The subversive power of resurrection

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Part of my Lenten journey included the Stations of the Cross most Wednesdays. It was a blessing to make that journey-within-a-journey week after week. If you’ve ever participated in this service you are familiar with the verse and response: “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” Saying those words on my knees, over and over in the darkness of the Wednesday evening liturgy got them into my gut in a new way. O Christ, by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

So here we are, on the first day of the week, on the other side of the cross. Do we feel redeemed? What about the world? What would a redeemed world look like? I think most of us would agree that it would look different from our world.

I could tell stories of terror and violence on the other side of the planet, in Brussels, Istanbul, or Jakarta, but I don’t have to; it’s all around us. We could look at poverty and desperation in another hemisphere, but we need only walk around our block. We can read about broken hearts in the daily news, or we can find them in our neighbors, our friends, and sometimes, in ourselves. We could look toward another era, an earlier time, for fear and civic unrest, but it’s here, in our time. More and more people I speak with talk about their fears for our own nation, our place in the world. You don’t need me to tell you stories of bad news.

the-empty-tomb

We live in a time not unlike the time and place where Jesus’ first disciples encountered the empty tomb, a time deeply entrenched in a system of racial and religious prejudice and economic inequity that made everyone powerless to effect change.

What do we do about this? What do we have to say about this on Easter morning? If you get together with friends or family later today and talk to them about your morning, and if they say—as my friends often say—“Oh, yeah, it’s Easter….I forgot,” is there anything to say to them about this day that connects with the rest of life?

Yes. Tell them about the “subversive power of the resurrection.” I’m borrowing the phrase from New Testament theologian Nancy Claire Pittman, who has written that resurrection is “an invitation to live as Jesus lived, a doorway to a life in which meals are shared with enemies, healing is offered to the hopeless, prophetic challenges are issued to the powerful. Only now it is not Jesus who does these things, it is we ourselves who see … the subversive power of the resurrection in order to live it now.”

Tell them about the subversive power of baptism.

Years ago, I had the privilege of participating in the baptism of my two-year-old niece. It was a complicated situation. My niece and her big brother were not churchgoers; my sister-in-law was having them baptized to please her father, who was dying three thousand miles away. My niece was having none of this. She screamed and cried all the way through the procession to the font. She hadn’t had her nails trimmed in a while and her mother, who was carrying her, had scratches on her neck.

The priest used a line I’ve borrowed whenever I’ve baptized a fussy baby. He said: “We all respond to God this way sometimes…” When it came time for the actual baptism, she struggled even more. The priest turned toward the congregation with a big smile and said: “I think we’re all going to get a little wet.”

In a few minutes, we’re all going to get a little wet. There are cathedrals that do asperges with giant branches of water from a swimming-pool sized font, and everyone gets soaked. This water is a tangible reminder of who we are, why we are here, and who we belong to.

When we blessed the water earlier this morning, we remembered the water of creation, the water through which God delivered God’s people into the land of promise, the water in which Jesus himself was baptized. This is the same water that fills our font, the water with which we washed each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday, the water we used to wash this altar.

The water is the same water drunk by our enemies and those who wish us harm, the water that bathes the person with whom we are angry, the person who has hurt us, the person who doesn’t know we exist.

Remembering these connections across time and borders has never been more important than at this moment in our common life. Through the call-and-response of the baptismal covenant, we become active participants, stakeholders in the life of the one who rose from the dead and who goes before us in the transformation of the world.

LS20120612_stpaul_005-smallWe adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. The cross itself is redeemed: God turns a shameful death into triumph over death. Hence the crucifix hangs right here where we feast and celebrate. God redeems our sin and alienation, exchanging them for love and hope.

Easter does not erase suffering. Easter says that God never stops being present in suffering and that we, too, as followers of the risen Jesus, can be present for those who suffer, can be present in vulnerability, in love, in the mighty, subversive power poured onto us in the waters of baptism.

Before dawn, we heard the Exsultet, an ancient hymn of praise that proclaims our Easter faith: This is the night when you brought our ancestors out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land….this is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and rose victorious from the grave.

We don’t say “that was the night,” but this is the night. Every time we proclaim resurrection we proclaim liberation of the oppressed, food for the hungry, good news for the downtrodden. The resurrection is now. The life we covenant to live in baptism is now. Like the prophets and storytellers whose words fill this day, we bring into this moment all the suffering and fear around us and we take from this moment the life that cannot die, the life that, as George Herbert says, killeth death.

The angels of the Lord ask: why do you look for the living among the dead? Witnessing and experiencing the subversive power of the resurrection, the subversive power of baptism, is as important now as it has ever been. Unless we’re going to live out our lives inside the empty tomb, we must find ways to wield our baptismal identity for good.

Maybe redeeming the world is redeeming fear and turning it into courage. Perhaps redeeming the world is about redeeming doubt and turning them into good news. What if it’s redeeming complacency and resignation, to turn it into outrage and action? What if redeeming the world is about finding stories of love winning, and telling those stories. Maybe redeeming the world is about being those stories, living those stories. Let’s find out.

 

 

Time takes time

I’ve been inspired, the past few days, by the generous continuum of ways people think about, express, and adopt resolutions for the New Year. Or not. One friend posted: “This isn’t Lent, folks!” Which reminds me of a conversation in early Lent about giving up and taking on for Lent. Someone in that group said: “that sounds more like a bunch of New Year’s resolutions than penitence and renewal.” They’re both right, of course.

resolutionsI tend to either pass up the opportunity provided by the turning of the calendar, to make change, or I come up with a long list doomed to fail. Historically, I’ve an an all or nothing gal. Like most people, many of my resolutions tend to be around health and fitness. I’m not alone here, I know. I think two years ago I wanted bench press my body weight, learn to do handstand push-ups, and train for a Tough Mudder event. Like a lot of people, my New Year’s resolutions historically have a touch of wanting to turn myself into someone else; a younger, more serene version of myself, perhaps.

There’s no such thing as a clean slate. We bring all of who we are into each year and each endeavor. Sure, I have too many unfinished knitting projects I should bind off in 2016. I’d like to pack healthy snacks more often. I chronically want to lose five pounds. But I am who I am and I’m kind of done with failure.

This week, I was chatting with a wise person about my fitness goals for the coming year and he gave me some profound advice. (“Profound” may just be another way of saying he said exactly what I needed to hear.) He said: “Think about what you want to be really good at ten years from now, and work toward that.” I immediately knew what that longterm goal was. Not that I’ll never tell; I don’t want to jinx it.

timeAnd the point is not so much the goal as the long view, the nudge to remember that time takes time. Transformation takes forever. Whether it’s moving to a new city, embedding oneself in a new community, making new friends, doing a better job of loving one’s neighbor or sharing wealth or staying healthy and injury-free over a long period of time…all of these things take time. Sometimes, forever. And that’s good news.

Accepted wisdom is that most people have broken their resolutions by the third Monday in January. But imagine that it’s not about breaking or keeping, but being faithful to a larger vision. Bring it on.

 

Stage directions from the Bible

I am a huge fan of the works of William Shakespeare. Like a lot of people in strange lines of work, I was an English major, and so I was exposed to a lot of Shakespeare, not just the obligatory eighth-grade reading of MacBeth and tenth-grade reading of Romeo and Juliet, but throughout college. Last fall I had an ongoing discussion with my son about why it would behoove him, as a possible college English major himself, to take a Shakespeare elective in his last semester of high school. (He is having none of it.)

randjAs I’ve reflected these past few weeks on the Gospel of Mark, the thing that has me thinking about Shakespeare is not any particular play, but stage directions. Shakespeare’s stage directions were always very spare, essential three- or four-word instructions that Shakespeare left, instructions that always included a verb and only more if absolutely necessary. The most famous of these comes from “The Winter’s Tale”: Exit, pursued by a bear. Somewhere in the development of playwriting—and if your studies took you out of the 17th century you will know more than I do about this—stage directions became far more than the bare essentials. Some playwrights seem to need to spell out every minute detail of a scene, leaving nothing to individual directors, producers or, heaven forbid, the actors.

Mark’s gospel is like Shakespeare’s stage directions. Especially this Epiphany season. Our gospels resound with Epiphany verbs. These are the verbs that reflect what Jesus did. They also are our one-word stage directions for being followers: Come, proclaim, repent, believe, call, leave, go, follow, teach, heal. 

Much is left to the imagination. And, we hope, to the Spirit. As we strive to follow, believe, go, or teach, no one is going to tell us where to stand or what to wear or what to do with our hands. That’s up to us. Gloriously challenging and freeing. What Epiphany verbs are going to direct you in the coming weeks?

The fourth day of Christmas: no cats, not sorry

IMG_3371The first Christmas we lived in our house we had cats. Well, we had cats for lots of Christmases, but the first year, they were new, rambunctious kittens. So we got a live, potted tree instead of a dead, cut one. That was in 1993; a guy would drive around in his big pick-up delivering the trees with copious instruction on how to care for them. Then he’d pick them up again a week or so later—any longer and it would hurt the tree to stay indoors. Then he’d sell the tree, along with a hundred others, so some tree farm out in the country. His customers were basically renting the trees from him on their way to being delivered to their permanent home. In 1993 this rental cost about $35, back then the same price as a medium-gorgeous noble fir. After transitioning, once our cats simmered down, back to traditional trees, I looked the guy up a few years ago and he was still doing his thing, but asking $150. I continue to opt for a cut, dead tree.

We bought our cats Christmas presents every year: catnip toys or special treats. One year, I got them these ornaments that we hung each year at the bottom of the tree for them to bat around. We still hang them there even now that the cats have both been gone for several years.

IMG_3371Before we became parents, we had friends over for dinner and we spent the evening talking about our cats the way others talk about their children. A year or two later we had all had kids, and our cats were demoted from being family members to pets. As they got older, I realized I really wasn’t that kind of a cat person. I liked them young or middle-aged, didn’t mind if they were cuddly or indifferent, but wasn’t going to be a good care-for-them-by-any-means-necessary cat owner. I was grateful when they both passed on, and am grateful for the past few years of being pet-free. These little guys hanging from the tree are all the cats we need.

The third day of Christmas: what does this bug have to do with the Northwest Industrial area?

IMG_3372This bug is one of a collection of bug ornaments given to us by my mother one year. I think everyone got bugs from her that year. We have a grasshopper, a ladybug, this fellow, and a multitude of beetles. (Because, as we know from J.B.S. Haldane, “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”)

This ornament reminds me, every time I see it, of my mother’s far-reaching creativity and aesthetic. She is a woman of many talents, and brings an artistic flair to everything: sewing, cooking, home decor, gift-wrapping, horticulture. I have none of these talents but I like to think that what I have gotten for her is an equally wide-ranging aesthetic appreciation. Only with my mother can I laugh and giggle about the collection of bugs she gave us for Christmas. Only with her can I drive through Portland’s Northwest Industrial area and say: Isn’t this gorgeous? For that, as for so many things, I give thanks.industrial-area

The second day of Christmas: What do you collect?

IMG_3373Every year I think I’m going to have a smaller, simpler tree. Or a themed tree; do you ever do that? Restrict the tree to ornaments that are white, or hand-made or given to us as gifts, or angels, or birds?  Each year, no matter what, my handful of Margaret Furlong ornaments, which I miraculously store in their original boxes year after year, are always the first ornaments on the tree.

Each year when I re-encounter these white porcelain ornaments with their satisfying weight my mind goes to phenomenon of collecting things. Some people do, and some don’t. I’m in the “some don’t” category, but I always want to jump ship into the sea of collectors.

I get oddly envious when I encounter others’ collections: pie birds, vintage bottles, conch shells, antique tape measures, or anything else that it would never occur to me to collect until I see it on someone else’s shelves. Years ago I worked with someone who had a snow-globe collection. She was being interviewed by someone from the New York Times and she didn’t want to have the person come to her apartment, so she brought all her snow-globes into the office. They lined all the shelves on three walls; probably about 300 snow-globes (she really didn’t want that photographer in her apartment!). They chronicled every trip she’d ever taken, as well as every friendship with anyone who cared enough about her or her collection to contribute.

What make some people collectors?

To a non-collector, it looks like it’s about loyalty and discipline. These are not qualities I lack, so there must be something else. It’s not like I have trouble holding onto things. But my things are more accumulations than collections. Yarn. Greeting cards. Knick-knacks. Perhaps the loyalty and discipline that sets collecting apart from accumulating is wed to particularity, a singularity of focus that sets collections apart from accumulation.

I’m left with more questions than answers. If I’m lucky, you who are collectors will comment: what do you collect? Why? What does it mean to you? What are your plans?

Ornamental thoughts….the first day of Christmas

IMG_3377Behold, a train. One of far too many Christmas ornaments in our family’s collection. Every year I try to cull through them; the past few years I’ve been somewhat successful. One of these years I will remember to get the box of cast-offs to someone who will appreciate them at just the right time of year. December, not February.

We got several train ornaments when my son was of the age when trains provided infinite excitement and collectibility. I realize that some for some people, this could be any age. For our boy, it was about three to six.

But this train ornament, today, is symbolic not of our family’s train era so much as of that  train that we all have running through our heads, that train that is at times fascinating, at times tedious.

Train of thought.

My husband and I are particularly fond of writer Nicholson Baker, who manages to make great writing out of even the most tedious train of thought. Long ago we incorporated the phrase “Nicholson Bakerian” into our domestic lexicon as a way of introducing a meandering yet—one hopes—followable explanation of the mental journey one took to arrive at what one is about to say. With the right level of consciousness and detail, there are no non sequiturs, ever.

What strikes me every Christmas when I put the ornaments on the tree are the associations I have with each ornament. Because I obviously have a little more time on my hands these days than I am used to (and you can read all about it here), my offering, for these twelve days of Christmas—in addition to the reminder to myself and my secular friends that there are, in fact, twelve days of Christmas—are brief meditations, meanderings, on these associations.