An Easter Story

ImageI met Christ today in the person of a seven-year-old girl named Eloise. She came up to me while I was sitting on a rock along the lakeside. I was silently praying, asking for healing, using words from a favorite poem by Nancy Wood: “Earth cure me. Earth receive my woe. Rock strengthen me. Rock receive my weakness.” 

Up comes Eloise saying “hello.”

Then she said to me, “I’m going to go throw this rock in the water.” She was wearing a blue and white checkered skirt, one red sock and one blue one, florescent yellow shoes, a blue t-shirt with personal messages written on it, and a pink and green sparkling hat over bright red hair, still drying from a jump in the lake. 

“Okay” I said. She threw the rock, and then watched it. The rock disappears, and what is left is ever-widening circles. When the ripples stopped she said, “I like to watch the ripples and see how far they go and how they disappear.” 

I find myself smiling. The kind of smile you can’t even stop. 

Then Christ tells me, “The earth is really wonderful, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is” I tell Eloise, as tears catch in my eyes. 

She throws another rock, watches it. “I like to watch the light in the circles on the water” she says. And then, “Do you want to throw one?” She hands me a rock. So I throw a rock with Christ, and we watch it sink out of sight, and watch the circles widen and then disappear again. I think about a rock receiving my pain. I think about that rock disappearing to sink to the bottom of the lake. I think about how that pain causes ripples that touch other people, other parts of life, widening. But then it dissipates, and the water returns returns to the surface it was. 

Our lives aren’t quite like that. We may never recover like water. But I pray: Let me be like water. Returning, smoothing to calm. Let me return easily to a good-soul state–a sacred space. “The world is really amazing isn’t it?” Christ interrupts again. And I try not to show my emotion. “I mean,” she continues, “it’s so limitless. I bet there are places on this earth where no one has ever been.”

“Yes, I bet that’s true.” I say, thinking I had those same thoughts when I was her age, praying for her and what may come in her life. 

“I have to go now” she says to me. “But I’m going to throw one more rock. You can have the rest.” She pulls rocks out of her skirt pocket. We watch her last rock go into the water, and when the ripples go away, her family, who have been watching from about twenty feet away, call to her and say “Okay, Eloise, it’s time to move on.” I fantasize for a moment that maybe they know they are disciples, walking around with Christ, who is making resurrection appearances at the lakeside. But probably not. Resurrection seems often to be a little hidden. 

“It was nice to meet you, Eloise” I tell Christ. And I think in my head of all the places Christ is present. In this girl, in this rock, in this world, and in me. In the name of the God who is still creating, redeeming, and sustaining, I am a child of God. 

I Baptize People on Saturdays. What.

I also baptize people on Sundays or Tuesdays or any other day. I baptize people in “worship” on a Sunday morning, and outside of the context of the normal worship service. I don’t just do this in “extra ordinary circumstances” and I would even do it during the church season of Lent.

I know that in seminary the professor who teaches this kind of thing would pre-arrange to have a grave that would keep him rolling over throughout eternity over this. I know some of you pastor-types will have issues too. I know because I just baptized a one year old who had not been baptized yet because another pastor apparently said no. I didn’t ask a lot of questions about why they couldn’t do it in a Sunday morning service. The surface answer was that they had trouble finding a time to get everyone together. I accepted that.

I understand that Lutherans believe the community has a role in baptism, making promises to support these people being baptized throughout their life’s journey. I also tell people this when they ask me about having a baptism outside of the context of the church. But if they begin to look defeated and tired, I tell them this is what is preferred but there is space to talk about doing something differently.

I work in a church for half of my job, but in the other half I work outside of traditional church with a lot of people in their 20’s and 30’s who don’t go to church. The ones who don’t go to church usually have some story in their past that is about some kind of rejection from the church, and I am trying to prevent that from happening.

I also do it because of this: I believe people who read the Bible and understand it as holy were given the task of going out and baptizing. The author who wrote that Jesus said that did not say “in worship on Sunday mornings with a whole faith community gathered” and he did not say “but not in the season of Lent” (the season of Lent didn’t exist yet). The way I understand baptism, it is one way we know of God’s Grace in our lives. It is about what God does and not about what we do (and I believe that means both those being baptized, and me, and the rest of the community gathered). I don’t believe that others being present who are not family or friends hinders the Holy Spirit in any way.

Let me tell you about my Godchild, Sunday. She was baptized on a Sunday, but it was after all the “faithful people” gathered had gone home. Just the family gathered around the font. None of us went to church that morning. The pastor didn’t even say all the words that are normally in the service (no worries; I said the words later in the lake, even though I wasn’t a pastor. I marked her with the sign of the cross and told her I welcomed her into God’s family, received her a fellow member of the body of Christ. I told her she was a child of the same heavenly creator and a worker with us in the kingdom of God. I said it for all of you who consider yourselves to be part of the body of Christ who could not be present at that lake that day.)

Image

Sunday on her Baptism Day

This baptism happened outside of the context of Sunday morning worship because Sunday’s Mom and Dad didn’t go to church, and felt weird going back.

Sunday’s mom was a college friend of mine, and we had worked at a Bible camp together. Later, she got pregnant and eventually married this guy in a band, who smoked a lot of weed and had a lot of disdain for most of Christianity because of the particular brand of fundamentalism he had been surrounded  by in high school. But Sunday’s mom still wanted her kids to be baptized, so this was the compromise.

Some of you might be thinking about those promises parents make during the baptism: to raise your child among God’s faithful people, to place in their hands the Holy Scripture, to bring them to God’s table, etc. You might be thinking that people like this make a sham out of baptism, because clearly they have no intention of living up to these promises, so it renders baptism totally meaningless.

Sunday was baptized 14 years ago this past month. In October she will affirm her own baptism in a confirmation service that will likely be led by her mother–Pastor Chris Manisto. Chris was ordained in July of 2008, after a wandering path that reminds me that Tolkien was right–not all who wander are lost. Sunday and her dad (now sober for more than ten years) regularly sing together in church, and her older sister spent her summer first doing a Theology and Science camp, and then a border experience with a group of young leaders in the church.

I think they are all living into their baptismal promises. More than that it seems clear that God showed up on that day, even though it wasn’t during Sunday worship. More than that, I have no doubt the Holy Spirit is able to work in all kinds of circumstances.

If you are a Lutheran, and you want a good “Lutheran” reason for baptizing whenever, I’ll say this: Luther responded to some issue in the church by saying something like, “It may be good theology, but it’s bad pastoral care. And if it is bad pastoral care, it is bad theology.”

But mostly I’ll end by saying this: I promise to do the best I can to not let the church get in the way of the Holy Spirit. In the name of God who is still creating, sustaining and redeeming, Amen.

To whom shall we go?

I go to church almost every week. I go even though I don’t always know why we are all there and I am often disappointed with what I experience–or don’t experience–in church.

Today as I sat in church, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, MN (that’s my home church, though I end up in a lot of different churches) I worried I would experience that again. I sat wondering what it was I was expecting, and often don’t find. I think what I often miss is the glimpse of something luminous or holy or sacred–something outside of every day life that touches on something larger. Something that both drives me deep within and also lifts my attention to the world I am called to care for.

Today, I went hoping to hear good news proclaimed in a time of national tragedy. I also went as study–since I am also a pastor, sociologically and ecclesiologically, I wanted to see how this church would handle 20 kids dead (and 8 adults) across the country in Newtown, Connecticut in the middle of the Holidays.

I just prayed they wouldn’t ignore it, and drone on with the words we always say. And then this happened: We started the words of confession and forgiveness, and I heard the voices of the table full of children next to me, saying the words in that confession: “We are truly sorry” as I sat, thankful for their voices, thankful we were all in this room together in a posture of prayer, thankful they knew the words by memory because someday they might need them. As the words of forgiveness were said, I looked up and saw the line of water in the stained glass window behind the altar, that runs like a lifeline from a depiction of baptism to the cross.

Then we stood up to greet the Gospel, and we were all singing the oh-so-familiar words ”Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Those words take on new meaning when you are trying to figure out how to make sense of things like death that comes too early.

Sermon time–I saw all the chatter from my pastor-friends, trying to figure out how to address this tragedy, or if they should. I watched to see what would happen here. Pastor Matt McWaters first sat with the children and acknowledged that it was a dark time, and had been a hard week for many people. Then he asked them to help by doing three things: hugging their parents a little tighter, laughing and playing a little wilder, and telling their parents “I love you.”

I could see these children, paying attention to the gravity of the situation. They promised to hug, and laugh and love like they knew it was important.

Then Pastor Matt got behind the pulpit and, visibly shaken, preached his way into the good news of Christ until tears came down his face as he named the stupid things people might say at times like this, like that “God must have needed another angel” or “She’s home now” and just nailed those ridiculous unhelpful sentiments right to the cross and said it is not true–that God does not cause evil to happen, and reminding us that Christ always came that we might have life, and that always wins, and always comes in the dark places.

Amen.

During communion I heard the words of the song around me, talking about healing, as I made room for the man with his walker. I don’t know what healing looks like for this man, but it is moving nonetheless. I was reminded that these are the hurts we can see–how much more is inside each of us as we reach out our hands and hear the words spoken to us: This is the body of Christ, and it is given for you. After communion we hear words of blessing and hope–that at this meal we share we might be strengthened and kept in God.

Last week someone from The Project F-M book club said, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” She was talking about how she started going to church with her grandmother, and wasn’t sure why she went either, but now it has become important to her.

And then there are the words of my friend, Pastor Matthew Bolz-Weber who says, “The liturgy* works. You can’t say when or how, and you can’t force it, but it does work.”

If I didn’t go every week, and say those same words every week I might miss it. On this day, those words we repeat over and over and over had a different meaning.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia.

*liturgy is a churchy word that can variously be defined. One way to define it is that it is the prescribed ‘form’ for public worship, talking about the order of things, and what words are said when, and what is included, especially in the context of a worship service with Holy Communion.

Snow White, Our Latest Messiah

Snow WhiteI saw the new movie Snow White and the Huntsman the other day. As I watched I was struck by how many parallels there were to the story of Jesus. There are “Messiah” stories everywhere (messiah meaning, someone to save/deliver us) And that is what Snow White is to the people of that land.

Here are some of the parallels I noted:

The child who plays snow white is born in some extra-ordinary way, with a blessing, like every messiah story, including the story of the birth of Jesus. That child is perceived as a threat to the authority (In this case, the queen; In Jesus’ case, Herod, and religious authorities). Snow White disappears (captive in a tower) for years, until she escapes, which is not so dissimilar to the “missing years” of the gospels with Jesus’ childhood. When Snow White escapes, she rides through this town where the villagers look at her suspiciously. This happened to Jesus too.

But others see her and feel moved by her in some way, saying that “she is the one who will save us. I see an end to the darkness.” They see creatures respond to her, not unlike the people in the gospels who tell stories about demons knowing who Jesus is, and calming the winds.

Snow White collects a group of people who protect her and vow to follow her and do whatever she says. But of course the group (you know, the seven dwarves) are varying degrees of not-so-smart—just like the disciples.

The huntsman teaches her how to kill someone who gets close to her, and she says “I don’t think I could ever do that” playing the nonviolence card. And of course, one day she gets fed this poisoned apple, and is pronounced dead. Several days later, (following the Jesus story) she comes back to life.

Now, here is where the story diverges from the story of Jesus the Christ. Snow White gets up, goes outside, and gives a rousing speech to the village people gathered about how it is the right time to rise up, and the question, “who will ride with me?” Of course they all respond, and she becomes a military leader, leading an assault on the castle that ends with her killing the queen.

This is the messiah I think we always want—even the one that people hoped Jesus was. They thought Jesus would gather the troops, ride into Jerusalem, abandon all his previous ideals and start a military revolution that would end the occupation and win freedom for the Jewish people. Well, the story we get of Jesus has him riding into Jerusalem, on a donkey or a colt. Not exactly starting violent revolution.

This is the messiah story that happens over and over and over again. Which is to say, when freedom and being “saved” have to do with storming castles and defeating enemies with violence, the peace that follows is always temporary, and always a ‘relative peace’ no matter what they say about living happily ever after.

Jesus’ resurrection tells a different kind of story (though some atonement models would say differently). For that reason alone I have some kind of faith in it. Because if this was simply a story made up by the hands of people, Jesus would have stormed the castle and ended the occupation, become the actual king of the Jews and then we all would have lived happily ever after, just like in a Disney story.

Instead the stories of his appearances talk about people’s eyes being opened, and understanding scripture, and learning that they must now be the people who will carry on his work of proclaiming good news. Instead he tells his disciples that if you love me you will feed people. Instead he tells people, “peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit.”

One could question whether this works, or will work, or is working any better than being saved through violence (the myth of redemptive violence, Walter Wink would call it). I don’t have any good answers to that question, but I am intrigued by this idea of God acting in ways very foreign to our ideas of what a “messiah” should be like. Because  after all these years we should know that storming the castle and beginning your happily-ever-after with victory, bloodshed, winners and losers, death and destruction—it just doesn’t work. There is no good news—no gospel–in that kind of messiah story.

If you’re going through hell, keep going.

I guess Winston Churchill said that. Someone else once said (and someone else put it on a card) “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

These are the two quotes that keep sticking in my head during Holy week, especially on this day, the Saturday before Easter. If you’re going through hell, keep going. I don’t know what Winston Churchill meant by this but it seems to me to say something about death and resurrection.

What the hell? That’s always the question. On Huff post this week there’s an article about what Jesus did in those three days between death and the empty tomb. Some parts of our tradition talk about descending into hell, and there are various thoughts about why, or what he was doing there. I once had a friend ask me, “what the hell did I ever do that was SO BAD that Jesus had to go to hell for three measly days so that I don’t have to spend an eternity there?”

Well, it’s a good question, but one that is a little bit lost on me. I don’t really believe in this physical place of fire and brimstone with a dark overlord best depicted in the South Park movie. But I can tell you this: Even in my own life, I have experienced really dark nights; I have gone through hard things that felt like the end. That felt like Hell. We all have. I imagine genocide feels like hell. I imagine war feels like hell. I imagine devastating earthquakes and tsunamis feel like hell. I imagine it feels like hell when you go through those things and nobody seems to care enough to help.

I also know about the dark voices in my head that keep me (as Martin Luther would say) curved in on myself, unable to offer my best self to the world. And that can feel like the devil. So we have these stories that personify and animate what we experience in life, because it’s the truth. Sometimes life is hell, and sometimes those voices that keep us down feel like evil incarnate.

So maybe when we hear the stories of Jesus being put to death on a cross, and then going to hell we can get it. The cross is hell. And Jesus went there. Maybe we can come to understand not that Jesus went there in your place, but instead that there is nothing you can experience and no place where you can go where Christ isn’t there with you.

And then the resurrection—which we experience as well. We know from our lives that it really is true—that life keeps going, and that in the end it will be okay. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

So if you’re going through hell, keep going. It’s not the end.

Not a hopeless case

“I don’t believe in miracles” the boy says in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Yeah. I don’t either. Except that they happen sometimes and I can’t explain them away. Weird things happen all the time in the world, things that were doomed to die end up living. People that never should have met end up meeting. Forgiveness happens. Wounds heal.

Of course, the opposite happens as well. People who should live end up dying. People who should never meet never meet. We take grudges to our graves. We keep open wounds. I guess that’s why its so hard to believe in miracles.

For churchy-types, we’re stuck in a set of stories about miracles right now. I never know what to do with them. Ignore them? Pretend its not weird that Jesus touched a guy with a skin disease and he was “made clean?”

I have no answers here, just a pondering of questions. For my part, I really am going to ignore the healing part, and focus instead on the anger that, (the story tells us) made Jesus reach out and touch this man, rendering him untouchable himself. Or, rendering nothing untouchable anymore. As Bono screams in Beautiful Day, “Touch me…I know I’m not a hopeless case.”

And none of us are. None of us are. But its still the case that every single one of the people we are told Jesus healed eventually died. So there’s that. But then, I guess Jesus did too. And turned that around to not-a-hopeless-case.

“It will be a miracle if you find the lock this key goes to” says the woman back to Oscar in the movie. Of course, he does. It’s the movies. But it isn’t exactly the way he thought it would go. It never is. Miracles probably happen every day and we just can’t recognize them, because we’re looking for something different.

(PS. See the movie. It’s really good.)

The Journey of the Magi

Someday I’ll quit posting other people’s poetry, but I love this poem about the story of the Magi by TS Eliot. I love it because it talks about how meeting the Christ changed their lives, speaking of it as a death–a death of their ideas of power and material comfort. They returned to the places they came from, but “no longer at ease there.” A common experience for anyone who travels and encounters a new horizon on which people know things in a different way.

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.