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.

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Life with Jesus

You sleep curled in the stern of the boat,
head resting on one arm in its rough sleeve.
Spume from the storm-ridden lake
lights on your beard like mulberry flowers
drifting in a spring breeze.
Droplets linger on your cheek like tears.
Here I am, battered by the wind,
jolted by thunder and blinded by lightning.
You sleep on, unconcerned,
while terror consumes me
and my storm-bruised body
flinches and aches.
You sleep on – till finally you wake
and say, “Peace.  Be still.”

City Dawn

The Holy Spirit Commutes

On the wet pavement,
lights leave long streaks of color,
shifting and wavering,
joining, flaring, disappearing.
Tires crunch on the
end-of-winter grit below.
The early-morning traffic,
swift with intention,
moves quickly across the city,
preoccupied with the day ahead,
full of purpose, cataloging tasks,
previewing the day’s events.
Underneath the flowing traffic,
under the fitful rain
and the noise of tires and engines,
under gray sky and daybreak shadows,
color flickers and gleams,
flowing, joining and rejoining,
fading and flaring into new life,
undergirding the world with light.

The Church at Pentecost

A Pentecost Meditation
in Free Verse (No Charge for Reading)

In the freedom of the Spirit
(or the spirit of Freedom),
My mind wanders along the pews of the sanctuary,
Weaving through the words of the Scriptures
And the sermon.
Who has not felt the Holy Spirit moving,
Seen the flutter of her passing?

Sometimes the Holy Spirit is like chimes in the wind,
Sometimes like the tiny rustle of leaves in a breeze
So slight the skin cannot perceive it.
Sometimes he is a vast hurricane, or a roaring tornado.
Who can withstand that roaring?

Sometimes the Spirit moves in a rhythm like the rush of heart’s blood,
Or like a clear bell’s ringing through still air,
Or like the laughter of children in the distance.

Sometimes like the echoing crash of thunder in mountains.

The Spirit weaves a pattern of light through and around our lives,
Bright here, softer there, shimmering and shining,
Sunlight through leaves, tiny candle, blazing fire.

The Spirit burns where she will, quenches where he chooses,
A gentle fall of rain in silent woods,
The quiet lap of wavelets on the lakeshore,
The wet fragrance of lilacs or new-cut grass,
The crash of breakers against a rocky coast.

We listen for the Spirit’s voice,
(pray, “Come, Holy Spirit, come!”)
And the Spirit blows through the church,
Blessing and destroying, breaking down and building up,
Transforming everything.
Who has not felt the Holy Spirit moving,
Seen the power of her passing?

The Symbolism of Pentecost

What if the Holy Spirit were to blow through the church in a mighty wind of love and grace? What if the Holy Spirit were to blow through the church, lifting the roofs, blowing open the doors and windows, filling us all up and blowing us out into the world?   What if the Holy Spirit were to spin us around, re-shape our spires and our aspirations, and fill us up with the light of God so that we reached out to embrace all the world?

What if the Holy Spirit were to blow through the church in a mighty wind of love and grace?
What if the Holy Spirit were to blow through the church, lifting the roofs, blowing open the doors and windows, filling us all up and blowing us out into the world?
What if the Holy Spirit were to spin us around, re-shape our spires and our aspirations, and fill us up with the light of God so that we reached out to embrace all the world?

Pentecost, meaning “the fiftieth day,” is the ancient Greek name for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which celebrates the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai.  Devout Jews came to Jerusalem to celebrate the holy festival; by the time of Christ, centuries after the Babylonian Exile and the Diaspora, they came from all over the known world and brought with them many different languages.  On one long-ago Pentecost shortly after the death of Jesus, the Holy Spirit appeared to the followers of Jesus in tongues of fire, the disciples were inspired to preach the gospel of God’s love, and the people who heard them were astonished to hear the message in their own languages.

Theologians speculate about whether this was a miracle of speaking or a miracle of hearing.  Did the disciples suddenly have the ability to preach in a myriad of languages?  Or were the hearers suddenly able to understand a language they didn’t know, the ancient Aramaic of Galilee?  No one knows.

There’s another interesting question that arises from this event described in the second chapter of Acts.  How did we get from a miracle of understanding, in which people suddenly could hear and comprehend what had been unintelligible a moment before, to our modern notion of “speaking in tongues,” in which the words spoken are incomprehensible to anyone?  Paul’s later injunctions to the faithful that speaking in tongues was of little significance unless there was a translator present seems to me to suggest that he was thinking about actual foreign languages.  The equivalent would be an English-speaking person suddenly speaking in Chinese, or a speaker of Chinese suddenly able to understand English.

It seems to me that it’s most helpful to look at the miracle of Pentecost as metaphor, a symbolic teaching that tells us something about how God works in us.  What happened in the account in Acts?  The Holy Spirit appeared in tongues of flame above the disciples, the disciples were moved to proclaim the Gospel, and the people around them heard and understood (except, of course, for those who had obviously missed the miracle and thought the disciples were drunk and babbling).

Symbolically, the events of the story represent what happens to the person who becomes aware of the presence of God.  When we are given the awareness of God’s presence in that manifestation of God whom we call the Holy Spirit, we can suddenly begin to comprehend things that we had never understood before.  Our understanding blossoms in new directions, and mysteries begin to be opened to us.  We can see others in a new light; we know more of who they are and we comprehend what they are saying, even things that were incomprehensible to us before.  We are opened to the beauty of God in everything.  Above all, we begin to sense the interconnectedness of all that exists, the great network of being that comes out from God to everything that is and that gathers everything that is into God.  That is the miracle of Pentecost, a miracle we still experience today.

Bull-Dancing

We are linked to them, the old ones
Who walked the intricate path of preparation,
Moving in graceful arcs, approaching and receding,
Weaving the pattern of eagerness and reluctance
Toward the Encounter with Death and the Goddess.

And in the center the Dance, ecstasy and fear intermingled,
The youths and maidens leaping over the gilded horns,
The bull tossing his head and stamping at the agile figures
Weaving the pattern of joy and death over and around him.
Was the Lady pleased?  Did she delight in the dance,
Mourn her children who fell, or glory in the ecstasy
Of those who went dancing into death?

Oh, Christ, my dangerous one,
Desire of my heart and pattern of my soul,
I walk this labyrinth, my aged joints aching
Along the smooth arcs, the clear pattern,
And I am one with those children who went
Gaily or solemnly toward the potent beast.

When I reach that center,
The flowered heart of the labyrinth,
Shall I dance with you there?
Will you lift me up in joy,
Or shall I pour out my heart’s blood
On the impervious stone?
To you, oh my life and my death,
Are they not the same?

 

 

Note:  The myth of the Minotaur is thought to be founded on a ritual of ancient Crete in which youths and maidens performed acrobatic feats with a bull in honor of the Great Goddess.  This bull-dance was performed underground and accessed through a labyrinth, which provided a ceremonial path to the central dancing floor.  The word labyrinth comes from labrys, the double-bladed axe that was the holiest symbol of the Goddess in Minoan civilization.  Today, walking the labyrinth is used as a contemplative tool in Christian spirituality.

Sin and Celebration

Some people think we don’t have a sufficiently strong sense of sin in our culture today.  I’d say we don’t have a strong enough sense of the presence of God.

It’s our awareness of God’s presence in our lives that makes it possible for us to live in joy and love rather than sin.  Yes, we are flawed and broken beings.  We make bad choices, deliberately or by accident.  We sin by choice, and we sin unknowingly, out of ignorance or lack of understanding.  Even when we try with all our strength to do what we know is right, we make mistakes.  We are flawed and incomplete, and we stumble and fall.  So yes, we are all sinners.  We all need repentance, and we all need forgiveness.

We are also creatures who belong to God, made in the image of God, made the way we are.  God chose to give us free will.  Even though we can use our free will to make bad choices, we can also use it to choose God, choose love.  So we are more than sinners.  We are lovers, dreamers, beings who hope.  There’s more to our relationship with God than sin and forgiveness.

There are several problems with our contemporary Christian views of sin.  First of all, we’ve focused our notion of sin too narrowly.  We’ve made sin personal and too often ignored our corporate failings.  And then we’ve narrowed our idea of sin almost entirely to issues of sexuality.  We act as if we think the most important thing about our humanity is our sexual behavior.  Do we really think God’s primary concern about us is our sexuality?  Is God really like that?

Our sexuality probably pleases God when it is an expression of love, commitment, and joyful celebration.  I believe God mourns our sexual activity when it debases or abuses others, or when it is based on self-gratification rather than love.  But I also believe that there are other aspects of our daily behavior that cause God as much or more pain, aspects that we too often don’t even think of as sin.

Isn’t it sin to strive so hard to improve the “bottom line” that we force people out of work or require them to work for wages that make life anxious and miserable?  Isn’t it sin to confine food animals so that they live in their own excrement, unable to move, until they’re slaughtered for our dinner tables?  Isn’t it sin to hate others who are different from ourselves?  Isn’t it sin to exaggerate differences and demonize other people?  Isn’t it sin to allow fear to so control our lives that we cannot behave generously, kindly, lovingly toward others?  We’ve defined morality far too narrowly.

Here are some things I think are important moral issues that deserve our concern.

  • Justice for everyone – equal and impartial justice.
  • Recognition that individuals and groups of people are oppressed, and that oppression is wrong.
  • Willingness to speak out against injustice and oppression.
  • Kindness toward those in need and those who are suffering.
  • Humility in the presence of God, and in the presence of other human beings.
  • Responsibility for those who cannot provide for themselves, for whatever reason.
  • Responsibility for the earth and everything on it.
  • Concern for the safety and health of all.
  • Acceptance and understanding of those who do not agree with us.
  • Respect for those who think and believe differently.
  • Readiness to cherish every individual life with which we are in contact.
  • Willingness to pay a price for all these things.

I think these things matter to God, too.

There’s yet another problem with our notions of sin.  When we focus on sin as the most  important element in our relationship with God, we can become lost in our own imperfection.  We can get caught in a vicious circle of sin, repentance, and forgiveness.  Once caught, it can be hard to get out of a devastating awareness of our own imperfections and begin to grow in our relationship with God.  We focus on ourselves, instead of God.  If I’m focused on my own sin, I can come to believe that God’s main function in my life is to take note of my sins, acknowledge my repentance, and forgive me – until I sin again, which I surely will, since I’m a flawed mortal being.  I forget that there’s a whole lot more for God to do in my life.

I believe that, for some amazing reason known only to Godself, God is more interested in growing us than in judging us.  The key to that growth is relationship.  God made us to be in relationship – with God, with one another, with everything in creation.  When my relationship with God is growing and strengthening, my decisions are less destructive, less self-centered.  When I’m aware of God’s presence in me and in everything around me, I sin less and love more.

It’s not though avoidance of sin that we enter into life with God – what some call the Kingdom of Heaven.  It’s through a relationship with God.  We can never completely avoid our own brokenness, but we can live out of our relationship with God rather than that brokenness.  When we allow our relationship with God to grow, we are living life eternal, here and now.  And in that life, our tendency to sin is diminished and even healed.

God made us to be joyful, to celebrate the goodness and beauty of existence.  We all suffer and sin.  But we all can also love, and out of that love comes celebration.  When we focus on our sin, we forget the importance of love and celebration.  Sin is important, but love trumps sin every time.  Jesus showed us that.