Resurrection Flowers: Eastertide Week 4

dandelions

Surveying the lush green of new life this morning I was reminded of a profound theological discussion I had with my then 3-year old daughter Joy some 40 years ago about this time of year. She was out in the yard with me on a warm April afternoon. She was enjoying some outdoor freedom after a long Ohio winter of indoor captivity. I was fighting the perennial and hopeless battle with an army of yellow weeds again invading my lawn.

As I dug each dandelion from my lawn by hand, trying to pry their persistent roots from the soil, Joy stopped me in my tracks with a childlike innocent question. She said, “Daddy, why don’t you like the pretty yellow flowers?” Offering the lame explanation that someone had arbitrarily decided to label this part of God’s creation a “weed” did nothing to satisfy her curiosity, but her question got me thinking and wrestling with issues that resurface as regularly as the pretty yellow flowers.

How often do we label other people or other parts of God’s creation “weeds” that need to be controlled or eliminated? What is the collateral damage to others and to ourselves when we waste time and energy or poison relationships or the environment with pesticides and herbicides to make our lawns and our lives conform to the expectations of the world instead of to God’s vision?

As the suffering in Nepal filled the news and the pain of injustice boiled over again in the streets of Baltimore this week I had to fight the despair echoed at least 16 times where the Psalmists ask, “How long, O Lord?” “How long, will you forget me forever? How long must I bear a pain in my soul?” (13:1-2). “How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?” (79:5). “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (89:46). That litany is summed up most powerfully in Psalm 22:1 in the words Jesus’ quotes on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We’ve all been there and done that. Despair about personal pain or social injustice and unrest is another powerful enemy of resurrection living. Our Easter faith is often as fragile as the Easter lilies that decorate our sanctuaries on Easter morning. I worked for a florist when I was in college and learned how delicate and tempermental lilies are. We had to keep them at just the right temperature before Easter so they wouldn’t bloom too soon or too late. Not so the mighty dandelion. When the snow melts after a long harsh winter, dandelions not only rise up from their slumber as temperatures rise, there are often a few yellow heads already in bloom that emerge from under the snow.

We have an entire industry we employ to declare war every year on the pesky weeds, but even as they die they put forth thousands of fluffy white seeds that are scattered everywhere by the wind, and a la the Arnold, they mock us with their dying words, “We’ll be back!” And they always are. That’s why the pretty yellow flowers are a better symbol of resurrection than the fragile, short-lived lily.

So each time I behold another hardy, resilient dandelion, I am reminded of the power of resurrection. Death and despair, pain and injustice, hate and violence may seem to be victorious, in the short run, but the ultimate, eternal victory belongs to the God of justice, peace and love.

The logical, rational realm of prose is inadequate to capture the power of resurrection. So it is better experienced in a pretty yellow flower or in poetic imagery like these from “Hymn of Promise” by Natalie Sleeth:

“In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons a hidden promise, butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter, there’s a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity,
In our death a resurrection; at the last a victory,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”

dandelion seeds

Advertisements

LIVING RESURRECTION: EASTERTIDE WEEK 3

As I continue to ponder what it is that keeps me from living into the power of resurrection, fear and doubt keep bubbling to the top of my list. And the Gospel post-resurrection stories speak directly to both of those experiences. John 20:18-31 is perhaps the best example of how fear and doubt can be transformed into faith and belief.

Fear and doubt are like the proverbial chicken and egg question; it’s hard to decide which comes first, but the two certainly seem to usually come in tandem. John’s Gospel tells us that the disciples are hiding in a locked room on the night of Jesus’ resurrection because they are afraid. Earlier in Chapter 20 Peter and John have seen the empty tomb, but we get conflicting reports about what that experience meant to them: “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.” (20:8-10). Verse 8 says they believed, 9 says they didn’t understand; and 10 says they were so unmoved they simply go back home.

But Mary Magdalene, who was the first one at the tomb remains behind and personally encounters the risen Christ (vs. 11-17), and in verse 18 she goes to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” They must not have believed Mary’s tall tale. Women are still often ignored as being overly emotional in such situations. So that evening all the fearful disciples (except Thomas), even though they heard the amazing news of the resurrection, are still locked away in a self-imposed prison of doubt and fear. Jesus comes to them, brings them the peace of the Holy Spirit, shows them the proof of his scarred hands and side, and they see, believe and rejoice.

My friend and colleague, Mebane McMahon, pointed out in last Sunday’s sermon that even though “Doubting Thomas” gets a bad rap for his lack of faith, at least he was out somewhere in Jerusalem while the other ten were in hiding. There’s some evidence of Thomas’ bravery earlier in John (11:16) when Jesus puts his own life in even more danger from his powerful enemies by raising Lazarus from the dead. It is Thomas who says to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

But courage is not the same as faith. When told by his friends later that they have seen and touched the risen Christ, Thomas says, “Sorry guys, unless I see this with my own eyes I cannot believe this impossible story.” His rational doubt is stronger than his hope, bolder than his experience of seeing Lazarus resurrected. He, like us, wants evidence, tangible take-to-the bank proof.

Don’t we all? In life’s darkest moments don’t we want certainty? When I was a very naïve college student a co-worker of mine learned of my decision to finally accept my call to ministry. Thinking that one small step gave me insider theological information, she asked me a tough question one day at lunch. Her husband of many years had died suddenly several years before, and even though she seemed to be getting along well as a widow, she was still troubled by something that her pastor had said to her when her husband died. She had asked the pastor an honest doubting question, namely would she see her husband again in heaven. Like all of us, no matter how strong our faith, she wanted some assurance about what happens when we die. The pastor gave her an equally honest answer which was, “I don’t know.” I’m sure he said some other words to comfort her, words of hope and faith in what he believed the answer to her question was, but what she heard and remembered was the doubt.

Of course, unless one has had a near-death experience, “I don’t know” is the only honest answer to that question, and I admire that pastor for his honesty. I do, however, have serious questions about whether he picked the most teachable or pastoral moment to demythologize my friend’s concept of heaven. But the point of the story is that knowledge cannot be the solution to theological doubt. Knowledge about God is important, but living into the power of resurrection requires more than facts to empower a leap of faith.

I am still learning that lesson. I remember walking into my first intro theology class in seminary many years ago thinking, “Finally, I am going to know the answers to all my nagging questions about God!” Remember I said I was even more naïve back then. I had been educated in a system where there was always a 1:1 ratio between questions and answers, not in the mysterious realm of theology where ambiguity is the normal state of being. I wanted concrete answers and instead was taught to seek a faith in things unseen. I felt like Einstein’s teacher the day she asked him “what letter comes after ‘A?’“ His reply was not the “correct” answer she expected. He said, “They all do.”

Like that teacher we want one correct answer to our faith questions. We want faith to eliminate our doubt, but in this life we must learn to be content and trust God when we barely “see in a mirror dimly.” (I Cor. 13:12). Part of our humanity is living with the paradox expressed by the man whose son was healed by Jesus and proclaims, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Jesus has his moment of doubt on the cross, Peter’s doubt sinks him when he tries to walk on the water; the women at the end of Mark’s Gospel are scared into silence about the resurrection. So how do we live in the power of resurrection, even when doubt threatens to overwhelm us in fearful situations? Is the answer information and education and knowledge, or is it faith and belief? Is it a matter for the head or the heart?

It is, of course, both/and. From the perspective of 68 years of life experience, I am now much more afraid of dogmatic certainty than honest ambiguity. Dogmatic religious certainty in any form results in the kind of bloody conflicts we see all around us today between Sunnis and Shiites, Jews and Palestinians, and yes, the ideological wars between different factions within Christianity. Dogmatism declares exclusion for those with different perspectives and experiences of God, and that exclusion threatens the security and survival of the human race. Paul O’Neill, former Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush, described that danger by comparing philosophy with ideology. The former he said is open to dialogue, change and growth, but ideology is impenetrable by new ideas or facts. Questions of faith belong in the realm of philosophy, but we too often turn them into matters of ideology.

Frederick Buechner says, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith,” it is what keeps us alive and growing. Faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin. As good as certainty may appear as a cure for doubt, the reality is that it also kills faith. As Buechner also says, it is not the presence of God in our lives that keeps us coming back to church each week but the absence, the need for assurance to balance our doubt.

But here’s the good news. When it appears that doubt and fear have the upper hand, resurrection comes to the rescue. God breaks through whatever barriers we have created, appearing in a locked room, not once but twice. The second time is a full week later but notice Thomas is still there – his doubt has not driven him away, nor has it excluded him from the Christian community. And Jesus comes right to Thomas and offers him the same peace and power he gave to the 10 a week before.

Does our search for information, for knowledge about resurrection keep us from experiencing it? One of my personal problems with spending much of my adult life in academic settings is that intellectual pursuits can become doors that lock God’s mystery and ambiguity out. Heavy doses of education can make one suspicious of simple childlike faith. When we sing the great old hymn, “In the Garden,” it’s comforting to walk and talk with Jesus, but then it says, “He tells me I am His own,” and my degreed self cries out, “No, I don’t want to belong to anyone, I am my own person. I can think and reason things out for myself.”

I value my education highly, but I also know the limitations of the human intellect. Jesus doesn’t send Thomas off to seminary or grad school to resolve his doubt, but neither does he send him to an extremely dogmatic faith community on the emotional end of the religious spectrum. Jesus knows Thomas. He accepts him and his inquiring mind that is not afraid to ask hard questions. He has experienced Thomas’ doubts before. In the famous “farewell discourse” in John 14, after Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you, and you know the way,” it is honest Thomas who raises his hand and says, “Wait a minute, Jesus. We don’t know the way.” And Jesus, to paraphrase, perhaps showing a little frustration says, “How long have I been with you? How many parables have I taught you? How many signs and miracles have I given you? But you do know the way Thomas because you know me, and I am the way.”

Jesus doesn’t want or need disciples who just know about him; he needs followers who know him so personally that we are willing to be like him, resurrected people who embrace fear and doubt and are not crippled by them. Academics would say faith is not simply about epistemology (knowledge) but about ontology (Being). God’s response to fear and doubt is not an on-line course in theology. God doesn’t text us the answers to life’s hard questions. God inserts God’s self into the very midst of our doubting, fearful world to transform our whole being—body, mind and spirit, to resurrect the church, the body of Christ, and through us to transform the world.

God’s peace in Christ finds us, not vice versa, in the midst of our doubt and fear, not after all doubts are resolved. That peace finds us behind locked doors, in classrooms, factories, offices, in churches and seminaries, and even sometimes in the halls of Congress.

But here’s the catch – God’s peace comes only in surrender and relationship with God, to the power of Being itself. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Vs. 21-22). Peace and faith come only when we get close enough to Jesus that he can breathe on us. That’s really close. But we don’t like anyone invading our personal space, not even and maybe especially Jesus. I sometimes wonder if the disciples were hiding not just from the Jews that day but also from Jesus.

If Jesus gets close to us, really close, there’s a good chance we will never be the same again. They say that a child dies from poverty and hunger somewhere in the world every 3 seconds. 700-800 children have died in the time it takes to read these few pages. If Jesus gets too close to me I might have to actually do something about that, about those 20 that died in the last minute!

If Jesus gets close enough to breathe on us we might have to get out of our heads and into our hearts and out into the world. Faith is a very personal issue, not an intellectual one. It is not what we know but who we know and who knows us. It is who we allow to know us, doubts and all. And if we let Jesus get close enough to get into our hearts, faith trumps doubt and even we who have not seen but still believe can proclaim as Thomas does, “My Lord and My God!”

Invitation to Dialogue: Historical and/or Spiritual Resurrection

[I apologize for posting this twice. I had a typo to correct and ended up needing to repost]
A friend asked me a great theological question during Lent about Biblical literalism, specifically about those who question the historical validity of Biblical events like the resurrection of Jesus. My last post, “Going with the Easter Tide,” was a challenge to continue living as resurrection people after the big Easter Parade and celebration is over. One question I raised in that post was, “Do we struggle with the resurrection because it defies all scientific and logical experience we’ve had with death?”

In pondering that question and others about what practical actions Christian Disciples can take to keep the spirit of resurrection alive in the season of Eastertide, I’ve decided to ask for your feedback and ideas. Blogs have the potential of being interactive; so I’m inviting comments and suggestions from your experience.

What do you personally or in your faith community do in the “post Easter season” to demonstrate to
the world that Jesus is the living Christ and not just a great heroic martyr? How do you celebrate the season of Eastertide? What does being a child of resurrection look like or should it look like for 21st century Christians?

One thought I’ve had that I’d also like reactions to is this: As I wrestle with the question of what really happened 2000 years ago in that tomb I am more convinced than ever that the historical, factual answer to that question is less important than the spiritual one. In other words, I believe that trusting in the power of resurrection right now is more important than what we believe about the historical resurrection of Jesus. We cannot ever know for sure the answer to the latter, but we cannot live fully in our broken world today without the former.

How do you respond to that? Heresy? Helpful? Please join the dialogue and leave a comment to share your insights and experience.

Going with the Easter Tide

Eastertide 50 daysEastertide = the ebb and flow of the ocean level on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Not exactly! But that’s a more likely answer than most people might give if asked for a definition of that word. Eastertide is in fact the liturgical season in the Christian calendar that begins on Easter Sunday and ends seven weeks later on Pentecost. (April 5 – May 24 this year). Just as Christmas doesn’t officially end till Epiphany, the season of Easter lasts much longer than the peeps and chocolate bunnies, but one would never know it to observe most Christians or most churches.

The standing room only crowds last Sunday will shrink to a “low Sunday” attendance like that first big drop on a roller coaster, the lilies and Easter finery and decorations will be gone. It’s almost as if Jesus goes back into the tomb like the groundhog that sees his shadow on February 2nd.

The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith and ironically one of the hardest things for Christians and non-Christians to believe. St. Paul says, “But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (I Cor. 1:23). The original version of Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one written, ends with the women fleeing from the empty tomb “because terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8).

Do we do the same thing by failing to move into Eastertide with no significant changes to our way of living? Do we struggle with the resurrection because it defies all scientific and logical experience we’ve had with death? We’ve all lost beloved relatives, even pets that leave a huge hole in our hearts, and no matter how much we wish it weren’t so, they don’t come back.

So often we approach Eastertide from that perspective, and it keeps us from being able to trust the unbelievable news that resurrection is real, that it can make a lasting difference in our lives. We want to change, we want to live by faith, we want to take that leap of faith; but we don’t want to look foolish, we don’t want to be disappointed.

I remember a day many years ago when I was a student at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. I don’t remember details of what happened in class that day, but I remember the ecstatic feeling of something extraordinary being said or done that transformed deadness in my heart and soul to a new enthusiastic spirit-filled joy. As I was leaving class that day I came out the front door of the building where we had met onto a large front porch of one of the beautiful Georgian buildings there so excited and full of life that instead of going left and down the porch steps I ran forward and took a flying leap over the large hedge that grew along the length of the porch. As I was air-born I remember suddenly realizing I wasn’t sure what was on the other side of that hedge.

So it is with death-defying faith. Faith is not intellectual belief – it is radical trust in a wild and crazy God who rolls away any boulder that keeps us imprisoned in doubt and fear, that keeps us from taking the leap of faith. When we play it safe, when we go along to get along, when we refuse to challenge political, economic, and environmental practices that kill dreams and perpetuate injustice, we are in effect rolling the stone back in front of the tomb and trying to keep Jesus from challenging the status quo of our broken world where fear silences faith. Just celebrating Easter Sunday and ignoring Eastertide is like locking the barn door after the horse has already escaped. It’s too late. God’s verdict has already declared life the victor over death and nothing we do or fail to do can ever put that genie back in the bottle.

One of my all-time favorite statements of what Easter living means came from the late Dwight Loder who was my bishop here in Ohio from 1976-1984. In a sermon he preached in the mid-1980’s Bishop Loder said, “Jesus was not resurrected by the church. Jesus was not resurrected for the church. Jesus was resurrected as the church.” Faith in resurrection is so much more than a personal assurance about our own salvation and eternal life. If we as individual Christians and collectively as the church, the body of Christ, fail to be changed by Easter, we are sending a terrible message to the world and to those longing for Good News that it’s back to business as usual after Easter Sunday.

Don’t believe it. Those frightened women at the tomb and Jesus’ other followers were scared into silence for a while, but God wasn’t finished with them. God always has the last word, and the stories in the Gospels during Eastertide are even more remarkable than the empty tomb. Skeptics could say the tomb was empty because someone simply came and took the body away. But the risen Christ appears over and over again to those who have eyes and ears to see and believe — on the road to Emmaus, in a locked upper room, on the beach. He continues to challenge his followers to be living witnesses that his spirit endures as the resurrected, life-giving, justice and peace promoting force for all that is good and pure in a world dying for Good News.

Easter Sunday is over, but Eastertide has just begun; and the life-giving Holy Spirit is waiting in the wings to blow into our lives with full force on Pentecost if we dare to believe. Resurrection is a spiritual event and how we live our lives in the crucible of the here and now is a witness to the world that we have either had our Easter fling and retreated back into the tomb, or we are boldly living as resurrected people. Easter people witness by every decision and act we take that the tide has turned and the light of the world has not and will never be extinguished by the darkness of death.

By the way, the landing on the other side of that hedge was nice soft grass; so it was OK to leap. And the message of Eastertide is “Go ahead, it’s safe to trust in Resurrection!”

Good News from Good Friday Zombies?

Sometimes God opens our ears to hear something we’ve missed dozens of times before. Last Sunday morning our church choir’s cantata included part of the Good Friday narrative from Matthew 27 and I heard words from verse 52 that I do not remember hearing before. Matthew describes three world-changing signs at the moment of Jesus’ death, and for some reason the second one has escaped my notice for all of these sixty plus years I have been observing Holy Week.

That verse says, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” That seems like a rather significant event for me to overlook, but I feel better after discovering that none of the other three gospels mention it either. My next thought was, “Why would anyone be surprised that Jesus arose from the dead on Sunday if all these other people had already done it on Friday?” Matthew answers that question for us in verse 53: “After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary explains that this way: “Since Matthew wants to connect the raising of the Israelite saints with the death of Jesus… but also wants Jesus’ own resurrection to be primary this results in the peculiar picture of the saints’ being resurrected on Good Friday but remaining in their tombs (or in the open country) until after the Easter appearances of Jesus. That we have theology in narrative form, and not in bare historical reporting is clear.” (Vol. VIII, p.493)

I have not had time to do any other serious research on this, but since I wanted to share it on Good Friday, here are my thoughts about this on the day when Christians remember the gruesome death and suffering of the Christ and reflect on what his life, death and resurrection mean for us today.

First, I have to move beyond the literal, historical filter my mind wants to use to understand this story. If a lot of once dead Jewish saints were walking the streets of Jerusalem, I’m sure someone would have made a zombie movie about it by now. So, there must be a deeper, symbolic meaning to this startling detail that only Matthew includes.

The other two signs Matthew describes before and after the tombs being opened may help; so here’s the three in context:
“51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

The curtain of the temple refers to the barrier in the temple that separated the most holy place from the rest of the temple. This imagery foreshadows the destruction of the temple in 70 BCE which Matthew would have known about by the time these words were written. Symbolically they show how the death and resurrection of Christ destroy the barriers of the law and religiosity that separate the omnipresent spirit of God from human kind. God is not confined to the temple but is everywhere and always available to us all. The opening of the tombs shows that not even the final barrier of death itself can stop the life-giving eternal power of God.

And then, the more familiar third sign is the conversion of the Roman Centurion, the part of this narrative that is included in Mark and Luke’s gospels as well. That this Gentile is the first Christian believer to be liberated, not just by Christ’s sacrificial death, but by the faithful, calm, confident way he accepted and overcame his cross tells us that no false human barriers of race, creed, ethnicity, ideology or lifestyle can stop the love and power of God.

Jesus lived and taught and died and lives for all of God’s children. No matter what exactly happened on that hill far away 2000 years ago, the spirit of grace, love and mercy for us all lives and reigns for any and all who hear, see, and feel the power of resurrection and believe.

May whatever barriers are holding you back this day, whatever walls divide you from God or from your fellow human beings be blown away this Good Friday.

Darkness Before Dawn

Pondering the dark days of Holy Week. If you are feeling betrayed or persecuted, abandoned and alone, remember God’s story doesn’t end on Thursday or Friday. No matter how hopeless it looks for Jesus in the garden or on the cross, he trusts the one who has the real power, and so can we. But we have to go through the darkness to get to the light. Sunday only comes after Thursday and Friday and the emptiness of Saturday. Come Sunday morning, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” Isaiah 40:31.