thinking theology

Archive for April, 2013

Easter and Flying!

The image of rising is powerful and pervasive in Christian literature and music. The refrain, “He is not here; he has risen,” echoes in our celebrations. Later Paul will write to the Thessalonians, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord.”

The idea of being weightless, free as birds, resonates with our ideas of resurrection. As a child, I often dreamed of flying and was quite convinced that this was a waking possibility. To add to my mother’s concerns, I would work diligently to achieve this goal by leaping off swings, monkey bars, slopes and embankments. My father, who had been a bomber pilot, tried to explain to me certain aerodynamic principles, to no avail. When the harsh reality that I had no wings was presented to me, I replied that they would grow out as I exercised and at the right time would appear. And so I continued to leap and flap and fall to the ground, but occasionally I did feel airborne.

This is not only my dream. We have imagined all kinds of machines to lift us into the skies. But we know that these conveyances need certain kinds of care. In the north we know that we must scrape the wings free of ice if we are to rise. In preparing for Easter, I think we get a lot of ice on our spirit wings. Sometimes we mistake the study of the faith for the experience of resurrection. If we read the various encounters people have with the risen Christ, we will noticed that they are less concerned about the mechanics or even the philosophy of the experience. It is the experience itself that is wonder- and joy-filled. It is the exhilaration of realized hope. It is what flight without ice makes possible.

I never did manage to fly on my own, except for a few little chicken hops. Have you noticed that in scripture, we are encouraged to think of eagles’ wings on which we are lifted effortlessly. When we let go of what Thomas Merton calls our awful solemnity, then we are freed to imagine with the freedom of children. With the imagination, we are invited to climb onto the hope that Jesus gave us, a hope that in joy and peace humanity can be free, can soar. We need to think historically, analytically, philosophically, but not when it is the time to fly. The purity of that experience silences all our limited intellectual striving for the moment.

Another clarifying point for us is that resurrection is not an event so much as a process, an unfolding experience in which we become more secure riding the wings of the spirit. We grow in confidence that this delight comes unearned, unbidden; it is just there for us so that we will remember to look up, to see the vast sky above us, the enormity of possibility so far beyond our comprehension. Fortunately, spirit flight is more about courage and trust, than knowledge or skill. We are being raised, lifted beyond the limits of our own horizon, to peek into the heart of The Divine, who holds us and carries us in love. Happy Resurrection! After the struggle, after the doubts and fear that things will never be all right, comes the promise. And we will hear the music and we will feel the wind on our cheeks and one more time we will rise in freedom and joy!

Holy Week reflections

Palm Sunday

Throughout the church, people have treated Palm Sunday as initially celebratory. However, when we listen to the text, we hear of Jesus being lifted onto an ass, not a horse, not a Cadillac. He rides into the least prosperous part of Jerusalem, the part ignored by Roman patrols. He is greeted by the unemployed, by women and children, the city’s poor. And they call out to him, “Save us, save us!”

And, as Dorothy Soelle observes, he cannot save them; he cannot even save himself without a wrench to his integrity, the meaning of his life. 

And so, instead, he positions himself within their pain, their misery. He cannot change anything except how they see themselves. He sees them as lovable, precious, children of the Holy One, worthy of better lives. He shows them that it is not through force or oppression, but through the power of unassailable, humble integrity and passion that the world is saved.

And now we read this story but it is a waste of time unless we remember that it is we who are his body in the world now. It is our ears that must hear the cry of the poor, the cry of our earth, “Save us, save us.” We too must travel in humility, not from seats of power, not from positions of authority. Our place is humble, our goals limited, our guarantee of success poor (Soelle). The only thing we can do in this world is to listen, to be willing to participate in the pain of it all, to weep with those who weep, to uncover our own vulnerability, our broken relationships, our doubts and dreams. This ride to Easter carries with it – danger. We will discover what lies beneath our masks. We will discover that our solutions are useless. We will discover also that we are not alone, but at the heart of God who loves the humble heart and blesses it with strength to complete the journey.

Maundy Thursday.

Tonight we move from the crowds of Palm Sunday to the intimacy of family and friends. Tonight we remember the actions Jesus left for us as not only as a memorial, but also as a practice. One story we tell is of the woman who anointed Jesus, who understood the nobility and power of sacrifice that is chosen but not sought, that is offered but with sorrow and doubt. The woman “sees” Jesus and the inevitability of his choices in a way that is too frightening for many. The enormous cost of love in action still troubles us and we would like to think that we can fix things without being willing to sacrifice ourselves. It is not the frivolity of her act that alarms the others, but the way it makes them look mean and cheap.

Another story that we read tells of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, an action done to their great discomfort and embarrassment. It continues to provoke discomfort in modern re-enactments, partly because it is culturally disconnected and partly because we still have to learn about mutual service. Henri Nouwen writes about how loving action necessarily leads to repentance. Nobody likes to receive a gift unless they have a means of reciprocating. Nobody wants to be healed by someone who has no idea of what it feels like to be wounded. We cannot earn grace; we can only receive it. We can, however, share the experience of being healed, the experience of being surprised by love, the discovery of our worth, when we thought we had wandered too far. Before we perform service in the world, service untainted by our own egos’ agendas, we have to say, “wash me of my delusions; wash away my fear of being known for who I am.”

The third story is the supper of community in which Jesus binds his family and friends to him and to his mission. He tells them that just like bread, many grains have to be gathered together to make a changing, flexible, nutritious community – food for the world. Like wine, grapes are crushed together, their skins broken so that juice can be released. Jesus says that these humble foods are like his life, differences held together, lives broken open and changed. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving. And thanksgiving it is, for others to share the journey, for stories of bread that keeps us going from generation to generation, for sacrifice so that all may have hope and all may taste being loved just as they are. Every time we remember Jesus in this way we give thanks that he is present with us, absorbing our pain into his suffering, blessing our joy with his vision for us. And as this has been done for us, so we must do it for others.

Finally, we remember the story of the garden in which the disciples, sleepy from food and wine, miss the point and miss the moment. Jesus alone in the garden struggles as every human must with the need for survival balanced against witness to the power of love. Jesus’ death would not be a sacrifice otherwise. What else can a person really offer accept our own lives?

So now we come to the point of this liturgy. How much of our lives have we given until now? How much will we offer up tomorrow? Whose needs will prevail? What are we willing to lose? What do we hope to gain? The musician Dido sings, “no love without freedom, no freedom without love.” To be free in the way Jesus was free means also to embrace his love and let it transform our lives.

Good Friday

The story of Good Friday is the story of two competing drives in human nature. These drives are expressed by the need to dominate and the need to liberate. The trial and crucifixion of Jesus differs only in the power of Jesus’ love to leave a mark on human history that no domestication by institutions can ever fully erase. The cry from the cross continues to reverberate throughout the corridors of power, no matter how much insulation is employed to drown it out. And that cry is mirrored in every faith group, every humanist group, every atheist group.

On Palm Sunday we remembered how the forces of domination began to swarm around Jesus, trying to drown out the cries of the poor, even the very stones in the earth: Save us, save us. We have heard this week how Jesus’ friends could not hold the course, how impatient they became, how easily they turned to the brokers of power, or were intimidated by them.
Today, we remember the answer. The answer is found in the refusal to retaliate, and the refusal to submit. It is the hard and long road. Resolution does not come quickly or efficiently. It costs. It requires sacrifice, holy work. It requires everything we have because it is not only about acting in compassion but not acting with violence of any sort.

There really is only one question today. Do we hear the cries or do we turn up the music and anesthetize ourselves with work or facts, with drugs or excuses, with privilege or position. We are not deaf because we are wicked. We are deaf because we are afraid of the bullies who try to tell us how to live, how to lie to ourselves. We are afraid that the cross is stronger than our faith. We have forgotten what freedom looks like and we think the price is too high.

But what will our fear cost us and our children? Do we want a culture where people are cocooned which is a way of being imprisoned? To be free is to be aware of how we have been co-opted and to seek ways of liberation for everyone. The revolution that we need is of the human heart. We need to re-learn compassion as a life skill that is as important as career training. We need to learn resistance to complicity with the lies of domination.

Liberation from fear allows us a freedom to experience how precious we are to the Holy One who did not count Jesus’ death on the cross as a failure. Rather Jesus’ death led his disciples up to this present day to have a vision of the peaceful kingdom, a dream of realized life, the truth that we are all part of the transformational life of matter and spirit. Liberation from fear teaches us how to embrace the deep and holy laughter of the one who is making all things new and leading us more fully into awareness of the light within and around us.

Holy Saturday

In the dark a candle is lit and a voice rises in the night calling us from death to life. Jesus says that our God is the god of the living so – leave death for the dead. Tonight we affirm that death is a means of passage, but life is the nature of existence.

Death is the absence of transformation, a mausoleum of the imagination. It is through our imaginations that scientific discoveries are achieved, facts become mutable, a life of spirit is possible. Our response to our paschal celebrations is to throw off the intellectual shackles that tell us we are separate, finite, limited. We are invited to understand our minds as fuelled by endless possibility for change, growth, renewable life.

We give thanks for the body of Jesus that reminds us that we, with all the created order, are precious and unique expressions of the divine. In our relationships, we remember that Jesus taught us that the linking of vulnerability leads to resilience and power not over, but with.

With our souls, we engage in the awareness that we know so much less than the wealth of our experience can name. The life of the spirit is always beckoning us on, to new knowledge, to a deeper sense of connection.

One day, we will heal the planet.

One day we will be at peace.

One day we will know the joy of abiding within the goodness and love of the divine.