Sunday, May 27, 2012

Can't Bear It Now?

            One very nice thing about Pentecost is that Hallmark has not yet found out about it.  Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day cards crowd out any possibility that one could find a nice card with doves or flames, touting, "Happy Pentecost!"  One not-so-good thing about Pentecost is that Hallmark has not yet found out about it.  Hallmark and a lot of other people don’t have a clue as to what Pentecost is or means.  Christians, and not nearly all of them, are in churches today saying things like, “The Spirit of God fills the whole earth,” and no one outside hears a thing.  Nothing seems changed from yesterday afternoon. 

            But the point of Pentecost is not how popular it is, but how true it is.  Truth does not have to do with what really happened once upon a time.  Truth has to do with what holds for all time, and thus eternity.  That is something that is at once so simple and so hard for people to grasp, perhaps because we have mostly been brought up to believe that what is true is whatever we can see, measure, demonstrate, validate, prove, corroborate, and so on.  Experience itself teaches us otherwise.  Ask most people in Washington today, for example, what is the most important thing in the world and a good many, if not a majority, will likely answer “love.”  But take the conversation further and ask them what love is and you will quickly run aground, because, although we know love when we feel it or experience it, it is almost impossible to describe except by analogy.  This most important thing in our lives is something that we can barely describe, let alone pin down, and even more remotely measure in any sense.  But we know it when we see it.  We know it when we feel it.  We know it when we receive it.  And yet, love is like quicksilver:  it can deceive, so that what we are most certain is an experience of love might turn out to be a hoax.  Still, such hoaxes and disappointments rarely leave us believing that there is no such thing as love. 

            Pentecost is like that.  It is an affair with the Presence of God.  It does not lend itself to neat quantifications or solid explanations.  Pentecost is neither a fact nor an idea, neither a symbol nor a proposition.  Pentecost happens whenever the reality of God erupts in human experience causing a profound change in human behavior. Pentecost happens when the Presence of God invades ordinary rational boundaries upending set priorities.  Pentecost happens when the Presence of God strikes a blow to human suppositions, as when the weak are empowered, when the frightened are strengthened, when the downtrodden are treated with respect, or when the outcast are invited in. 

            Pentecost, in short, is a celebration of God among us.  That is the whole thing in a nutshell.  The Spirit of God, as distinct from the Creator who is behind all things and as distinct from Jesus, is the God we know in our presence, in our bodies, in our stories, in the multitude of little incidents that comprise our lives.  God present with us.  

            But there is more.  Jesus says to his disciples that it is a good thing that he is going away, because otherwise the Advocate—the Spirit—would not come.  But, since he is going, Jesus will send the Advocate.  Then he says something very interesting.  “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  What things?  We may well wonder.  And yet it is apparent to us, two millennia later, that things which were imponderable in the first century have clearly been the work of the Holy Spirit in the intervening time.  It is the nature of God with us to lead us into all Truth.  The band of disciples that Jesus was talking with in John’s gospel could never have imagined women in places of leadership as they now assume in the Church.  They could not have borne a discussion about table fellowship of Jews and Gentiles, let alone a community inclusive enough to welcome and respect homosexual persons.  They could not have borne to hear many things that even today many people cannot bear to hear and to ponder.  But the Truth is that the Holy Spirit leads us into all Truth.  There will always be some who imagine that the full Truth of everything was apparent right in the beginning, and that any additions or accretions since have been error, not Truth.  But the Spirit will never leave it at that, because the Spirit is God present at work in the world about us, nearer than the air we breathe, exposing the incompleteness of the last generation’s grasp of Truth, leading us to embrace new things, to sing new songs, to speak in new languages that only a short while ago we could not have borne the idea of doing. 

            Wonder of wonders, when we begin to open our minds and our imaginations to the possibilities of God, we begin to see how limited our former notions have been.  It is not unlike looking back at something we painted as a child, or something we wrote as a teenager, or something we wore twenty years ago.  We don’t necessarily reject what we did or wore or were, but we are not infrequently amused, a little embarrassed perhaps that what seemed so fitting (and was!) at one stage, seems to be so outgrown and outworn now.  But that tends only to happen if we are growing, and not busy trying to justify to the rest of the world or to ourselves what we think or believe we know.  For the Holy Spirit to lead us into all Truth, we have to be on some level willing to follow, and almost always that means a willingness on our part to embark on journeys into unfamiliar, sometimes terrifying, territory.  But it is in such places that we find ourselves able to embrace what but a few years ago we could not have borne.

            Over the door of the Bishop Payne Library of Virginia Theological Seminary are the words of Dr. William Sparrow, one of the professors in the 19th century.  “Seek the Truth, come whence it may, cost what it will.” That is the work of the Holy Spirit.  And that is the work cut out for you and me.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012

Monday, May 07, 2012

No End

 If ever there was an Easter story cut out for the skeptic, it is what you just heard from Mark. That may well be true because Mark might have been writing to skeptics. Some things that Mark says in his gospel hint that he was writing to Christians who were being tested, and very likely persecuted. Nearly everybody who studies Mark seriously concludes that he was writing to folks who were under considerable pressure. And not just ordinary pressure, but life-threatening pressure. Jesus spends a couple of chapters in Mark teaching his disciples about suffering, beginning with a heads-up about his own impending passion, which he predicts and discusses no fewer than three times. Suffering and betrayal, wars and strife, displacement and terrorism have a way of making one a zealot, a martyr, or a skeptic. A great many of us, hauled off by police or threatened in court, not to mention possibly staring our execution in the face, are prone to become skeptics, wondering if what we have been giving our lives to is really worth the bother, feeling that the system that presses the juice out of human beings is rigged against us permanently. There are many reasons to lose faith. There are many reasons not to trust.

Maybe that is why several Easter stories begin in the dark, for that is where we find ourselves at least some of the time, especially under threat or pressure. In Mark, the sun had risen, and in English this comes off as a pun, though I doubt that Mark had English in mind. It was “very early,” and the three women braved it, carrying a load of spices, padding toward the cemetery. No matter how much light was breaking over the purple east, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were positively in the dark. They, like all lovers on their way to see a corpse for the last time, were dark with grief. And they were in the dark, too, about what had happened during the night.

It happens with some frequency to the skeptic that clouds of one kind or another gather, keeping out the light. You may think that by noting this I have a black eye to give the skeptic. Not so. I assume that you, like me, are one, or have been one. Skeptics are not those who are mean or dull or stupid, nor those who lob grenades into intellectual discussions just for the fun of the explosion, or who delight in smacking down others’ piety. Skeptics (we get that word from a Greek one that nowhere appears in the New Testament) are those who are thoughtful and reflective. They are not ready to jump into believing something just because somebody says to, or because it might make them feel good. Sometimes the skeptical were born skeptical, probing and questioning and challenging and suspending judgment from the beginning. Other times, however, events and other people teach us to be skeptical. People that we once trusted let us down. People who we thought we could count on don’t show up. Systems that we once pledged allegiance to turn out to be run by those who care nothing about us. Ideals that once gleamed in our eyes become relics of disenchantment. Any of those clouds can bring on gloom. And though a skeptic need not be gloomy, give one enough clouds a-clustering and they will pry loose the firmest grip of simplistic faith.

These women go to anoint the body of the dead Jesus because that it what the situation requires. We can excuse them for wondering who will roll away the stone, for one does not necessarily create in advance a plan to deal with all the eventualities when one is distressed. We can appreciate their not jumping to conclusions about the stone having been rolled back. They enter the tomb.

Interestingly, the stories of the empty tomb seem to have come into Christian lore later than stories of the resurrected Jesus. Paul, for example, makes no mention of the empty tomb, which had nothing to add to his experience of meeting the Risen Lord on the Damascus road. The Letter to the Hebrews, another product of very early Christianity, says a good deal about the temple, but nothing about the tomb. This, of course, means nothing about the factuality of the tomb—but it does suggest that, with the passage of time, people, like Mark’s readers, began to connect their lives to those lives in the old stories about the resurrection. That is the way any of us begins to get meaning, and inspiration, and guidance. We see or hear something, often a story, that sheds light on the very dark we are going through. More frequently, we form a relationship with a person—perhaps even a person in a photograph, a movie, a book—some human being that we can bond with. I once knew a man who, when he was a boy, grew up in abject poverty, without caring parents, without friends, without encouragement from any human being. But there was stored in the barn an old 19th century framed picture of some Scottish ancestor, dressed in Highland garb. When he would sneak away to the barn to avoid the noise and abuse going on in the house, he would look for hours at the old Scot in the frame, who became his model of manhood.

These women entering the tomb form such a picture—one of ordinary people in a bleak, but not uncommon, situation, one that we can relate to. They were expecting to find a corpse, but instead they saw someone very much alive. They were expecting silence, and instead heard a proclamation. “Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, overcome with terror and amazement, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And that is the end of the Gospel according to Mark.

Scholars have speculated and argued for a long time about whether that is the last of it, or whether we are missing a page. You will notice in some Bibles two attempts to supply what clearly Mark did not, a hodge-podge of resurrection stories with a few new details thrown in. But I think, if there were anything ever inspired in Scripture, it is the ending of Mark’s gospel with the women fleeing from the tomb, terrified and amazed, unable to say anything to anybody. Why? Because the ending of the story has to be written by you. You get to decide whether you simply adopt somebody else’s ending or supply your own. And the way to do it is to go to the tomb yourself.

There is a tomb, and it is right here where you are. We call it the baptismal font. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. Water comes up over us when we are being baptized just as real as the forces of death that overtook Jesus on his cross, just as palpable as the cold stone of the tomb in which his dead body lay. Down under that water we go, as if for a minute we were breathing the last breath of a ruined creation. And suddenly, the stone is rolled away. The power of God seizes us, and draws us up out of the death-waters into the light of day, so that the death-waters become the birth-waters of new life, and the tomb becomes a womb. From that moment on, our feet are firmly planted in the Way of Christ. What we do with the rest of our lives is in a very real sense what we make of the resurrection of the body.

You would think that a church full of flowers, trumpeting its best music, clad all in the white and gold of joy would have no room for skepticism in all this. You might say that the deck is stacked against any who would look the least bit askance at the proclamation that he is risen. You would be wrong. Don’t forget that we remember. We remember that at least this Easter story tells us that the prospect of a Risen Lord, not to mention one who brings us body and all into his own New Life, is startling, amazing, even terrifying. No less a woman than the Magdalene, known elsewhere in gospel tradition as forthright and courageous, flees from the tomb, afraid to tell a soul—at least for the moment—she is so shaken. And that is sometimes what one must do when one has come out of the water of baptism, or more likely, when one has renewed the baptismal promises to follow Jesus along the Way. And it is especially true once we really do begin to believe it, heart and soul. To be a part of a community that actually vows in all earnestness to love as Jesus loved, to pray, to give, to serve, to forgive: well, all of that is enough to shake us like an earthquake and to shut our mouths to any easy platitudes.

 But do you want to stop the gospel story there? Stop with nothing more to say than a faint, “I doubt it”? Or do you want to finish the chapter, or write another, telling of how you went home, as if to Galilee, and found him there just as he said he’d be? Do you want to search for him in the world among the poor and the war-wounded and the dispossessed? Do you want to learn on deeper levels what actually happens when you go from symbolically washing another’s feet to the place where you actually pour out yourself not only for the sake of people you like or love but equally for people you really can’t stand? Do you want to know the power of resurrection if that power unleashes in you talents that you get nervous thinking you might express? Would you really forego the possibility that, trusting in the power of the Spirit that raised Jesus and raised you, you could have a life that would take you to places you would rather not go, but where you would find inexpressible joy? Can you write in your life a story of resurrection that is about how you learned in the last quarter of your life how to let go of control and put yourself in the hands of others, without fussing, without whining, and without fear? Do you want to follow the Truth you hear in Jesus, even if it means getting arrested, offending your family, taking up a politically unpopular cause? We need not fewer but more skeptics, people who are thoughtful and reflective, people who, like Jesus, question authority, people willing to entertain the notion that the conventions everyone else seems to live by are not all there is to God’s universe. And if, like the three women in the chill of a Jerusalem morning long ago, you find yourself fleeing the dark tomb and its promise of New Life, write the story you want to be a part of. Compose something that you can believe. There is a Galilee out beyond unquestioned faith and endless faithless questions. He will meet you there, as he said.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012