Resurrection People

C1D1BB39-1AD2-4D57-8ED7-8464718B35D8On Resurrection Sunday, I cry joy-tears — every time, without fail. For me, holding on to my emotions on Resurrection Sunday is impossible. After going through Lent, after hearing again of the betrayal Jesus experienced, after witnessing the suffering and execution of Christ, after acknowledging anew that Christ’s sacrifice was for the whole world and for me, I celebrate Christ’s resurrection. And when I do, I just cry.

But on Resurrection Sunday 2018, I wept with a heavy heart and a flood of memories. I thought of Easters past and the people of God with whom I celebrated. All of those precious friends now live miles away, others live in heaven. I was their pastor, and that is as holy a relationship as I can describe.

I walked with them through joy and tragedy, through days of health and days of illness, through crushing family problems, through death and divorce. But through every devastation, we celebrated Resurrection Sundays in our beautiful monastery chapel, in our little country church in small town Arkansas, at an altar on a lakeside, in the baptismal waters. We celebrated our covenant, our deep friendship, and gave thanks for the grace that gifted us with those relationships.

We were a fun and creative group. With some of them, I cut and stitched and glued and appliqued huge banners proclaiming, “Christ Is Risen!” With others, I burned palm branches for Ash Wednesday. With others, I lifted up the wooden cross onto thevaltar of the church sanctuary. And with others, I wandered through the woods searching for dogwood blossoms to adorn the wooden cross. I most fondly remember a circuitous and hilarious trek through the forest with Ethel.

Ethel was a true jewel, one of a kind. Never would you find a more loyal and loving parishioner than Ethel, who will always be known as the persevering founder of our church. She refused to let it fail. She was persistent and feisty and determined. And because of her, the church still stands firm, even now that she is gone.

But getting back to our trek in the forest, I have to say that Ethel was one of those unstoppable “elderly” people. She could barely walk at times because she suffered with a muscle disease that weakened her legs. But she pushed her way through the forest that day, leading me, pushing aside the limbs, vines and thorns, and dauntlessly creating our path over rocks and depressions in the ground. We were looking for a thorn tree . . . you guessed it . . . to use in making a crown of thorns.

Eventually we found a perfect thorn vine with angry-looking three-inch thorns on it. We carefully hauled it through the woods, trying to avoid getting stabbed by one of those sharp thorns. Then we put it in a bathtub full of water to soften it. When we began to bend it into a crown shape, we both sustained painful thorn wounds. Never to be deterred, Ethel managed to shape and finally fasten the two ends together, and the prickly vine became the crown of thorns that we used for many years.

When we placed it for the first time on the Good Friday cross during the church service, I wept. Many of us wept. We were like that because we remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah.

He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth . . .

— Isaiah 53:3-7, KJV

We knew that after the suffering, the resurrection would most surely come. Through the passion and emotion of Good Friday, we wept. But we wept even more when the stark cross flowered on Easter morning, when we lit the Christ candle, when the black shroud was removed, and when we draped the cross in glistening white cloth.

So on Resurrection Sunday 2018, while singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,”I wept with tears of gratitude, gratitude for the people of God through the years who made my Easters such sacred experiences of worship.

Ethel, Barbara, Johnnie, April, Bo, Michael, Stan, Dianna, Eric and Emily, Ann, Sister Bernadette, Gail, Noah, Wendell, Pat, Joyce, Suzette, Deborah, Cindy, Barbara Fay, Regina, Tonya, Vallory, Leroy, Mary, LaVante, Shirley, Ken, Steve, Jenna . . .

So many names! So many others. My memories of them brought me to tears on Easter Sunday. I saw them in my mind and remembered our shared times of worship. They are Resurrection people all, people who know how to proclaim Christ’s resurrection with passion, devotion and celebration. For all of them, today I give thanks.

Rootedness

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop

I spend a good deal of energy trying to understand myself. I wonder about the places my emotions go, how I got to where I am spiritually, where my deepest convictions came from. Self-assessment is a lifelong process. Saleem Haddad expresses the process with great insight when he writes this in his book, Guapa.

 . . . Digging through my roots to understand the way my branches grew.
(https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/14107015.Saleem_Haddad)

These days, I have been digging through my own rootedness, and as I have contemplated my roots, I recalled the deep childhood influence of the two people who literally nurtured my sense of rootedness — my Aunt Koula and Yiayia, my grandmother. It is clear to me that I was rooted in the devotion of these two strong women.

From my dear Aunt Koula, I received the kind of lavish love that is most surely a part of a Greek aunt’s DNA. And from my attentive (sometimes intrusive) Greek grandmother, fierce protection. One can thrive on lavish love and fierce protection, and I did thrive.

But my teen years brought change. I was no longer near my aunt, my grandmother, or even my mother. Instead, I lived with a harsh and abusive father, a broken man held together with alcohol and the sexual abuse of his only daughter. So I was a troubled teenager, adrift for a season and feeling that I had lost my rootedness.

But inside me was a persistent resilience. In the midst of abuse, I sent my roots even deeper into the nurturing soil, a soil that still held the nutrients placed there by my aunt and my grandmother. I managed to keep myself rooted. Through the pain of abuse, I became stronger as my roots pushed deeper into the earth beneath me. I found the Divine Source that made sure I would be rooted and grounded in love.

I was always a religious child with meaningful ties to my Greek Orthodox faith. But as an eighteen year old, I discovered an even stronger foundation of faith. I found God in a new way, reborn by a fresh faith in Christ.

My roots held me firm. I was stronger than ever before. And at times during those difficult years. I would fall into God’s arms of grace as I repeated the prayer that, through the years, would inspire me more than any prayer in scripture.

. . . I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

— Ephesians 3:14-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

To all around me, I appeared strong and vibrant during those years of chronic and constant abuse. Like a tree that displays the splendor of its verdant leaves in the sunlight, I displayed my own “leaves,” in spite of the destructive and pain-filled environment that was my life.

Budding. Growing. Greening. Branching out.

Outwardly, I seemed healthy and strong, but the real strength was below the ground, roots and taproots pushing deeper into the soil. What happens there is unseen — below the ground. But that which happens below the ground, unseen, literally fashions the glory of what is seen, above the ground, branches reaching high into the sky toward the heavens, pointing to the God of the ages.

It is miracle, really, a grace gift from the God who longs to plant us firmly and deeply into a holy foundation. And so we can withstand the storms and the winds when they threaten, even gale force winds that move us, but cannot destroy us.

I call it rootedness.