After a year or more of pursuing this vague idea of living spiritually, God has been calling me into wonder. And not just wondering why or how things are, though that too. I mean an awe, an apprehension and living within mystery. A living out of the Albert Einstein quote, “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”
And so as Easter approached, it occurred to me that living spiritually and Easter especially is about wonder, mystery. God, so often doing and being just beyond our ability to fully grasp. Even if we know and believe the facts of Jesus’ resurrection, there is much we cannot explain or understand.
Neal Armstrong said, “Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” There is mystery and wonder in a once occupied tomb now empty. But the heart of Easter is that we cannot completely understand. And the call of the empty tomb and Jesus alive again is to lean into that mystery and wonder, not control and contain it with anemic explanations, either expressions of faith or unbelief.
The Promise began in this pursuit of wonder and led to a conversation about the hidden wonder of Easter and the question, “Why an empty tomb?” By the end of the conversation, we were wondering what the world would be like if the women returning to Jesus’ tomb had found his body still there.
Thus I rewrote Luke 24:1-12 (If this is sin, God forgive me) to reflect Jesus not fulfilling his promise to rise again. Then I gave the storyboard to a gifted young film-maker, Drew Byerly, who filmed and directed our heresy.
Take a moment to reflect. How would I be different? How would you be different? Assuredly we would not be who we are, we would not be changed. Then listen to Neal Browne read what Luke actually wrote. And then spend a few minutes with me in my Easter sermon exploring the question: “Why an Empty Tomb?”
P.S. I am taking a short Sabbatical and taking time to listen, read, learn, pray, walk, and write (though not for public consumption). I will return to blogging in a couple of weeks.
On a day when we are exposed to pictures of tombs and bloody scenes of the crucifixion while munching Easter eggs, chocolate bunnies, and jelly beans, many of us may experience a serious diseqaulibrium. What is this day really about?
This picture from my daughter Emmy’s baptism last summer at Piney Lake, CO says it all for me. She was lost and Jesus found her. And I had the honor of baptizing her. She is now more who God made her than ever before. This picture tells the story of us all.
Waiting for Communion
The house is silent
Like the hearts of those
Who saw Him hung
And the stone rolled over
In gray morning light
I remember the last night
We gathered round
A table piled high
With bread and wine
I sit and wait
For life to stir
His voice to fill the room
And touch my fearful heart
By Eugene C. Scott
A Celtic Prayer of Waiting
Though I am poor…
though I am weak…
though anxious of heart…
tried as I am…
though [the way] may be hidden…
though the night is here…
though you be silent now…
Spending time in a hospital is torture. People are always coming to visit and nurses and doctors are always bothering you with thermometers, needles, medicine, and bedpans. They think they are trying to help. Why can’t they leave a poor sick guy alone? When I get sick, I lock myself in my room alone until the fever, vomiting, or worse passes. This is mainly because I don’t like people to see me in that way, in my weakness.
In 1992 I had to have a laminectomy. After years of maltreatment, my back went out when I was at work in a church in Illinois. Unable to stand and unwilling to ask for help, I crawled down the back stairs from my second story office, out the back door, and down–more stairs–to my car (I am not exaggerating). I spent weeks lying on the floor of our house refusing to let anyone but my family see me in such a degrading, helpless state. Finally I had to admit my need for help. After the successful laminectomy (thank God), I was in varying stages of helplessness for months. I was being healed but getting there was humiliating.
What’s all that have to do with Easter? Just this. The whole Jesus story is about our human helplessness. And our unwillingness to ask for help. The cross is a constant reminder that I cannot save myself . Nor can you. No matter how many self-help books I read, goals I set, lists I make, verses I memorize, years I live I cannot–by myself–overcome my deepest faults or fiercest fears. I am weak and helpless.
As singer, songwriter Bruce Cockburn puts it in his song “Dweller By A Dark Stream,”
“It could have been me put the thorns in your crown
Rooted as I am in a violent ground
How many times have I turned your promise down . . .”
But I don’t want you or God to see me in my helplessness. No matter how much I need it, I don’t want help. So I deny it, hiding, pretending, obfuscating. Yet true transformation, true victory over faults and fears, comes only in looking up, reaching up, to those hands stretched out on the cross. Every year, like a lamb, Easter slips back into our lives showing us two things: our need for God’s help and God never tiring of offering it.
“. . . Still you pour out your love
Pour out your love”
This Easter is no exception.
P.S. If you have no place to celebrate Easter, consider joining me at The Neighborhood Church. Click here for more info.
A few months ago I saw a thought-provoking work of art called “Before I die I want to.” It’s an artistic bucket-list. As it was designed to, it made me rethink what is important to me. I wound up thinking about who I want to spend time with–not what I want to do–before I die. I wrote a blog about it you can read by clicking here. As art and an image conveying an idea, it stuck in my head and heart like a splinter. I’m glad for that.
But it also made me realize very little of what we accomplish in life provides a real, lasting feeling or knowledge of worth that so many of us long for. To paraphrase that old folk tune “My Bucket List’s Got a Hole in It.” We check off item after item after item after item endlessly adding new items hoping that the next one will fulfill. But still we just don’t feel right or good or worthy. Like puppets, we live with strings attached, pulling or being pulled by our desire to be loved unconditionally.
“I love you,” we say, hoping for a like response.
“I’ll help,” we offer, dying for someone to recognize how important we are.
“Look at what I did,” we shout like a child on a swing for the first time.
How different could our bucket-lists be if we knew we were loved, important, watched over by a God who does love us unconditionally, who loves us whether we deserve it, earn it, want it, or even love back?
In Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Misérables” Jean Valjean receives this kind of gift, a gift of grace. Caught stealing the Bishop’s silver and facing, once again, life in a tortuous prison, Jean Valjean is “dejected” and “overwhelmed.”
Then the Bishop gives him a second chance. “Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs.”
Thus freed Jean Valjean cannot believe, because he has done nothing to deserve this. Then the Bishop says, “Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.”
Jean Valjean had made no such promise. But the truth that Hugo proclaims here is that when we receive unconditional love and grace it changes us. It frees us. Cuts the strings. And we must be different. We can be different!
Because of the Bishop’s grace, Jean Valjean is able to become a new person, start a new life, live under difficult circumstance, run a factory, adopt an orphan, and inspire heroism. That’s quite a bucket-list. What are you able to do because of God’s grace?
Imagine then, who each of us could be and what we each of us could do if we received and believed in God’s grace the way Jean Valjean receives and believes in the Bishop’s. It would matter not that the bucket’s got a hole because God has an endless supply. And maybe the hole is part of the point. We let God’s grace and love and forgiveness and eternity out our holes and into the lives of others while God fills us back up.
Oh, that is how I want to live.
So, inspired by “Before I die,” ”Les Misérables,” and mostly by the grace of God I have received, I made “The Grace Board.” We set it up in church and wrote what all of us are now able to do because of the grace of God.
Now it’s your turn. In the comment section finish the sentence “Because of the grace of God, I am able to . . .”
June 13, 1968 was one of those summer nights both forgettable and unforgettable. The only reason I remember the actual date is because it’s on the death certificate. That evening I do remember driving over to my oldest sister’s apartment in our turquoise Ford Galaxy. We looked like a typical 1960s family. My dad behind the wheel and wearing close-cut hair and those dark rimmed glasses that are now back in style. Mom sat shotgun, though I would not have called it that then. My other sister, older too, and my younger brother and I rode unbuckled in the back seat. We probably fought over who had to ride the hump. There was one of those funny, gimmicky songs on the AM radio. We sang along.
My dad dropped us off. I don’t remember saying anything to him. He drove off to his best friend Clyde’s house to work on cars. I never saw dad again, save several days later at his funeral.
My father’s sudden death from a heart attack pulled the world out from under me and left me hanging in a dark, starless void of emotional space that–still today–colors who I am.
During Lent we are exploring how God is made strong in our weaknesses. The main problem with this concept, finding God’s strength in human weakness, is that one then has to first face ones weakness. Me? I have many, mostly stemming from June 13.
As I wrote in my blog “Jennifer Aniston and Eugene Scott Reflect on the Fatherlessness Epidemic,” I’ve lived many of the statistics on what growing up without a father does to boys. I’ve wrestled with abandonment, trust, self-worth, failure, co-dependency, and more.
Can God fill such weakness with strength? God is an expert at such things. In my frenzied search for belonging and love, I dared call out to the God I knew nothing about and barely believed in.
The funny thing is God answered. “I will be a Father who will never leave you,” he promised. God has kept that promise. And based on God’s faithfulness, I was eventually able to leap into being a father myself. A flawed one, but one who is learning to trust God and pass that faith on to his own children.
God also turned fatherlessness and broken past into an aching desire to help others. You might call it a redeemed co-dependency.
I remember being at a training meeting for youth workers. The speaker asked each of us to stand if anything from a list he was going to read pertained to us. “Past drug addiction,” he said. I stood with many others. “Divorced parents.” More stood. “Lost a parent.” A tear pooled in my eye. “High school drop out.” I was already standing. “Abuse.”
He continued listing off areas of brokenness and loss. “Look around you,” he said at the end of his list. Nearly all 1500 of us were standing.
“Do you think it’s a coincidence that most of us here have painful backgrounds and lives? No!” Then he listed the statistics of how many kids were just like us. “God used your pain to call you into youth work,” he continued. “That is why you care so much for those kids no one else seems to. And why they relate to you so well.”
A collective shiver went through us. We had seen redemption.
Henri Nouwen calls this serving with a limp, from the story of Jacob having his hip broken while wrestling with God.
Years later, when I was going through another period of wrestling with God, a friend wrote and told me, “God never wastes pain.”
And it’s true. Now when I remember June 13, 1968, there is still sadness and grief. I miss my dad. He would love my children. And he would laugh that I did, as he predicted, wind up behind a desk. But that weakness, that pain, has not been wasted. God has filled it with his strength.
And for that I am grateful.
P.S. This blog was also published at tnc3.org/pascha-blog/
“Wrap your arms around yourself or someone you love today,” Pastor Les Avery used to say at the end of every St. James Presbyterian worship service, “because you never know what kind of pain lies just beneath the surface in each of us.”
This last week that phrase came to mind over and again as I (along with a dozen others) delved deep into the lives of 13 couples who were considering becoming church planters. This assessment went beyond determining preaching skill and church leadership. These couples tentatively allowed us to explore their lives, see their weaknesses.
What I saw humbled and hurt. Each had a story of crushing pain. As I read their dossiers and listened to their stories, I ached. They told of serious struggles,doubts, and pain. On the surface each looked shiny as a new penny. Called by God and gifted. But pain simmered underneath.
During this time, I read from Eugene H. Peterson’s challenging book, “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.” “Wonder is natural and spontaneous to us all,” he writes. “When we were children we were in a constant state of wonder–the world was new, tumbling in on us in profusion. We staggered through each day fondling, looking, tasting.”
I gasped. I wanted, needed that kind of wonder. How was I going to find wonder locked inside a commercial grade hotel listening to the tarnished hopes and dreams of extremely ordinary people? Doesn’t wonder only come in burning sunsets, roaring tides, priceless artwork, and tender newborns?
Then I saw it. The wonder of it all. Wonder comes in people too, especially broken people.
First of all, here were these people, like me, with every reason to give it up and become grave-diggers. Dealing in death not life. But they had walked out of the cemetery and were still dreaming, still asking God for something more. It was incredible, their hope. It was wonderful.
Second, I saw myself in them. I realized my tarnished dossier looks very much like theirs. And worse. Loss, fear, failure, trauma, health problems. If their pain made them unfit, mine did too. Yet, I’ve logged 30 plus years in this stuff called ministry. And 56 in life. And I’m even a church planter.
The wonder of it all is that I should not be who I am, have done what I have done, be in the wonderful place I’m in.
Yet, I am. How? Through my pain and weakness. That’s what I saw in those couples. I was once there with too much against me, with too many flaws, too many weaknesses and failures to add up to any good. Still am. Yet God continues to use me. How was it that I was assessing and assuring them? By God’s grace.
The wonder in weakness is this: “But he [Jesus] said to me [Paul], ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
And with that reminder, Christ himself wrapped his arms around me because he knows my pain and flaws and his grace is enough.
This year I couldn’t wait for Lent. So I started early. February 4 to be exact. I know that sounds akin to being excited about getting fired or wearing shoes two sizes too small. But last year during Lent I added a measure of silence to my life by fasting from television and radio.
It was delicious. It was like an extended beach vacation where I basked in time for thinking, reading, praying, hiking, listening, watching, writing poetry and my novel (and this blog), photography, and talking with friends and my family. And doing nothing. It was rich. The richest part was the freedom I gained.
There was no talking head or disembodied radio voice telling me what to buy or which current crisis to worry over. I was free to think my own thoughts, listen to my own music, invent my own stories. Little do we know how much ambient thought control we submit ourselves to (but that’s another blog on another day).
I didn’t go back until August when the Denver Broncos once again took the field. Around seven months. Even then I watched mainly football. I mean a guy has priorities. Fitting it was then that I again took up my mass media fast the day after the Super Bowl.
I couldn’t wait for Lent. Why wait for a good thing?
It’s been two weeks and I’ve been surprised how easy it’s been. The first day or two I reached reflexively for the knob on the dash. And I’ve not even thought of television. And that’s a little disappointing. Last year the wrestling match in my mind was brutal. The skinny guy won but the thought of giving up had me in a half-nelson a couple of times.
And out of that struggle came the insights, the learning. Now I find myself falling into other patterns. My mind has chained itself to new salve owners. Mainly thoughtlessness. Routine. Low expectations.
Therein rests the new challenge.
This feast of silence will not be one of being caught by surprise. I hope to be caught by surprise on purpose.
I’m going to use the silence to renew wonder in my life. In “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places,” Eugene H. Peterson writes that as children we “lived in a world of wonders” but that “wonder gets squeezed out of us.” He goes on to say, “wonder is deep and eternal, that we are part of a creation that is ‘very good.’”
At this point, however, I’m not sure what wonder is. Do you know? Let’s look together. I’ll let you know what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing. Maybe we can wonder together.