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The Vorpal Bunny: An Eastertide Post

The first church I served after surviving my M.Div. was in New Canaan, on what is known as the Connecticut Gold Coast.  If you want some sense of New Canaan, take this concentrated website and add two parts water.  Not every single household there is super-duper-duper wealthy (and, of course, not everyone there is a man with a cigar) but it is definitely a Yankee form of swanky.

My favorite Easter story comes from that year of ministry, with a man named John Gerlach.  John was winsomely manic about his faith.  He had left the craziness of the New York corporate world after Jesus found him, and he enjoyed stirring up holy mischief in this United Methodist parish.  On Easter, wearing a huge grin, he greeted everyone coming in the door with “Happy Day of the Resurrection!”  Loudly.  With flourish.  And, when people looked confused, he just kept going, on to the next person: “Happy Day of the Resurrection!”  It was gauche to be too verbal about one’s religious convictions in New Canaan.  And to be so fundamentalist as to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ was downright tacky. God bless weird John Gerlach.   I have a hard time saying the words “Happy Easter” even today without feeling I am being hopelessly accommodationist.

George Lindbeck was one of my favorite professors at Yale, and two of my best Lindbeck stories involve Easter.  I’ll tell the hard one first.  Way back when I completed my dissertation, on which The Treachery of Love is based, George Lindbeck called me on the phone.  He said such gracious things about the manuscript that I was genuinely confused.  I didn’t realize I had written something so well worth reading.  But he was concerned about a conspicuous lack of the Resurrection in the book – that is, a conspicuous lack of Easter joy.  I had so focused on the cross that I missed the next chapter, so to speak. (George Pattison also wrote as much, in Danish, in his review of the book.)  I will return to this detail later.  For now, the second story is important.

As a second year M.Div. student (way before I ever read Kierkegaard) I was in a small seminar on ecclesiology.  I think I was the only woman.  And I was young.  And confused.  And when I am confused, I ask more questions.  There were all of these unwritten assumptions going on in the seminar, and, at one point, while trying to understand something we had read, I used the word “symbol” in the same sentence with the word “cross.” Some of the students in the class gasped.  I remember in particular the visiting scholar from Germany looking at me, visibly aghast.  George Lindbeck ignored their remonstrations and tried to explain patiently the problem with seeing the cross as a symbol.  I didn’t understand, so I asked more questions.  Were the silly trappings of Easter the problem?  Like, the bunny and the eggs and the bonnets?  “No, no, no,” he said with a frustrated wave of his hand (confusing some of the dour students).  “The bunny isn’t a problem.  I don’t begrudge the children a bunny.”  He then made up a précis of a symbol-cross Easter sermon  – wherein the Resurrection is a symbol, an example, or an instance, of a universal experience of something or other.  I finally got it!  That is the problem with making the cross into a symbol.  Whether on the grand scale (say, genocide) or the micro scale (say, domestic abuse) human horror is not the cross, and human redemption is not “the Resurrection.”   “Oh!  That is the deadly bunny with the teeth!”  It was the only time I made George Lindbeck LOL.  (See this grisly video if you are as lost as the German scholar was.)  Making the Cross and the Resurrection into symbols might seem nice and cuddly and furry, but it is a dangerous shift in meaning.  (This makes George Lindbeck into the character with the strange, horned hat in the skit.  And Pierre Teilhard de Chardin into the foolish knight, maybe?)

When John Gerlach went around scaring people with “the Resurrection” that Easter Sunday in New Canaan, he was trying to take the symbol out of their Easter.  He was declaring with annoying repetition that, when United Methodists say “The Lord is Risen Indeed!” we don’t mean that some concept of human hope is irrepressible.  We don’t mean that some vague sense of the human spirit is floating above the particulars of our bodies and delights and predicaments.  We mean that Jesus Christ is Risen, from the dead.  This crazy fact matters for our matter.  But, if we make the cross into a symbol of some facet of something called human experience, or human history, or evolutionary theory, or the resilience of democracy, etc, then we make Jesus a malleable, useful thing for our projects.  That is the bunny with the teeth.

Now, for the harder part.  What George Lindbeck said about my first book was right, in retrospect.  Trying to name Easter joy has been hard for me.  I wasn’t sure how to name Resurrection hope without betraying what I thought was my inescapable commitment to a very hard marriage.  The Resurrection is not symbolic, I got that.  Check.  But I wasn’t sure how to sort through the fact of God’s redeeming grace for my own life.  If Easter involves literal freedom from a literal tomb, and the redemption of our actual bodies, what did that mean for the actual me?  I didn’t know how to think that and still remain married.

Thinking right alongside the literal Resurrection of Jesus is messy, and confusing.  My daughter Emily made this point when she was about three years old.  Our dog Ernie was on his last leg.  He had lost control not only of his bladder but of his bowels, and we were doing doggie hospice at our house.   Emily asked me if Ernie would be in heaven.  She then asked if Ernie would be chasing squirrels in heaven.  And, would Ernie be eating in heaven?  This led to her inevitable conclusion that there would be pooping in heaven, and that it would all be somehow ok.  It turns out, reckoning with how God might redeem my own poopy life was much harder for me to do than to affirm the physical resurrection of Jesus for my dead dog.

It is still easier for me to name a theological impulse gone wrong – making the Resurrection a symbol – than to live into the very weird affirmation that “The Lord is Risen Indeed!”  But, three years out from divorce, I am beginning to risk it.  I am beginning to believe that, when Jesus Christ came out of that tomb, he brought me with him, even now, even here.

We sang a song at Trinity United Methodist on Easter Sunday that had awkward words and an unfamiliar tune.  (Our ambitious new music director is stretching us, hard.)  The hymn is by John Bell, and it is in the little, black paperback hymnal that we have to share awkwardly with our neighbors in the pew (because there are fewer copies than the red, hardbound hymnal).   The hymn is called “Christ Has Risen,” and I have been singing a phrase from it while sweeping and washing dishes.  “Christ has risen and forever lives to challenge and to change all whose lives are messed or mangled, all who find religion strange.”  I am not sure about Bell’s use of the word “religion.”  But I do know that this faith I am called to preach is strange.  And I know my messed and mangled life has been challenged, and is being changed.

So, “Happy Day of the Resurrection!”  Indeed.

The world is about to turn

We put this video together for Easter last year, but we like it so much we’re sharing it again.  Blessings to each one of you from your friends at ProfligateGrace.com – including Stan Goff, Kara Slade, and Amy Laura Hall. The music, “Canticle of the Turning,” is a paraphrase of the Magnificat. This version is from the Emmaus Way album Rite 7.


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[Kara Slade] A word at the end of words

I (KNS) gave this meditation for Good Friday at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Oxford, North Carolina.  It owes much to my reading of Volume IV of Barth’s Church Dogmatics (The Doctrine of Reconciliation), which I did this semester under Douglas Campbell.

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
sing the last, the dread affray;
o’er the cross, the victor’s trophy,
sound the high triumphal lay,
how, the pains of death enduring,
earth’s Redeemer won the day.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Those of you who were here last night heard me say that on Maundy Thursday we stand at the end of the world, looking towards the the turning point of history. And now we have arrived at that place. This day, this hour, is the pivot of the universe; this is the still point around which everything is turned upside-down. Now our Judge is judged in our place; now our prophet, priest, and King is lifted up from the earth, and he is drawing the whole world to himself. Now, the God who spoke the word of creation speaks one decisive word to sin, death, and the devil: “No.”

To be frank, it’s a word that leaves me without many words of my own. In theory, I could stand up here all day and pontificate about Jesus’ suffering and the significance of the Atonement. It’s one of my specialties as a theologian, so you’d think I might have a lot to say. But one thing I think I’ve learned in all my work is this: the word God speaks today is the end of all our words. This is a time for silence and stillness, not for speech.

Preparing for today’s service, I’ve been very much reminded of “Burnt Norton,” the first part of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
[Elevation]* without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure.

Perhaps what Eliot is gesturing towards here is none other than the Good News on this Good Friday; and yes, there is good news, because we know how the story ends. This end of the world is also the beginning of a new creation. This stillness reveals the intimate dance that is the Triune God. And the “No” that echoes today in the desolate silence of this bare church divides what has been from what will be. It wasn’t God’s first word to humanity, and it isn’t his last either. In the meantime, we wait, but not as those without hope.

Today God says No to everything that separates us from him.

But only because God also says Yes to everything that reconciles us to him.

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

Amen.

* In the original Eliot uses the German Erhebung, but I translated it for homiletic purposes. 

[Jim Ayers] Skin

We are honored to share a poem by Jim Ayers, a good friend of the Green Street Girls and a beloved and tirelessly active member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Durham. He is originally from Georgia, but Durham has claimed him for a long time.

Holy Week blessings from your friends at Profligate Grace. – ALH and KNS

It was a cold place and the wind blew strong enough to peel the skin from my bones.
I begged for a warm house and a roaring fire in a hearth.
He gave me a coat.

It was a dry place and the sun would have burned the skin from my bones.
I begged for a cold stream, a smooth pool to wash away the heat.
He gave me a cup of tepid water.

It was a lonesome place and emptiness would have shriveled the skin from my bones.
I begged for a party with friends who loved me.
He gave me a singing bird at my window.

It was a hurting place and pain would have peeled the skin from my bones.
I begged for a balm on my soul to soothe away the agony.
He gave me a night of troubled sleep.

It was a raging place and the anger would have cut the skin from my bones.
I begged for a sword to drive away my enemy.
He gave me tears.

Why! Why!
Just a coat and not a fireplace?
Just a cup and not a pool?
Just a bird and not a party?
Just sleep and not a balm?
Just tears and not a sword?
Why?

He showed me a whip and thorns.
He showed me nails and a spear.
He showed me lashed, torn, skin with wounds and punctures.
“What are these things?” I asked Him, “Must I look at them?”
“I will take the coat and cup and bird and sleep and tears.
“They are enough.”

Then He put me in a house,
With a fireplace and a pool,
Friends and good conversation,
Peace and safety.
And He gave me new skin, smooth, unwounded, strong.

Jesus Visits Downton Abbey

I met Lillian Daniel in a class with Rowan Greer at Yale Divinity School, way back in 1990. We’ve been friends in ministry ever since.  I am so happy to recommend this fabulous sermon on a horrible television show!


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