When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have brought no bread.’ And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!’ Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:5-12) (You may recall that Jesus elsewhere criticises the Pharisees for their insistence on ritual purity and a moralistic legalism, all the while maintaining a hardness of heart.)
Frank Ostaseski worked for many years as a Buddhist end-of-life carer, and has companioned many people on their deathbeds.
Matthew had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian family … Now, believing he was close to death, he felt certain that God would condemn him for eternity to hell due to his sexual orientation.
It is not uncommon for long-buried cultural mores and early religious training to suddenly resurface at the time of death, even if the person has deliberately left those beliefs far behind. I tried to support Matthew by orientating him to the mindfulness and compassion practices that he had studied and loved for many years. We created an altar at his bedside with his beloved Buddha statue and a healing thangka, a traditional Tibetan painting. When that failed to calm him, I held his hand, massaged his feet, and played him his favourite chanting music. Still no change. Finally, the doctor ordered a sedative. Even that didn’t work. Matthew was spinning in a world of confusion, shame, and dread.
By two in the morning, I was exhausted and, feeling ineffective and powerless, chose to go home and get some sleep. On the drive there, for some unknown reason, I thought of my first Holy Communion, the Catholic ritual that ushers young innocents into the loving lap of God. When I got home, I searched through my storage closet to find my memory box, a small collection of mementoes I hold dear. Here, I located a five-inch plastic figurine of Jesus surrounded by lambs and little children.
Instead of going to bed, I drove straight back to the hospital. As Matthew continued to moan, shout, toss, and turn in agony, I took down the thangka and replaced the Buddha statue with this small plastic Jesus.
Just as I was smoothing the altar cloth, a cleaning woman named Deana came into the room and spotted the figurine. Setting her mop to one side, she said with great enthusiasm, “Merciful Jesus! When his kindness is with us, everything is all right.”
At once, Matthew’s eyes locked onto Deana. An angelic smile spread across his face as he pivoted toward the altar to gaze at the plastic Jesus statue and then back in Deana’s direction. His entire body relaxed. In that moment, the punishing God of Matthew’s childhood, the one whose wrath he had been taught to fear and whose judgment had made him feel like a terrible person, was transformed into the merciful God he also knew and loved. The one who adored all his children, no matter their so-called faults and flaws. A kind, forgiving, all-accepting, and benevolent God.
Deana’s faith in God was so secure that it lent Matthew exactly the strength he needed to defend his inner critic. I left them together there. They didn’t need me.
When I eventually returned to the hospital later that afternoon, Matthew was sitting up in bed, smiling and eating a bowl of Jell-O …
Matthew was able to release his spiritual superego. In the final days of his life, he was able to truly accept himself as the kind, giving, beautiful man he had become. He could clearly see that the delivery system of his youth, the hellfire and brimstone and judgments, was the cause of his self-rejection. He had always felt, on some level, that he was “wrong” for being gay. But finally, letting go of his inner critic, he realized that he was all right.
How did this happen?
With love. Love is what helps set us free. Love is the ally that makes acceptance possible. Ω
Reflect: What religious teachings have harmed you? Ask God to show you what you need to guard against, and give thanks for teachings which bring healing and wholeness.
#Lent2020 © Sanctuary, 2020 quoting Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations. Sydney: Macmillan, 2017. Buy from your favourite bookshop.
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