Resurrection!

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“Art: Resurrection Morning” by James Martin

As people often say, things come and go. Today the resurrection came, so clearly in our worship service and especially in our Sunday School class. When we are gathered in community, the sharing of our lives becomes resurrection for us all. So for us resurrection came, but it did not go.

It remains in the resurrection stories we share and in the ways we bear witness to the grace-full acts of God. The stories around the circle were about places of darkness and death and about the resurrection that always follows. For some, physical health reaches a dark place and we pray for the resurrection to come in their lives. For others, emotions around fear are on the surface and we pray for the resurrection to overcome the fear. Still others grieve for friendships that feel like the end, and we pray for the resurrection they need. Others mourn the loss of friends to death and, as we pray for the healing of those left behind, we also rejoice in the promise of resurrection for those that leave their earthly life.

Death comes in myriad ways. But resurrection comes, every time, to shatter death’s darkness in ways that seem like mighty wonders and wondrous acts of God. Ready or not, resurrection comes to us and makes its home in us. We are resurrection people because we made the choice to proclaim to the world that Christ is risen! 

The Scripture gives us so many stories of resurrection. Sacred texts allow us to look into the lives of many people who have looked at death and have come through it to resurrection. And in our own lives, we can bear witness to the glorious reality that we know the One who is “the resurrection and the life,” that because we believe in the Christ, we will never die. (John 11:25-26)

As you enjoy Easter and lean into the resurrection that never leaves you, think on these Scripture texts:

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” 

She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

— John 20:11-18 (NRSV)

 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 

— 1 Peter 1:3-7 (NRSV)

 

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

— Acts 4:33 (NRSV)

 

*James Martin’s art is available at http://www.veritasse.me.uk/artists/james-martin/

On Being Soft

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Lent for me was quiet this year. I was sick through most of it, and I spent it pretty much alone, except for the sweet presence of my husband. I didn’t write much. I didn’t paint or craft anything. I was just quiet, and as the forty days passed, I was aware at times of being led by still waters.

Still waters was a spiritual and emotional space I discovered after I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease and throughout my lengthy hospital stays in 2014. So today, I am thinking about some life-sustaining words that were a part of my recovery —  the words of the Twenty-third Psalm, my own version of it.

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. I have around me and within me everything that I need.

The Lord invites me to stop and to lie down in lush, green meadows.
He leads me beside still waters, 
He restores and refreshes my soul.

He guides me along good and safe pathways for his name’s sake. And for my sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, 
the valley of death’s shadow,

I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.
Your grace and your care comfort me.

You prepare a place for me, even in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with the oil of gladness.

My cup overflows.

Surely your grace and and your love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell with you forever.

We know the words of this Psalm far too well. We skip past it as a common text we memorized when we were young. We recite it easily. But the Psalm came to life for me during my year-long illness. It was in my heart, and often on my lips, during long, sleepless nights in the hospital. I experienced the Psalm’s comfort as never before.

As we near the beginning of Holy Week, my thoughts are of the resurrection that comes after the passion, for Christ, yes, but also for me. I’m not thinking of “us.” My thoughts tonight are focused on me, how I experienced my illness in 2014 as my own kind of passion, the passion of confusion, grief, worry, fear. I experienced an expansive and disconcerting view of my mortality, and I did not take to the stark reality of it.

I cannot, of course, even begin to compare my passion to the passion of Christ. Yet in some tender way, I experienced suffering. Palm Sunday comes this Sunday, and in Christian churches everywhere, the people of God will celebrate Christ’s “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. We will raise our palm branches and shout “hosanna,” as well we should. But Palm Sunday moves us abruptly into the week of Christ’s passion, every pain-filled, grace-filled moment of it. We must not skip that part.

But back to my own passion story, the one that happened the year I thought I was going to die. First you must know a bit about me before the illness. I was persistent and stubborn, a fierce advocate for abused women and children. I did not flinch in a courtroom. I did not shrink when I faced-off with an abuser’s defense attorney. I did not cower standing between a woman and her batterer. I searched the nation to find legal advocacy for abused women and their children. I stood my ground against court-ordered child abuse that would consistently place children in the custody of an abusive parent. I railed against a system that refused to protect children. I was hard. 

The illness came and went over the course of a year. I did not die. Resurrection did come to me, in bits and pieces, slowly, but with the certainty of faith. I was no longer hard. I was movable, malleable, able to be blown about with good and gentle, life-giving breezes. We settled into a new home in a new state, and mostly, I embraced it over time. I fed hummingbirds, listened more deliberately for birdsong, and discovered the way of mindfulness.

When I recovered — slowly — from my illness, I remember the feeling of being soft, though I was not sure what that meant for me. Most certainly, God granted me the patience to move into my resurrection, to embrace it in God’s time, and to wait for it gratefully.

My family said that I emerged from my illness with a change in personality. I was quiet, they said, not like me at all. Inside myself, I knew that they were right. I felt the change. I sat in my own quiet for months. And even now I sense a quietness that wraps me softly as if it were a warm, light blanket. It’s a good place for me, this soft, warm, comforting place.

It’s a good place to continue my resurrection, to learn more about what it means to be soft. As it often happens, I stumbled upon this quote as I wrote this piece. I love the thought it expresses. It resonates with my soul.

Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard.
Do not let the pain make you hate.
Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.

— Iain Thomas

These days, I am sensing that a kidney transplant is imminent for me. So to go through that process, I will lean even more into my soft side. That will be a good emotional and spiritual space for me. Soft! Soft facing change and fear. Soft facing uncertainty and new, scary medications. Soft facing the hope of a healthy kidney bringing me a new beginning, a resurrection.

May God continue to lead me beside these still waters. It’s a good place for me to greet resurrection.

 

 

 

 

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.

The End Just Might Not Be the End!

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Pastel art “Resurrection Morning” by James R. C. Martin

“What do you know about Holy Week? You’re Baptist!”

It’s a common question for those who do not understand that Baptists are of many and varied sorts. And some of us Baptists do indeed walk through Holy Week with our soon-to-be crucified Savior. It is a holy walk that I would not want to miss. To miss it, to rush past it without reflection, is to miss the full glory of Christ’s resurrection and our own.

My dear friend, Guy Sayles, writes of the need to “lean in” to the passion of Holy Week.

I have leaned-in to the dramas, paradoxes, betrayals, denials, love, grace, losses and gains which characterize the wild, careening journey from Palm Sunday to Easter. The stories and events of these days reveal so much about the human condition and the divine character.

As for me, I will listen intently this week to the laments of Jesus. I will keep vigil as he prays in Gethsemane. I will try to understand the betrayal he endured. I will witness his arrest. I will cringe at the abuse inflicted upon him. I will hear his cries from the cross asking why God had forsaken him. I will watch him take his last breath. And I will understand all over again that his suffering was for me and for us all.

I will understand all over again that the Christian life is filled with little deaths and big ones, deaths that knock us to our knees, deaths that are a part of living. I will understand all over again that a Christian’s suffering and angst, that most assuredly comes to us, is the necessary preparation for our resurrection. All over again, as I have done for so many Easters, I will understand and celebrate the miracle of my own resurrection, giving thanks to our God of rebirth.

Again, I share Holy Week thoughts written by Guy Sayles.

I’ve particularly come to resonate with the silence of Holy Saturday, a silence in which the shocked grief of disillusionment and death mingle with the wonderment and anticipation that the end might not be the end. Many of our days are like this shadowy Saturday: we’re in-between the worst and the best, the bitterest last and the brightest first. Because of Easter, Saturday bends toward life and hope, and so do our lives.  We sense a shepherd in the shadows and glimmers of light in the darkness.

I hope that each of you will journey through these Holy Week days and experience both the bitterness and the brightness. Most assuredly, the message of Resurrection Sunday is about new life and hope, rebirth and resurrection, the glorious reality that the end just might not be the end. Thanks be to God.

Life Is a Gift

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Today I read an inspiring blog post written by my long-time friend, Guy Sayles. He recalls his medical diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma three years ago and describes the experience of “vivid remembering of hard days of treatment.”

Around the same time, I entered a time of serious and unexpected illness which led to a diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. I spent most of 2014 in the hospital, literally fighting for my life on at least three occasions. My husband was terrified. Mercifully, I knew nothing of the urgency of what was happening to me.

Guy Sayles writes of a reality that I completely understand when he says, “The first two years of my having Multiple Myeloma were so challenging that I didn’t expect to be alive now. That I am is sheer and surprising gift to me.” (http://www.fromtheintersection.org/blog/2017/8/8/its-all-gift)

For me, it was not so much that I expected imminent death, but throughout my long period of recovery and rehabilitation, I never expected to be able to care for myself again. That I now am able to live a relatively normal life is most certainly a gift of grace I never expected. Healing and recuperating was much like a resurrection for me. I got my life back.

So my constant question to myself is what will I do with this gift of life? I am inspired by the way Mary Oliver asks this question in her poem, The Summer Day.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

I am compelled to answer that question, to use the gift of my life as a gift to others. To care for people with compassion. To do justice where oppression reigns. To make peace in the face of violence. To scatter hope in the places where despair has taken hold.

I hope you will truly hear the way Guy Sayles expresses this.

The awareness which gently and repeatedly washed over me was, “Life is gift and my response may, can, and should be gift-giving.”

And my calling is to lavish gift-giving—to share freely and fully whatever I manage to harvest. There’s no need now for barns and bins, for storing up for another day, or for worrying about markets and prices. “Freely you have received,” Paul said, “freely give.”

These days, I aspire, in every dimension of life, to this the wisdom Annie Dillard offered to writers:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now . . . something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water . . . The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is shameful, it is destructive.  Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” (The Writing Life, pp. 78-79)

Amen and amen. May God make it so.

Christ Is Risen!

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How do we worship during this time of passion and pain, rebirth and resurrection? There are many ways to remember these events, events that so solidly form our foundation of faith. This is one way I imagine, a way that brings together all the roots of my own faith experience.

Darkness falls upon the place of worship. It is now but a few moments until midnight. All the lights are out. The cross is draped in black. We have walked with Jesus to his death. And now we sing the Passion Chorale, expressing all the suffering, all the anguish, all the shame.

O sacred Head, now wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, thine only crown:
how pale thou art with anguish,
with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish
which once was bright as morn!

What thou, my Lord, has suffered
was all for sinners’ gain;
mine, mine was the transgression,
but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
‘Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor,
vouchsafe to me thy grace.

What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever;
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love for thee.

Grief holds sway, while we remember these words.

The angel spoke to the women. “Do not be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.”

Then midnight passes, ending the darkness. The minister lights one candle, shares the flame with another worshipper who then shares it with another. The darkness is vanquished by the light of dozens of flames.

He is not here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. Come, see where his body was lying.

He is not here! He is risen from the dead!

In this, the glorious day of resurrection, voices arise in celebration, singing the ancient hymn . . .

Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας, και τοις εν τοις μνήμασι ζωήν χαρισάμενος.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs, granting life.

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen! Christ is risen from the dead! Alleluia!

 
“O Sacred Head Now Wounded”
Text: Anonymous; trans. by Paul Gerhardt and James W. Alexander
Music: Hans L. Hassler, 1564-1612; harm. by J.S. Bach, 1685-1750
Tune: PASSION CHORALE

Palms and Passion

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The Sunday of Palm and Passion — a significant day for Christian hearts. Yes, we celebrate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with voices of joy, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Palms wave in the air and our worship is filled with anticipation.

But we must also anticipate the Passion that is to come, the suffering of Jesus that leads to the crucifixion. We cherish an upbeat Gospel reading that leads us to celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. To be sure, it is a festive affair, complete with a parade route strewn with palm branches. But we quickly progress to the stark reading of Jesus’ passion, bearable only because we already know its ending of new life.

The city that echoed with cheering during the grand parade was a city that, in just a few days, echoed with hatred. The tide had turned. Cries of “Hosanna” turned to shouts of a very different kind: “Crucify him!”

On this Sunday, we must remember the palms and then we must move our hearts into the passion. We must let our hearts rejoice, and then be filled with grief. Palms and Passion — that is the complete Gospel.

Walter Brugemann says it like this:

We cannot leap from Palm Sunday to Easter. We have to go day by day through the week of denial and betrayal to the Last Supper to arrest and trial and execution. That is the only road to Easter, and that is our work this week.

A Prayer for this Day and the Week of Christ’s Passion

Blessed are you, Holy God, for in Jesus Christ you came to rule in our lives, not as a king, but as a humble servant, riding on a donkey on dusty roads’ amidst people shouting “Hosanna!” Enter into our hearts this day with your glory, that we may greet you with shouts of praise.

God Most High, gracious and glorious, blessed is the one who comes in your name. May we follow with faithfulness and joy, shouting “Hosanna in the highest heaven.”

Lead us now, Holy God, on the road to the cross that we may remember that when Jesus cried and breathed his last you tore away the ancient curtain
between heaven and earth, life and death.

As we turn now to face the cross, show us Jesus, in all his suffering, and console us as we experience Christ’s grief and our own.

Lord God, almighty, all-merciful, how great is your love
that you went down to the depths for us: into suffering, sin, and shame,
into darkness, despair, and death.

Now we ask, O God, that you help us to pave the way for your eternal realm
with our prayer and praise,
with our service and love,
until the very stones cry out at the coming of your new creation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

– Prayer based on Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-40; Mark 14:1—15:47; Matthew 26:14–27:66.