Monthly Archives: March 2016
Easter is Sunday. In thinking about the Easter story, I was struck by two things. First how unnoticed the first Easter was, and second, how much waiting surrounds Easter. I suppose I should elaborate.
Easter is central to the Christian faith. Without Easter, there is no Christian faith. Given how much notice the seminal events in Jesus life received, Easter is surprisingly low key. Indeed, if one accepts the earliest copies of Mark’s gospel, we have only some frightened women and an empty tomb. Angels will appear, but again, only to some women. The guards are struck as dead men when Jesus rises from the tomb, so they see nothing, and can only report that the tomb is empty.
John reports that the first disciples to inquire again find only an empty tomb. John believes, but Peter has only questions. The risen Christ is finally spotted by the same group of women who have attended Him throughout His ministry, and they at first think He’s the gardener.
At Jewish law, women cannot give testimony, and so God deliberately chooses to reveal himself to people whose testimony cannot count and cannot be trusted. It seems a strange thing to do, as if He is making deliberately difficult to get to the bottom of what He is up to. He confounds the wisdom of the wise, and turns this world upside-down, but we have to work to find it. Why?
Thus the waiting. There is a lot of waiting in the Easter story. Jesus gets shuttled back and forth between the various authorities in Jerusalem waiting for the resolution He knows will come. He is several hours dying on the Cross. Nothing happens quickly. And then comes Holy Saturday, where Christ lies buried deep in the bowels of the earth, unseen. Holy Saturday is the day nothing happens, the day we wait.
There is much to ponder here. Which is why we wait. In the hidden places, God is at work.
“I have been one acquainted with the night.”
-Robert Frost (1874-1963)
I am writing this as a part of Addie Zierman’s synchro-blog in support of her new book. I have not read it, but many pieces on her blog have resonated with me, including this challenge: “What have you learned from the dark?”
Darkness is familiar to me. Not quite an old friend, perhaps, but certainly an acquaintance of long standing. Many days I wish it weren’t so, but thus far, God has been content to keep us close. I suffer from depression, and probably have for years. I have been on mediation for twenty years, and it did not go well when I tried to not take them.
Like many, I found the religious culture of my youth inadequate to address the darkness. I was told to pray more, to seek deliverance, or claim freedom from the spirit of depression, as if I were demon-possessed. I ended up at a Christian college on a scholarship for Christian leadership, not certain I believed in God.
Here, then, is the first lesson I learned in the dark: God is there, too. Far from a static object of our quest or adoration, or indeed, some great, divine, Sugar Daddy, God is present and at work always, in the dark, as much as in the light. Graham Greene’s semi-autobiographical novel, The End of the Affair, uses its title as a pun. It is about the end of an affair conducted by the narrator, but as the story unfolds, we see the second meaning: the narrator slowly becomes aware that he is being silently, but relentlessly pursued by a Divine Lover, who will not rest until He possesses him, body and soul. That is certainly the God I found, or rather that found me, in the dark.
My act of teenaged rebellion was becoming Presbyterian, for I found myself connecting more with the older liturgies of the church. Light and Dark play an important role, and we are beginning Holy Week, when this is played out in dramatic fashion. During the course of the Tenebrae service on either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, one by one the lights of the church go out until, with the loud cry of “It is finished!” the sanctuary goes completely dark.
The darkness continues until Easter. For three days Christ lay in the darkness of the tomb. Like the Disciples, we wait. The wait can seem long and hard. But even in the darkness, unseen and unfelt, Christ is at work. I am the grass. Let me work.
As the story of Christ “ends” in darkness, so it begins. In Advent, we start in darkness and silence. The minister strikes a match, it hisses and sizzles to life, piercing the darkness, as it moves to a candle, wavers and catches, spreading the light. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” the minister intones, quoting the words of Isaiah 9:2, “they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”
We need darkness to see the light. It is part of the cycle of life. In human terms, we rest when it’s dark. And perhaps in our darkness, God is calling us to rest, too. We find it so hard. We cannot see, and any action is as likely to end in a collision or a stumbling. We can only trust the God who hides in light as well as dark. We are at an end of ourselves, and it is terrifying.
Yet we are not alone. The other lesson I have learned is that there are others in the darkness. Some have passed before, others are with us now, and we need them. God connects us in the darkness in ways that He cannot in the light. We wrestle with God, and like Jacob, we bear the marks, and we can spot a fellow survivor. Those who have accompanied us into the darkness will stick with us in the light.
Our days consist of darkness and light. Any practice of faith that will only recognize one is incomplete at best, and false at worst. And there was evening, and there was morning, and so it goes.
I love old hymns. At their best, they hold a richness of faith and experience. And so, as I close, an evening hymn seems most apt.
All praise to thee, my God, this night, for all the blessings of the light! Keep me, O keep me, King of kings, beneath thine own almighty wings.
Forgive me, Lord, for thy dear Son, the ill that I this day have done, that with the world, myself, and thee, I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.
Teach me to live, that I may dread the grave as little as my bed. Teach me to die, that so I may rise glorious at the judgment day.
O may my soul on thee repose, and with sweet sleep mine eyelids close, sleep that may me more vigorous make to serve my God when I awake.
When in the night I sleepless lie, My soul with heavenly thoughts supply; Let no ill dreams disturb my rest, No powers of darkness me molest.
O when shall I, in endless day, For ever chase dark sleep away, And hymns divine with angels sing, All praise to thee, eternal King?
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; praise him, all creatures here below; praise him above, ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
-Thomas Ken (1637-1711)
We are knee-deep in another Presidential election cycle. What has been interesting to me is the symbiotic division within the country. The one common denominator has been a sense of fear and anger. We are apparently looking for bogeymen on whom to blame our troubles, and to whom to send our bills. Candidates right and left are more than willing to offer such solutions, and they have the fore.
The Right makes all sorts of angry statements looking to shut our borders, restrict trade, and roll back some social developments of the past twenty years. The Left pooh-poohs this, and derides the Right as ignorant and bigoted and a menace to society, unlike their virtuous selves. This fuels the fear and anger on the right, and the cycle goes on, and on, and on, and on, ad nausam.
What disturbs me most about this rhetoric is the demonization of the “other.” They are stupid, and unworthy of attention or regard. We need not give them any attention or consideration, as their opinions and beliefs are unreasonable, and in fact, pose a threat to our well-being. So we demonize.
Such dismissal of anything contrary to our views promotes stridency, and it also relieves us of the obligation to ask questions. Why does someone believe what they do? Can we even attempt to understand them? Do we realize that these men and women are our neighbors?
That is one of the challenges of following Christ, coming to see others as our neighbors, even if we can agree on nothing.
Kantian ethics, of all things, offers some useful questions to ask ourselves. First, are the rights we are requesting ones we would afford our enemies? Conversely, are the rights of others we wish to restrict ones we would be willing to give up, too? These aren’t perfect questions, but they make a good start.
Will you be my neighbor?
I am preaching tomorrow from John 11. I’m not supposed to say anything about it, les people decide to stay home because Pastor’s not preaching. But I’d be reticent to say much of anything even if it had no bearing on attendance. I’m preaching angry Sunday.
It’s not typical for me, and certainly anything but typical for our church. But the words need to be said, and it scares me. They’ve been pounding about in my head and my heart ever since I first read them two weeks ago. I’ve thought twice about delivering them, and then thought about them some more. But they will not go away.
I’m scared that the people will not understand, or worse, that they will go sailing past the congregation, who will smile nicely, nod their heads, tell me how powerful the Word was this Sunday, and continue as if I hadn’t said a word.
On only two other occasions have I felt something in me struggling to come out, that I had to get out, lie I had to speak before the force shook me off my feet. It was painful. Just getting the word out was terrifying. But I had to. I think this is what some of the Old Testament prophets must have experienced, only I’m not prophet. Far from it.
This time, though, I am confronting a congregation I wish to call to task. Many times over the past months, people have told me that they want to see signs and wonders, that we should be seeking these things. Something in me recoils at hearing this. We misplace our emphasis from the giver to the gifts.
But this is not easy to say, especially given some of things I am told we will be doing during the service. So I am nervous.
O Lord, speak through my words to Your People. Speak clearly, speak directly. May they hear what you have pressed so firmly upon me. May I not get in the way. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight o Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.