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.

 

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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.)

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.

An Easter Journey

We are all creatures of suffering and joy.  Whether we recognize God or not, God is always with us in our suffering and our joy.The journey that Cleopas and his unnamed companion took to the village of Emmaus on the afternoon of the Resurrection was truly an Easter journey, moving through the mystery of the Cross to new life.  The revelation they encountered in Jesus is exactly where the cross was leading them – exactly where our journey to the cross leads us today.  Alleluia!

 

The Road To Emmaus

We wept as we walked, Cleopas and I,
Going along the dusty road to Emmaus,
Talking over the heavy news we carried to our friends there,
News of our Lord’s dying, nailed to the wooden cross,
Stripped and beaten and crowned with thorns,
The Romans jeering and the disciples scattered,
The sun darkened and the temple curtain torn in half.
We wept, and we remembered the last three days
Full of fear and the sound of weeping, stifled.
As we walked, a man came up with us
And asked us what sad thing we talked of.
So we told him of Jesus, and our hopes for redemption
From the trampling boot heels of the Romans,
And the death of all our hopes on the cross.
And we told him the strangest news of all,
The tomb empty in the morning light, the stone
Rolled away from the door, and the angel’s message.
Then he began to draw together strands of scripture,
Words of prophecy that, taken all together,
Laid forth the life and death of our Lord in a new light,
A clear message of salvation.
We ceased to weep, and our dead hopes, crushed beneath the heavy cross,
Stirred into the beginning of new life.
And then, when he broke bread with us that evening in the tiny village,
Children’s shouts still ringing at their dusty games in the gathering twilight,
We saw in the stranger’s face our risen Lord,
And suddenly the world was full of light,
And the beauty of the evening was piercingly intense,
More filled with hope than any hour had been before.
We were clean again, the marks of tears gone from our cheeks,
Fresh, the road’s dust and our sweat all gone.
Surrounded by light more brilliant than a thousand stars,
We moved back along the road to Jerusalem,
And our steps were as light as joy.