Stretching toward Easter

Easter eggsIn possibly the strangest editorial on Easter ever written, “Nailing the cross to mind and body” Elizabeth Farrelly actually got past the usual bunnies, coloured eggs and cuteness as she stretched her imagination to find the meaning of Easter. [Click here to read her Sydney Morning Herald editorial] While trying to connect biology and worship, Farrelly actually found her way to the essence of the mystery of Easter — the link between our human condition and the divine. Here are a few of the phrases she uses to summarize as she reached beyond her own horizon of understanding:

  • “Here be magic” — Fannelly connects (and feels wonder as she does this) her pet Pygmy Bearded Dragon, a world in danger, a species in need, a philosopher, a ritual practice and an ancient symbol. I’ll let you read her editorial to see how she does this, very skillfully. But she most certainly is pointing toward the mystery which is at the core of reality, which she calls magic. Easter is a celebration of that most profound reality.
  • “Worship is a vertical stretch” — She contrasts her down-dog yoga pose with her pet dragon’s stretching toward the warmth of the sun, and realizes that “worship is not my natural position.” Why? She doesn’t know; her dragon seems to naturally have it right and she doesn’t. I think that summarises why we need Easter: to remind us to stretch toward the unimaginable reality that now surrounds us, as a result of God’s initiative.
  • “The God-stretch” — Here Farrelly stumbles a bit, as most people do, on the meaning of the cross. She sees the cross symbolizing, in its horizontal axis, human compassion and justice. To her, the vertical axis represents human yearning for truth and justice. These are fine thoughts, and apt metaphors but they get the reality of the cross completely wrong. The cross is God stretching towards us, becoming a servant of our needs, even unto death. This reality is literally unimaginable, so we Christians must forgive people when they search for the meaning of the cross and miss it. We miss it ourselves many times  — that’s one reason why the church celebrates Easter, to remind us that we live in the presence of God’s unfathomable mysterious love.

Another person stretching toward Easter

Pope Benedict XVI wrote an entire book about the meaning of the cross and Easter, called Jesus of Nazareth; Holy Week, from the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection.  Benedict was a noted German theologian and scholar before becoming Pope so you might make the mistake of thinking he would be able to completely describe the meaning of the cross and Easter — plumb the depths of mystery and tell us what he finds there so we ordinary people can understand it. Unlike Farrelly, he bases his description on the entire story-arc of the Old and New Testaments, which are ultimately about what God has done in history before, during and after the cross and Easter. But like Farrelly, Benedict ultimately stands in awe of what God is doing, unable to completely grasp what God’s reality is. Here are his own words about this. “(Jesus’ life, death and resurrection) are intended to point us toward realities that defy description.” He does not try to overstate his scholarship or even his obviously strong faith when describing God’s mysterious actions in human history. He stands mute except for the “gift of insight which he hopes has been granted to him.” Here are a few of Benedict’s descriptions of the cross and Easter, within the larger story-arc of the entire history of man and the cosmos.

  • “It is in Jesus’ downward path, in his abasement even to the cross, that God’s glory is seen, that the Father and, in him, Jesus are glorified.”
  • “In his self-offering on the Cross, Jesus, as it were, brings all the sin of the world deep within the love of God and wipes it away.”
  • “His cross and his exaltation is the Day of Atonement for the world, in which the whole of human history — in the face of all human sin and its destructive consequences — finds its meaning and is aligned with its true purpose and destiny.”
  • “God grants to evil and to evildoers a large measure of freedom — too large, we might think. Even so, history does not slip through his fingers.”
  • “(God is patient and) does not impose upon man anything too hard to understand: God acts like a good schoolteacher or a doctor. He slowly puts an end to certain customs, allows others to continue, and thus leads man forward.”
  • “Ultimately, in the battle against lies and violence, truth and love have no other weapon than the witness of suffering.”
  • “The word — which seems almost nothing in comparison to the mighty power of the immeasurable material cosmos, like a fleeting breath against the silent grandeur of the universe — the word is more real and lasting than the entire material world. . . The cosmic elements pass away; the word of Jesus is the true ‘firmament’ beneath which we can stand and remain.”

What is our response?

When I read both Farrelly’s and Benedict’s ideas I immediately ask, what about me? What do I say the cross and Easter means? Somehow I think that both Farrelly and Benedict intended to lead their readers to this question of personal meaning. Reading descriptions of the cross and Easter is not like reading philosophy or history or science. We can stay remote from those areas of knowledge and continue to live our lives satisfactorily in ignorance of how they describe reality. We can’t do that when we encounter the mystery of the cross and Easter. We are involved whether we want to be or not. The sweeping claims about the cross and Easter are universal — we cannot escape their effects, whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Atheist.

To me, the cross and Easter confront me everyday as I live in Sydney — in my own (and the great majority of people’s) lack of appreciation for the mystery of this reality. If God yearns to save us so intensely that he became one of us and died a horrific death on the cross willingly, where is my own yearning for him in response? Perhaps humility is the only response anyone can make. “I cannot live as I ought; God help me.” The cross and Easter are just too far beyond our grasp; as Farrelly said “worship is a stretch.” But stretch toward the cross and Easter we must.

 

Singlemindedness

Somehow, singlemindedness seems a poor strategy in today’s complex, unpredicatable world. Better to have many options and a Plan B, C and even D. If you really focus on only Plan A, and that doesn’t work you fail. Balance not focus.

There is a different point of view. Singleminded people put all their energy into one desired outcome, one project. They accomplish things because of their intensity. “Failure is not an option” is their motto. Focus not balance.

Christian singlemindedness

William Barclay, in The Mind of Jesus, makes a fascinating point about Jesus’ singlemindedness. In his opening proclamation of his mission recounted in Luke 4:16-20,  reading from Isaiah to his neighbors in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus stopped abruptly, half-way through the passage. He read the words in Isaiah 61 about God’s mercy and then according to Luke’s account “rolled up the scroll and sat down” and didn’t read Isaiah’s next line, “the day of vengeance of our God.” Barclay concludes that Jesus was showing his singleminded focus on his mission, which was proclaiming the arrival of God’s mercy not vengeance.

What about us?

If you combine this event in Jesus’ life with some of the others it’s clear what he is saying to us today. His forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery; his forgiveness of Peter who denied him in his own hour of need; his parable about the workers who came in at the last hour and got the same wages as those who had worked all day, and many others. His message is clear — I want you to singlemindedly forgive and show mercy no matter what the circumstances.

You might then say, how do I show mercy in a singleminded manner? Jesus summarised that in the reading from Isaiah 61. “The Spirit of The Lord is on me, because he has annointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclain the year of the Lord’s favor.” This means mercy and forgiveness and caring, without judgment, for everyone without exception.

With such clear instructions, it seems to me that we must make a distinction between “church-going” and “kingdom-living.” What we do inside “church” is important as preparation for singlemindedness in “kingdom-living”. One without the other misses the point. If Jesus had only read the passage from Isaiah to his neighbors and done nothing else, he would not have fulfilled what God’s Spirit annointed him to do. In the same way, if we see what we do outside of church as doing our best to live well in the world and maintain some kind of balance with living in the Kingdom, we are certainly not being singleminded. This may well mean that our “church-going” lacks something and, consequently, our “kingdom-living” suffers.

Triumph or Catastrophe?

I was driving back from doing the grocery shopping today, and happened to hear the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, the Pathetique. What a sad, emotionally draining piece of music, with its evocation of the “dying of the light” at the end. Whenever I hear it, I remember the only time I ever heard it played live, in August 1974 in Washington DC at the Kennedy Center.

The day before the concert, Richard Nixon had made his final television speech live to the American people, saying that he was going to resign from the presidency. The evening of the concert, he signed his letter of resignation and boarded the Presidential helicopter as I sat in the concert hall, listening to this powerful music. I knew what was happening at the White House — and couldn’t help thinking of Nixon and his emotions on that evening. I was not a fan of his, but believed that I felt the depth of his personal “dying of the light” a few blocks away. The magnitude of the catastrophe he had brought on himself must have sunk in as he signed that letter and walked out of the White House with his wife, to never return.

Triumph or catastrophe?

When David Frost interviewed Nixon some years later, in 1977, he met a man intent on defending his record as president. The terms of the interviews did not let Frost fully probe into what happened in the Watergate fiasco but, finally, Frost was able to get Nixon to appear to have regrets over his actions. “Nixon admitted that he had ‘let down the country’ and that ‘I brought myself down. I gave them a sword and they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I’d been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.'” [from Wikipedia] So, was my empathy on the night of Nixon’s resignation mistaken? Was Nixon so convinced of his own ‘righteousness’ that he actually felt few regrets?

What strikes me about this question is that it applies to all of us. When we come to end of our lives, will we be able to see things the way they really are? Maybe not. Like Nixon, we might defend ourselves very skillfully, overlooking our faults and remembering our successes. But at our ‘dying of the light’ what will be the truth about our lives? Will it be whatever we wish it to be — or are there standards? Christians believe in God’s final judgment — but we also believe in His divine mercy. Is it possible that our life could turn out to be such a catastrophe that God’s mercy might not be able to change it into a triumph?

If we take seriously the human responsibility for making choices and using freedom for good and not evil, it seems to me that we have to admit that some humans could architect a catastrophe from their choices. It appears that Judas Iscariot, Hitler, Stalin and others have done that. But surely our transgressions don’t match these ‘super-heros of evil.’ God can overlook things and find ways to make our ordinary lives right. This brings me to the point of this post.

What if we knew the truth about God’s purpose for us — our unique talents, gifts and situation? What if we could see the gap between what might have been and what actually happened, due to our choices? My sense is that this gap would likely be enormous for each of us — because we do not take seriously the purpose for which God created us. Perhaps our blindness is what God overlooks in His mercy. Perhaps we are judged leniently, against what we consciously and willingly have chosen to recognise as God’s purpose for us. Even against that relaxed standard I feel uncomfortable. In the end, I am uncertain about what the truth about my own life will be. I can only say with the Psalmist, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” [Psalm 51:1]

A Heart-felt Story

An old friend of mine, a recovering alcoholic, sent me a note after reading one of my recent posts. In it, he describes how Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) views religion, which is worth pondering. We may disagree with some of his views but none of us can dispute the great good that AA’s approach has brought to millions of the ‘least of these’ — men and women trapped in a prison of their own making. God is certainly on the side of AA.

“AA takes an unique approach to what we generically refer to as ‘religion’.  A fundamental principle of AA is that we have been unable to stop drinking on our own, no matter to what lengths we go, under our own power, free will and best wishes.  It simply won’t work.  Organized religions, no matter which ones, were either derived from what was known as Catholicism, such as Protestants of all types, generally known as Christians, as they follow the teachings of Christ.  Others, such as Buddhism, Shinto, Muslim and many others take their beginnings from similar precepts, except they feel Christ was but a holy man, a special prophet, and they, too, have their own.  The Jewish faith is still waiting for theirs.

“But, collectively, they do not offer what any given human being needs – a personal God that loves us unconditionally, will always forgive us our trespasses as long as we keep trying, is not keeping some sort of tabulation or balance sheet to advise Him on which way to send us when we die.  We alcoholics felt we were trying to be good people, but began using the wrong medicine for our ailing minds, and could not stop feeling we had the weight of the earth on us, had to control ourselves and the lives of all we met, and despite our overt feelings to the opposite, we lived a life of self-centered fear.

“Organized religion has become man’s never ending quest to humanize that which cannot be humanized.  It gives all a set of rules, often quite different by religion, by which to live.  They often use the Bible, Torah, Koran, etc., to express these rules.  These books depict the life of Christ, Mohammed, or Old Testament characters, and they all offer wonderful knowledge, but often that knowledge is not applicable today.  Moreover, the books are often in conflict.  Divinely inspired or not, we have to recall that these books were written at least two thousand years ago, some far older than that, and the writers could only write what the readers at the time could understand and relate to.  For example, the concept of time, a day, or other relationships are not only often in conflict between the books, but within any book itself.  For example, did God create all He did in 7 days on the Gregorian calendar, the Chinese or Jewish?  We have no idea.  So we all begin to argue among the religious and throughout time many have used our human influence to desecrate what the Holy writings most likely meant, e.g., the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and many others.  Who was actually right, on whose side was God?

“AA says that we must have a higher power of some kind, because then we are able to do what we could not, what medicine cannot, what the greatest minds in medicine cannot, and it works.  It has worked for me going on 19 years.  Without the ability to ‘turn over’ that which I cannot do to a Higher Power, I would not have been able to stop, and death is the ultimate reward, no matter how much I wanted different.  The proof is that 19 years, and the many other years of millions who have tried, given themselves over to that Higher Power, and followed the principles.  It is noteworthy that AA does not mandate, or even suggest, any details about that Higher Power, or suggest a relationship to organized religion of any kind, simply saying that He exists, and that He is not me.  It goes on to say that for as long as I try to run my life (and most often the lives of others),  a true belief in a power greater than me is impossible.  There is no other alternative.  Either God is everything or He is nothing, and that’s it.

“I was recently diagnosed with a 50-50 chance of death from lung cancer.  Today, complications from Chemo have required me to attend to my heart, and have a pacemaker installed.  I had to have spinal shots to put steroids in my back to be able to walk properly.  I am still on disability.  But, from day 1 of all of this, I accepted what I had, as not given by God, but given to me by the luck of the draw in an imperfect world.  But I accepted it, and maintained my faith in a God that loves me.  AA gives me no special prayer for any one thing, although it has some suggestions offered by St. Francis, among others.  AA asks me to accept my frailty, and the hand I am dealt.  With this acceptance comes ownership – this problem was mine, not the fault of me or anyone else, but it presented an opportunity to look at each day given me as a new opportunity, and I was able to consider the cancer almost as a type of adventure, a learning experience from which, if it were His will, I would come out the other side a better person, closer to that Higher Power than when going in.  There is glory in fighting for one’s life, but when you give it all you have, there is futility in trying to call on more, when I am out of strength.  However, there is strength in calling on that Higher Power, asking for the strength to do His will, whatever that might be, and hopefully be of help and inspiration to others along the way. AA never suggests I do six Litanies or other formal chants that were in good faith defined by other humans and along the way, included in a doctrine that God had never mandated.

“AA condones no organized religion, nor does it condemn any.  It teaches that “Condemnation prior to investigation” will get you nowhere.  It does not name or frame your Higher Power – that is up to interpretation of each member, as long as it is not that member himself who becomes his own Higher Power, for anyone who does that has already failed.  It teaches to surrender that which is not mine, such as control of the lives of others, to that Higher Power, for He alone has that control.  It teaches me that perhaps I have abused, willingly or not, my gift of free will, and asks that I turn my will and my life over to my Higher Power that He may guide my every move.

“Does it always work?  It would, if we were perfect, but we are not.  We seek only progress and maintenance of a spiritual connection with our God.  If we falter or fail, we come to Him for a chance to try again.  We would find it hard to forgive ourselves were we not completely sure that God forgives us when we keep trying, and if He can forgive us, who are we to overrule Him?  So we keep on trying, keep on praying “only for His will for me and the power to carry that out” as the driving force of each of our days.

“I hope this helps in your writing, Jim.  It comes from the heart from a good man that was drowning in self-centeredness and self-condemnation, who found there is One who is greater than I, and who loves me, and will help me every step of every day of my life, if I will but ask.

A transformational story about God and life

Thomas Merton believed that life is a process of going from “innocence to experience and back to innocence.”

  • When we are innocent children the world is magical, and death doesn’t exist.
  • As we grow up, we learn from experience that the world is a difficult place. We must compete with others to succeed.  Evil, sickness and death enter our story about life.
  • Then, a different form of transforming innocence may enter our life. The Holy Spirit leads us to discover that God is on our side and death holds no fears.  In On Being Liked, James Alison describes this process of encountering and learning a mature form of  innocence with finding a fresh, transforming story about God.

Many Christians have a story about God that emphasizes our sinfulness. This story arises from the church’s explanation for why Jesus had to die for us. He had to “atone” to God for our sinfulness.  For example, the Catholic Catechism defines atonement in this statement: “Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.” [Article 1992].   This description creates an image of God as a Judge who requires a victim (His Son) to offer his life to make up for the sins of his creatures. In this story, God is merciful but also just and there must be retribution for man’s sinfulness. In his mercy, God substitutes Jesus and we don’t have to pay the price for our transgressions.

Atonement puts sin at the center of our story about God. Alison creates another story about God’s motivation and Jesus’ passion. Jesus’ apparent “losing to death, was not done so as to ‘please the Father’ but rather to get through to us.” Death has no power in God’s reality and we need to get beyond our ideas about death created by our experiences in the world that stand in the way of our becoming His sons and daughters. “God has nothing to do with death and humans need not either.” Jesus become man to show us how to ‘play the game of life’ as God wants us to.

Alison uses the metaphor of how a loving parent teaches a child to play tennis to illustrate how Jesus teaches us. The parent could obviously win every game but chooses not to and loses artfully, pushing the child to learn how to play. Jesus played the ‘game of life’ and by giving himself up to death, apparently ‘losing to death.’ By doing this he showed us how to “live as if death were not.” Jesus lived in a world filled with the threat of death but he took no notice and lived freely and lovingly.

If we look at  the ‘100,000 foot view’ of Jesus’ life, one theme becomes obvious: forgiveness. It was why he was sent and it characterized his life and death.

  • “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” [John 3:17]
  • (to the woman accused of adultery) “‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she said. ”Then neither do I condemn you.’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave you life of sin.'” [John 8-11]
  • (from the cross) “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” [Luke 23:34]

So, playing the game of life as Jesus did involves learning what such forgiveness entails.  Alison illustrates that our normal way of thinking about forgiveness falls far short of what Jesus means.

  • Forgiveness is “losing the human need to survive-by-creating-human-victims”
  • Forgiveness is “moving toward someone who I am like in such a way that they will be free from death with me so that together we can become a new ‘we'”
  • Through forgiveness “As we forgive and are forgiven we come to see what really is.”

The expansive, inclusive and creative meaning that Jesus gives forgiveness is not something we learn like all other subjects. It is a transformation that we undergo, probably for our entire life. It means viewing worldly failure and death as God does, as things that are not real! “We gradually learn to live as if death (and failure) are not by, in a variety of ways, undergoing death beforehand so that it loses all power over us and we start to be able to live free of its compulsions.” Paul talked of this as ‘dying to self’ and Jesus told the parable of the seed needing to die in order to yield fruit.

We must give ourselves permission to question the usual story about atonement (and the teachings of our church) in order to potentially find a new ‘transformational story’ about God’s intentions in sending His Son and allowing His death.  A fresh story about Jesus and a potential new image for God can change everything in our lives. Yet, we also sense that commiting to a new story about Jesus is a very serious business. The danger is that we might set ourself up as the ultimate authority for our beliefs about God. We might commit the sin of pride and throw out all the learning of wise and good Christians over 2000 years. Nonetheless, we also sense that, to be fully human, we must prayerfully ask questions about the Atonement and not simply swallow our church’s story whole. Ultimately, we need to share what we find with other Christians, and study what the church and Bible says, before we finally commit ourselves to a new story about Jesus’ way of playing the game of life. Such conversations are precisely why we need to be in a community of Christians: to find a way to reach the truth through honest conversation about such provocative questions.