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.)

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.)

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 the 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.

Evidence

Thunder at a distance,
And the light fading at the end of day.
The wind stirs in the trees, little new leaves rustling.
I open the door and walk out into cool rain,
The air clean and warm and the wind lively against my skin.
The scent of earth and new growth fills me with every breath. 

God, let those who don’t believe in resurrection or rebirth
Have one May evening of fresh rain and a soft wind!

 

Myth and Mystery

“That’s just a myth.”  “Myths and fairy tales.”  “Those beasts are only mythic.”  “Myths aren’t real.”  “Don’t believe that – it’s a myth.”  We are so used to dismissing myths – usually other people’s myths – as trivial and false, that we don’t even see the myths that govern our lives.

Every culture has its myths.  We have myths about our nations’ origins, myths about our relationships, myths about our heroes, myths about the sacred.  Such myths can be positive and affirming, teaching tools for developing strength and purpose.  We also have myths about superiority – gender or racial or economic – and myths about our own worth (or lack of it) and about what God thinks of us.  Myths of this sort can be destructive and even devastating.

Myths are powerful and important.  They shape our attitudes and our actions and give focus and meaning to our dreams and longings.  They express inner truths, positive and negative, about our most vital selves.  They reflect our souls, and they shape them.  Myths may not be literally, factually, true, but they are True.  They point to deep inner truths that have power in our lives.

My own culture, whose people tend to think of themselves as pragmatic and practical, is full of myths.  We have the myth of American independence and rugged individualism, which has inoculated us against a sense of responsibility to others.  We have the myth of liberty and national superiority, which blinds us to the suffering we inflict on oppressed groups in our own society and in other nations.  We have the myths of wealth and consumerism, which have fostered a society in which money and power are immensely important – and concentrated in a very few hands.  We have the myth of rationalism that discounts anything in human experience that doesn’t seem to be logical and reasonable.

Every nation, every culture has its social myths of this sort, just as it has its myths about heroic deeds, difficulties overcome, adversaries nobly challenged.  These myths establish our values and define our relationships and our sense of ourselves.  Myths express and form the essence of who we are.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our sacred myths – the stories of our faiths that help form our awareness of God and our relationship with the divine.  And I’ve been thinking about my own personal relationship to the myths of my own faith.  I know that there are many Christians, including some of my friends, who believe in the literal truth of our faith stories.  I know that there are others, including some of my friends, who spend a great deal of time and mental effort trying to puzzle out just what about our faith is historically factual.  The first group tends to focus on whatever issues seem important, ignoring the portions of our faith stories that point elsewhere.  The second group struggles with disillusionment and the futility of proving much about stories passed through so many hands over so many years.

I don’t find myself in either camp.  Nor am I willing to accept blindly what my faith teaches or claims to teach.  Do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus?  I have no logical, emotional, or spiritual basis for belief that it literally happened.  But I believe in the myth of the resurrection.  That is, I believe in the story as myth, in the most powerful, most True sense of the word “myth.”  I believe that the myth of the resurrection expresses my own deepest longing for God and my own belief that God is with us and dwells within us, and that our worst suffering can become, in God’s hands, a source of life and spiritual glory.  I believe God has chosen to share existence with us, and that sharing is beautifully and powerfully expressed in the story of the passion and resurrection of Jesus, the anointed one.

Getting Lost

Two days ago, a friend and I drove out along the Old National Road – US 40 – to photograph a few of the churches in our presbytery for a project I’m doing.  It was a beautiful day, filled with sun and clouds, but bitterly cold for November, and very windy.  We found the first two churches on my list with no trouble.  And then we got lost.

I had gotten directions from the pastor of Ebenezer Presbyterian Church, but still we found ourselves wandering among the cornfields on narrow county roads, dodging the huge semis with their trailers full of the last of the corn harvest.  Roads in this part of the old Northwest Territory (that’s NW of the Ohio River, by the way) are generally laid out on a grid, for ease of navigation.  Ha!  While roads may follow a grid pattern, streams don’t, and there’s never a guarantee that a given road will go as far as you hope it will.  On the other hand, it’s hard to get truly lost, since the grid will eventually lead you to a main highway.  Commercial maps, of course, don’t show the county roads, and the online maps often fail to show them accurately.  Since we were looking for a church that had no street address, out in the middle of a vast stretch of fields, even the online maps were no help.

I drove around for half an hour or more, stopping at intersections to consult with my friend.  Finally, we found our way back to US 40.  Having thoroughly confused myself, I headed west.  We shortly began to recognize landmarks and realized we were too far west of the one-stoplight town that had been our take-off point for the cornfields.  So I turned around and drove east.  Once again, I turned south at the stoplight.  This time, we kept a sharp eye out for the road we needed.  It turned out to be hidden just beyond a small hill with a farmhouse on top of it, across from a large farm next to a road that had a different name.  My friend spotted the road we needed and I saw it just in time to turn.  Two miles on, as promised by my friend the pastor, we came to the church.

When the men of Israel went out from Mizpah into the countryside and defeated the Philistines (I Samuel 7), the prophet Samuel set up a marker stone or cairn and named it Ebenezer, which means “stone of help.”  I think that Ebenezer is a fitting name for this particular church, set out in the countryside among the corn fields, even though the church is built of brick.

This was the third day-long trip to photograph churches that I’d made in the past month.  On each trip, I got lost.  The first time was out in the hills and fields south of the city, where the landscape is closed in and roads and streams meander around the hills and through woods.  I found the church I was looking for, but then the online map sent me onto roads that didn’t exist.  I tried to use my native sense of direction – and the grid.  Ha, again!  I found myself on the aptly-named Maze Road.  Finally, I spotted Frontage Road, and the Interstate beyond it.  Wonderful, I thought – surely the frontage road will take me to an intersection with the highway, and then I’ll know where I am.  So I followed Frontage Road for several miles, until it abruptly turned away from the highway without ever giving me a glimpse of an interchange.

I tried to get back north and west to find an interchange, but by then the sun was going down, and the roads were getting narrower and the woods darker.  I was retracing earlier wanderings.  Finally I happened across a wider road that actually had a yellow stripe down the middle – and, wonder to behold, a big truck on it!  I followed the truck to the Interstate.  By then, of course, it was too late to visit the last church on my list.

On my second outing, on a beautiful cool, sunny day, I got lost again when the online directions I was following claimed that two highways were one.  I could find each of the two, but not on the same strip of asphalt.  After driving up and down one road twice over, I gave up and once again tried to grid my way to the state route I was hoping to find.  Eventually, I stopped at my third gas station to ask directions and found someone who actually knew where the highway was.  He pointed me in the right direction and told me to go three blocks to Madison Street, which would take me to the highway.  So I went three blocks, only to find that Madison Street was one way – in the wrong direction.  I went on to the next street, turned left, and found the highway.

So where, in all this wandering, did I find the sacred?  First of all, in three days of glorious sunshine, driving around the kind of countryside I grew up in but lived away from most of my adult life.  The sense of Home was profound.  Secondly, since I was alone on the first two trips, I spent a lot of time talking with God.  And on the third trip, my friend and I, who have been spiritual companions for many years, talked together about God, the unity of all faiths, and the interconnectedness of everything that exists.  And also about what’s wrong with the church and theology.

These days were a time of being, of letting the present moment simply fill my mind and spirit, lost or not.  It was easy to savor each moment, each new landscape, each view.  I stepped out of my everyday life into the larger landscape of God’s world, and it was a blessing.

Healing Heart

Healing is the acceptance of our own suffering and our own joy.  When we turn our minds to blame and recrimination, we block any healing.  When we accept the circumstances of our situation, recognize our losses and mourn them, we open up a space for the presence of God in the midst of our suffering, a space for healing.

 

Prayer in Pain

Dear Lord, I’m hurting.
The pain goes on and on,
And nothing done for me can ease it,
And nothing takes my mind from it for a moment.
My body is all pain, and my mind follows.
Dear Lord, be with me now.
I’m afraid, and I can’t stop crying.
Lend me a little of your strength,
Reach down from the cross
To these hands that helped put you there.
Forgive me, for I know not what I do.
Dear Lord, I think of that pain
You suffered on the cross for me –
Surely I can bear this little pain
Since you bore such a greater pain
For my soul’s sake.
Let your outstretched arms sustain me.
Dear Lord, be with me now.