As I write this, it's still Palm Sunday, the day we pick up our palm leaf alongside our worship brochure and wave it. (And try to pay attention to the sermon while secretly folding our palm leaf into a cross that can sit on our dresser for the next few weeks until we throw it away.) It's a strange day of celebration, knowing what lies ahead this week, knowing what we're actually commemorating. Just as we celebrate the Christ walking into a city crowded with "Hosanna!" shouters who will turn to cry "Crucify" on Thursday night (or Friday morning?), we are aware that we’re among those praising on Sunday and crucifying on Friday. We have good intentions and then are overwhelmed by the brokenness of what we actually are. This morning I sat August on our bench beside the front door, said: “Let’s get your shoes on so we can go to church.” I don’t know if he was unaware all morning as we moved around him, getting ourselves dressed, combing his hair, sharing some pancakes, that church was our ultimate destination. He likes church. He loves his “teachers” in the nursery. He loves playing with his friends. But today, the mention of church was explosive. Some fear that’s been welling up in him was let loose and he panicked. He suddenly shifted from the happy boy carrying around his dinosaur books, saying, “Saur! Roar!” to an open mouthed, full lunged scream, face reddening, hands stiffened in the air, fingers outstretched.
All of that would have been fairly normal, typical nearly two-year-old stuff. What disturbed me was what happened next: he began hitting himself in the face. That’s probably a normal toddler tantrum reaction. He and I deal with his need to hit fairly often. I’ve gotten my fair share of his arm swing when he doesn’t want his diaper changed or doesn’t want to get in the stroller. We deal with the hitting (a little time in the sad chair, anyone?) and move on. But his hitting himself is a new thing. As someone who has worked with teenagers for years and has known kids who cut and mutilate themselves to gain relief from the pressure of their lives, families, relationships, and the general burdens of adolescence, I shudder to think of August hurting himself. Cutting oneself is such a common occurrence in high school that it’s often the first relief kids turn to when they’re hurting.
I know that a toddler slapping his hands against his head is not comparable to the depth of what’s going on in a teenager who is secretly cutting herself in the bathroom, but as August screamed and hit his own face, I couldn’t help but think of the girls I’ve been praying for who are struggling in that way right now. It was a moment when I knew I have to be intentional with August his whole life. He needs to know that hurting himself is just like hurting other people. I told him that. He got some mama comfort until he could calm down and remember that church was actually a fun place for him to go.
Later, as I sat in the service this morning, I was aware of my heart, my nature, my tendency toward the fickleness of those who praised Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, laying out their coats for his donkey and shouting words of worship, only to later ask for his destruction. I thought of August living with no cares in his life: food is provided, songs are sung, friends are played with, toys are waiting. Yet, he’s still capable of great fear and frustration and self hate. He has all he needs and in spite of that, he’s already broken.
I had a realization about Palm Sunday: What we’re really doing on this day is recognizing that our “sinfulness” is more about our own lack of wholeness, our inability to fix what’s incomplete in us than it is about our outward shouts of “crucify him!” The inconsistency of the crowds in Jerusalem is the same inconsistency in all of us. How can August long to fill his tummy with food and play with toys because he finds joy in it and still want to hit himself when he’s scared? How is it that I can spend so much time longing for others to like me, think only of myself when I should be caring for others, and still be able to criticize myself mercilessly, believing lies about my worth?
It’s the same thing that caused the crowds to love Jesus when they thought he was capable of being their political leader and leave him when, after a few days, it appeared that he was too weak to follow through on what they wanted.
This morning, before we sang, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” we prayed together:
O Lord Jesus Christ, who on this day entered the rebellious city which later rejected you: We confess that our wills are just as rebellious, that our faith is often more show than substance, that our hearts are in need of cleansing. Have mercy on us, Son of David, Savior of our lives. Help us lay at your feet all that we have and all that we are, trusting you to forgive what is sinful, to heal what is broken, to welcome our praises, and to receive us as your own. Amen.
Friends, as we journey through this Holy Week together, my prayer is that we may know more deeply what it is to lay at the feet of Jesus all that we are, with honesty, despite our fickle hearts and deep-woven broken places. May we experience this week the only one who can truly receive us as we really are.