After Easter

The apples have bloomed,
the cherries and the pears,
and the redbuds along the roadsides.
Now is the time of dogwoods
glowing among the fresh leaves,
whitest white in the purity of resurrection.

 

Advertisements

The Promise of Easter

On this Saturday of Holy Week, the sun is shining brightly and the spring air is soft. The forsythia and daffodils are blooming, and the maples and earliest apple trees are in blossom. Cardinals and robins are singing, and the message of rebirth infuses the earth.

I think about tomorrow, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, named in our language for an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and rebirth. And I think about the way many religions, ancient and contemporary, reflect on the cycle of the year through stories of the god who dies and is reborn. Rebirth – resurrection – is the central concept of Christianity, but we are not unique.

There is something very powerful in the turning of the seasons that stirs human imagination. We may explain the seasons scientifically, but they still seem more significant and more amazing than the physical facts of scientific explanation. Perhaps this is because the forces that drive the seasons are so much larger than we are.

But the mystery of rebirth is also larger than we are. We need our myths to help explain the incomprehensible nature of rebirth. And so we have our stories of the god who dies and is reborn. The story in my heart is the story of the passion and resurrection of the Christ. I am a Christian because I grew up in a Christian culture, and the stories of the Christian tradition resonate with me. They help me find my way to God – or, rather, they help me see that God is with me. But I don’t for a moment believe that my stories are the only ones that are true.

We are like the group of blind people in the story of the encounter with an elephant. One person, feeling the elephant’s leg, said that the elephant was very like a tree. Another, touching the ear, declared that the beast was like a ship with a large sail. A third, stroking the trunk, said that the elephant was like a snake. And so on. Every faith has grasped a part of God, but no one has grasped all of God. We are human and limited in our understanding; we can’t fully comprehend the infinity that is God.

And so we waste our energy arguing over our beliefs, assuming that our own way of faith is somehow more true than others. When we believe we know the only truth, we try to convince everyone else to believe exactly what we believe, while those of other faiths do the same. And so we have crusades, jihads, holy wars, grieving God in the name of God.

We try to discover evidence that Jesus really (that is, in physical fact, empirically observable) did die and rise again. Some seem to believe that the truth of the resurrection depends on such physical reality. But the real truth of the story rests in its power to transform us, its power to bring us into an ever-growing relationship with God.

What matters about the story of the god who dies and is resurrected is not its historical accuracy. What matters is not even the story of rebirth’s connection to the cycle of the seasons. What matters is the message of God’s power and love behind the story of resurrection. What matters is the little bit of truth about God revealed in the story.

There are many different theological statements about the significance of the Resurrection of Jesus. The one that one hears most often is that Jesus died for us, to save us from the consequences of our sinfulness. There may be truth in this concept, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. It may be the elephant’s tail, but the whole truth of the elephant is something else.

For me, the larger truth of the passion and resurrection is the revelation of God’s overwhelming love for us and the promise of God’s presence with us. God chose to suffer and die as we suffer and die. God understands us completely and is with us completely. God promises to go with us into the darkest places of our lives. But even all that is not, I think, the whole truth of the Resurrection. The whole truth is beyond my limited human comprehension. All I can do is experience the power of the story and love God.

(Note:  This was first posted a year ago.)

What Is Truth?

“What is truth?” he asked, lifting one hand slightly.
The ragged man before him glanced upward and did not reply,
while the abyss between them deepened and grew wider.
A single word danced above it and split into a hundred permutations,
each with its own singular meaning.

Truth is sunlight pouring through the leaves of the maple.
Truth is the lightning bolt that shatters the tree,
the lily bud unfolding in the morning light,
the wind howling across the mountain pass,
the warm arms of the sea in a sheltered cove.

Truth is the convolution of the nautilus,
the mysterious equations of the stars,
the first stroke of paint on wet paper,
the rainbow in the waterfall,
the crystalline promise of the unbroken geode.

Truth is the bullfrog’s song in the warm dark of a May night,
the storm clouds gathering against the sunset,
the winter moon in the branches of a tree,
the scent of peonies on a warm morning,
twilight moving across a northern sky.

Truth is the magma seething at the earth’s core,
the collision of cells conceiving,
the shuddering of the earth forcing one plate against another,
the acorn sprouting under the soil,
the breath of God in everything that is.

 

(Note:  The image above is a photograph of children playing on the Temple Mount, near the area that was once thought (probably erroneously) to be the site where Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus, asking “What is truth?”)

 

A Night in Gethsemane

Tenebrae: The Service of Shadows

Maundy Thursday. A difficult night. A difficult service. We love to rejoice with the risen Christ, but it is far harder to suffer with the betrayed and bleeding man on the cross. As the readings for the service of Tenebrae move from betrayal and desertion to mockery and death, the candles in the sanctuary are put out one by one. As we hear the story in scripture, the shadows of our own sin and guilt grow deeper, closing in around us.

The darkness presses in on me. If I had been there that long night and the dark day that followed, which role would have been mine? Would I have taken an active part, calling out accusations before Caiaphas? Would I have been convinced that this man was a disrupter, a threat to my faith, a creator of disorder who had to be destroyed in the name of God?

Might I have been a Roman skeptic, amused at the foolishness of these Eastern fanatics who thought a poor itinerant preacher a serious threat? Or would I have played the part of the military bullies who jammed the crown of thorns on his head and struck him repeatedly in the face, not caring who or what he was, only knowing that this was a chance for a bit of fun?

Might I have been one of those who had heard Jesus teach, seen him heal, who had believed that he was indeed the Messiah? Would I have watched from a little distance, my faith in the Lord who had entered the city in triumph only a few days earlier violently shaken by the sight of the blood on his face? Would my voice have been the voice of Peter, denying that I even knew him?

Jesus was not, after all, the clear sign that had been expected. The Jews looked for a military leader who would free them from the yoke of the Romans. They expected ritual purity and unmistakable glory. Instead, Jesus had eaten with sinners, entered the city on a donkey, and washed his disciples’ feet. The Romans were expecting the sort of armed revolt they were so good at crushing, not a king who claimed his kingdom was not of this earth. When the sign came, it was undecipherable – not because the sign wasn’t meaningful, but because the people who saw it were blinded by their own expectations. The dying Christ and the empty tomb were mysteries too deep for human reason.

The shadows close in. All I can do is weep for my sins, my doubts, my blindness, and for the infinite suffering endured for us. Endured so that we might glimpse our own brokenness. Endured so that we might know the infinite love that made us and pray for the marvelous, undeserved, overwhelming light of Easter morning.

(Note: This was first posted two years ago.)

Suffering and Lament

“Just get over it.”
“Let it go.”
“Let go of the past and look to the future.”
“Put it behind you.”
“Big girls don’t cry.”
“Be a man!”

In other words, hide your suffering away. Pretend it isn’t there and you’ll forget to suffer.

We all know how well that works.

Pain that is ignored or denied clogs the arteries of the soul until nothing of life can flow through them. And yet the pressures of our culture encourage denial.

If we’re not telling ourselves to get over it, we’re telling ourselves to be ashamed of what we feel.
False piety: “Think of others who have suffered so much more.”
Dismissal: “No one wants to hear your complaints.”
Fear: “People will think I’m weak.”

Even the conventional wisdom of religion doesn’t always deal well with suffering. Historically, it’s most often been assumed that suffering is a result of sin. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). The same notions are at work today when we assume that if we eat the right foods we’ll never get sick, or that a chronic condition is the result of not taking care of ourselves, or that if we’re just good enough (whatever that means) bad things won’t happen to us.

When the bad things do happen – and they do happen to all of us – conventional piety tells us to just lay our suffering at the foot of the cross or to give it to God – as if it’s simply trash to put out for collection. But it’s never that simple. We can’t just give our suffering away; we have to do more than that.

The usual response to suffering is either to deny it or to wallow in it. Tough it out, or play the role of victim. In either case, the pain festers and is not healed. But there is a better way. Job got it right. The psalms of lament got it right. Suffering is too real to release without expression. That expression, whatever form it takes, is lament.

Lament is therapy for the soul. Grief, anger, fear, regret, guilt, shame, loss, resentment – any emotion that grows out of suffering is a spiritual burden that needs to be voiced if the suffering is ever to lessen. The burden can’t simply be set down and forgotten or stuffed in a dark corner. Nor is it healthy for the soul to languish in victimhood.

In our culture, which stresses the ideal of the rugged individual who is self-reliant and strong, we tend to think of lamentation as whining. It makes us uncomfortable and touches too closely the very real fear that we are not in control of everything. But lamentation is not whining. It’s the expression of strong emotions that need to be released so that healing may begin. It’s also a spoken or unspoken recognition that the person who laments is not alone and that wholeness is possible. That’s why the lament is made to another – to a friend or to God.

Lamenting can be uncomfortable for the listener. Our culture values doing. When someone is suffering, our first impulse is to try to fix whatever is wrong or at least help the sufferer move beyond the suffering. But most of the time what is needed is not fixing but listening. Simple listening is a real gift to the one who is suffering – much more of a gift than good advice or exhortations to get over it.

A friend of mine recently visited an elderly woman who had worked for her for years until she became too ill to work, and whose son, her primary caregiver, had died not long ago. My friend sat with her all afternoon, listening while she recounted the loss of her son and her grief. This was a true lament, deeply felt and vividly expressed. My friend may have been a little uncomfortable, but her quiet presence was a blessing, allowing the full expression of the woman’s grief. This was a ministry of presence and of listening.

Much as friends and confidants might help by listening to our laments, God is the ultimate listener. Voicing our woes to friends and counselors is helpful, but God is the one who can use our suffering for transformation and spiritual growth. Our laments provide an opening for God to bring acceptance and healing, even though we may not be aware of it at the time.

Unfortunately, we all too often feel that we can only show our positive emotions to God. Our worship is filled with lots of praise, much thanksgiving, a bit of repentance, a little supplication, and almost no lament. The unspoken message is that pain and suffering are not fit for God’s hearing – and certainly not fit for the congregation to hear. We end up thinking we can only tell God the good stuff. But the truth is that everyone suffers, and all communities suffer. We can’t surprise or offend God with our complaints.

When we do have negative feelings, we may try to give them to God, hoping God will simply take them away. But if God were to do that, no space would be created for healing and growth. Nothing would get better. We would not get better. I’ve heard a lot of people say they’ve given God their anger, their grief, their shame, or their need to control – but then found themselves taking it back. Or they’ll say they tried to give their worries to God, but it didn’t work.

Lament, on the other hand, opens us up to God’s action within us. It doesn’t fix anything instantly or necessarily bring us immediate relief, but over time, it can bring us closer to God, and that is where we will eventually find healing. In lament, we bring our pain and our negative emotions to God – but more than that, we express those feelings, voicing them fully. As we describe our emotions in detail, we not only purge some of the pain but we also gain a greater understanding of our feelings. Lament helps us know ourselves and our suffering more fully, and that can lead to acceptance and healing. In time.

I can think of three times when I have felt overwhelmed with anger. Not the ordinary, passing annoyance that is a routine reaction to small offenses, but a deep, roiling sense of betrayal. On two of these occasions, I lay awake all night, rigid with anger and grief at what had been done to me. I was burning up with emotion, and it never occurred to me to try to express it. I tried to escape it by thinking of other things; when morning came, I busied myself with my usual activities. The anger festered in me for days before it began to abate. I was left diminished and weakened.

On the other occasion, I sat down and wrote a long, explicit letter to the person who had betrayed me, detailing what had been done to me and my emotions in response. I also described in detail all of the personal flaws of the one who had made me angry. No, I did not send the letter or show it to anyone. I tore it up. But the very act of lamenting not only the acts of the betrayer but also the loss of the relationship was healing. The pain was lessened, and perspective restored.

Lamentation is not a place to linger. It is a spiritual practice whose goals are growth, wholeness, and relationship. Like all spiritual practices, it is not an end in itself but a means of drawing closer to God and all creation.

Lament is for any negative emotion we may feel. We may think of lament as an expression of loss or grief, and often it is just that. But laments can also express anger at a person or an injustice. They can give voice to worries and anxiety and fear. They can be a release for guilt or shame or resentment.

The psalms provide patterns for lament and restoration. The emotions are expressed, and often (but not always) a recollection of God’s goodness follows. Reading them can help make us more comfortable in expressing our emotions to God. Here are some of my favorites. Among the best for expressing anguish are Psalm 22 and Psalm 38. For anger, you might try Psalm 10, Psalm 13, or Psalm 58. For fear, Psalm 27 and Psalm 56. For injustice, Psalm 26, Psalm 28, Psalm 43, and Psalm 44. For resentment, Psalm 41. For betrayal, Psalm 55. For grief, Psalm 42 and Psalm 137. For despondency or depression, Psalm 88 and Psalm 102. For a desire for vengeance, Psalm 109 and Psalm 137. For guilt, Psalm 25 and Psalm 52. Look for one that resonates with your own suffering, and pray it to God.

It’s not enough to “turn it over” to God. It’s necessary to experience our pain fully by expressing it fully. That isn’t easy or comfortable, but it’s healing. Although we’d rather not experience our pain fully, that’s what we need. When we allow ourselves to face the deepest truths of our suffering, we open ourselves to God’s transforming presence within us, and to God’s healing.

In the Ice

When freezing rain moved through in mid-January, it covered the trees and bushes with ice. The crabapple tree in my front yard still has a few fruits, not yet eaten by the birds, and they glistened through the ice like red jewels.

The ice-coated crabapples are like the soul that is frozen in grief or despair. Ice covers the fruit, stems, twigs, and branches, isolating them from the winter air, just as suffering isolates the spirit from joy and comfort. But the beauty of the soul is still visible. The fruit survives and will become food that sustains life. Within the fruit are the seeds that will grow into new life. The crabapple waits. Spring will come.

We are all connected to everything that is, even when we can’t feel it or even perceive it. We all have times of ice, times when we feel disconnected and paralyzed. But the Spirit of light and life is with us, even when we don’t believe it exists. The ice will melt.

Finding Peace

The past year has been a hard one. Strident. Violent. Frightening. We’ve seen the worst human impulses acted out in public, sometimes by what seem to be fanatics and sometimes by people very like ourselves and our friends. The future seems uncertain, with threats of further violence and injustice looming. Where do we look, then, for peace? How can we find inner peace in a turbulent world?

True peace is never external. For one thing, there has never in human history been a time when any society has been free of conflict. Tension and disagreement are natural characteristics of human existence. There has never been a “golden age” of peace and tranquility. We can’t recapture a time that never was.

Yet most of us have experienced times of peace and joy. Moments so filled with love and beauty that they linger with us, enriching our lives. We can choose to live in the elements of those moments, even though the moments themselves are past. We don’t have to live in the conflicts and threats of violence that surround us.

If enough of us choose to live in peace and connection, we can draw others away from the desire to act out their worst fears in violence and injustice. Inner peace leads to connection, and connection leads to peace in the world.

So how do we find peace within? That’s the first question.

Peace is individual; we each have to make our own way to it. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I do believe that what I’ve experienced is not very different from the experiences of others. So when I speak for myself, I’m hoping that you will find resonances there that connect with you.

For me, peace begins with the spiritual practice of looking for God’s presence everywhere and in everyone. I find the sacred in everything that is beautiful, and in everything that is ugly but has the potential for beauty within it. That covers just about everything I encounter.

It was easy to love God in all that was beautiful.
The lessons of deeper knowledge, though,
Instructed me to embrace God in all things.
– – – – – – – – 
St. Francis of Assisi

When the potential for beauty is not realized, it can be heart-wrenching and even tragic. But the potential is still there – God is still there – and I can choose to love the presence of God in even the worst circumstances. People don’t have to be good or lovely or admirable or “right” in order to be loveable. God is present in suffering and in what appears to us to be evil. And it’s that presence of God that makes it possible for us to connect, to be aware that we are all part of the interconnected and interdependent universe.

A vitally important component of that awareness is self-understanding. I have to know and understand my own emotions and the behaviors that grow out of them before I can be truly aware of others and live out my connection to them. That means that I have to look closely at what I most dislike in myself, not just at what I like. I have to examine my own fears, anger, grief, hatreds, shame, and guilt, as well as my own joys, passions, and loves. And I must apply what I learn about my feelings to my own behaviors. In every circumstance, I must ask myself, “What in my own self and in my experience has led me to feel what I feel?” “Why did I act the way I did?”  When I understand myself and my emotions, I gain a new perspective that makes it possible for me to find peace within myself.

We are all often afraid – or sometimes just wary – of what we don’t understand and foolishly think we should somehow be able to control. Understanding diminishes fear. When we see our fears clearly, we can learn to lament them, express them fully to ourselves, and let them shrink in importance.  All of this is hard work, and it takes time.  But it is truly worth the effort.

The second question is this: how can we find peace in connection with others, and build greater peace in our world?

When I understand myself, it becomes much easier to understand others and be aware of our connection as part of a shared universe. Human emotions are universal. There are dark places in all of us; claiming my own dark places makes it possible for me to understand and forgive the dark places of others.

We all have light places in us, too. The connection that grows out of self-awareness makes it possible for us to share light with others, both our light and theirs. And in that shared light, we can see the real proportions of our conflicts and disagreements. They generally turn out to be much smaller than we had thought, and our shared connections much larger. After all, we don’t have to think alike to be human together.

In that shared light, we can find peace. Even though conflicts continue, we can choose not to be defined by them, choose not to live in them, be consumed by them. We can choose to live in our shared humanness. And the flow of peace in the universe increases.