, too, Eliza.” But people in the audience can hardly see her. They don’t even have to know that she’s there.

Eliza’s high school has a Special Olympics basketball team. Every year, the special ed kids play a basketball game during the school day against another high school’s special education students. The regular kids can get out of class to go to the game and cheer, so the bleachers are full. Who would miss an opportunity to skip class? Everyone enjoys it. It’s a big day for the special ed kids, and it’s a day that the high school community points to with pride as evidence of everyone’s support for the disabled community.

It’s easy to support these kids when they are all together on a basketball team—their own community. It’s much harder to figure out how to make them part of a community that includes everyone else.

Copyright Gwen Gotsch 2008. Do not reproduce without permission from the author.