Seven Stanzas at Easter

American novelist, the late John Updike, was greatly influenced in his writing by his Catholic faith. He wrote this poem while he was still in his twenties.

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

Stuck on Good Friday

Some time ago, Gary Scott Smith, then chair of the History Department at Grove City College, wrote a book called Heaven in the American Imagination. He said our ideas of heaven come, not just from religious tradition, but from the culture and current events. He said people’s view of heaven has changed over time.

Prior to 1800, people viewed heaven as a place of worship and service to God.

After the civil war, ideas about heaven shifted to images of service, education, and personal growth.

Heaven now is viewed as “a place of comfort, enriching entertainment, self-actualization, robust relationships, and bliss.” Heaven is seen as a haven from the ills of the world, a magnificent home, a vacation resort, a perpetual playground, a therapeutic center. Some are afraid that heaven could be boring, hence an emphasis on great entertainment.

Dr Smith wasn’t trying to make a religious point. He was simply saying that people tend to project their ideas of heaven and the resurrection onto God. It’s been going on for centuries.

But our ideas are too small.

Our faith is stuck on Good Friday, and so we fail to grasp the significance of Easter.

Why stuck on Good Friday? Because nothing moves us quite like the idea of someone laying down their life for another. It’s powerful. So, it’s not so hard to believe that Jesus died for us; that our sins have been forgiven.

We can grasp the idea that the slate has been wiped clean. God cares. It all fits into a therapeutic world view. It’s all about what God does for us. 

Of course, God loves us; that’s what God is for.

Of course, we deserve another chance.   

So, the Good Friday story is one we can kind of imagine. 

But the resurrection is where our worldview and our experience fail us.

Nothing prepares us for the God who rises for us.

Death is not the end!

This is way more than therapy; more than self-actualization; way, way more than entertainment.

We can walk with God again. 

Our actions in this life have eternal consequences.

God is making all things new. Time to get unstuck.

Broiled

Last week, when tornadoes cut a path of destruction across the south, I kept thinking how awful, to have to deal with one crisis on top of another. 

A visible crisis on top of an invisible pandemic.

Later, I came across a story online about the Red River cresting near Grand Forks, North Dakota. It was the eighth worst flood there on record, but it hadn’t made the headlines. I guess there wasn’t enough space to cover all the bad news. 

Everywhere people are hurting in real, but often unseen, ways. They’re losing loved ones, losing jobs, losing dreams, to an invisible pandemic which also takes away some of the best ways to help.

Like hugs. 

Like just sitting and weeping with someone.

Let me offer one thought. When the newly risen Jesus met the disciples in the upper room on the night of the first Easter, they were so hurting they couldn’t see him for who he really was. They thought he was a ghost. Jesus asked for something to eat, and they gave him a piece of broiled fish.

Broiled.

Not baked or fried.

It’s the only time the word “broiled” is used in the whole Bible. Why?

Because it really happened that way. This is an eyewitness account.

Your grief is real, and Jesus wants you to know he is too.

Your grief isn’t invisible to him.

God on the loose

The late Presbyterian Minister and Theologian Shirley Guthrie used to tell about a friend who would call him every Easter. When Guthrie picked up the phone, the friend would shout, “Jesus is on the loose!” and hang up.

Our friends at the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community here in Pittsburgh once used dramas in worship in place of preaching. One drama had Jesus on the loose in the mall at Christmas, surprising hurried shoppers who hadn’t expected to encounter the one for whom Christmas was named.

Easter means that God is on the loose.

The empty tomb isn’t a metaphor, like “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” or “spring follows winter.”

God came first to the people on earth least likely to believe that God could become human, or that a human being could rise from the dead.

After they put Jesus’ body in the tomb, his friends all went away heartbroken. No one was the least bit curious on that first Easter morning: “Hey guys, he kept telling us he would have to die but then rise on the third day. Don’t you think we ought to hang out there just in case?” 

None of them went. They would understand why we might be skeptical today.

Yet something happened that morning. A force was set loose that is still changing the world.

Tombs can’t hold Jesus. Nothing can.

Jesus is on the loose, and he is infusing all of creation with new life, love, joy, and purpose. He wants that for you, too.

Jesus is on the loose! He is on the loose, indeed!

Why doesn’t Easter change us?

A long time ago, a grieving woman went to a garden tomb to pay last respects. Mary had lived a life of torment and despair. Today, we’d probably say she suffered from mental illness; in our day, it seems epidemic. Mary had intended to say farewell to her teacher and friend, the one who had given her hope when everyone had given up on her.

Nothing could have prepared her for what she found. The stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been removed; the body was gone; and just the burial cloths remained. Mary ran to get her friends. They ran back to the tomb and found things just as she had said.

While the men went off to process what they’d seen, Mary just stood there crying. Then someone called her name, “Mary!” and as she turned to look, the whole world turned with her. There was Jesus, her teacher and friend, risen from the dead.

You can’t make this stuff up: the most important meeting in the history of the world was between God and a mental patient.

In some ways Mary was like a lot of us. She’d lived a life of desperation, possessed by something beyond her control. But from that moment on, her life had purpose. She was the first evangelist of the Good News, her name forever synonymous with resurrection hope.

Why aren’t we changed like Mary?

I’ve become convinced that it’s because we don’t put our beliefs into action. We don’t worship, study, pray, serve, or share our faith as we should. In other words, we don’t make ourselves available to God in ways that allow change to take place.

In a world filled with depression, anxiety, bullying, division, and worse, we should all be running to our friends with the Good News.

Jesus can still change you the way he changed Mary. Could this be the year you let him?

Easter as a verb

The commercial shows a neighborhood full of kids on the wildest Easter-egg hunt ever. They rip off their Easter ties and hair bows, and go at it, running to snatch eggs out of the air, diving to find them at the bottom of swimming pools, and even searching for them with drones. All the while, the 1970’s rock anthem, “One Way or Another” blasts in the background. Inside, parents prepare for the Easter meal in relative peace and quiet, equipped with everything they need, from Wal-Mart.

The commercial ends with the line, “Easter like you mean it.”

It’s too bad that Wal-Mart so blatantly commercializes Easter. But at least the commercial points to a greater truth: If we really understood what Easter was about, we’d live with joy and abandon, like those kids in the commercial.

We’d all “Easter like we mean it.”

The first example of “Easter like you mean it” was Mary Magdalene. On the first Easter, she ventured to the tomb in the dark. Finding the stone rolled away, she ran to tell Peter and the disciple Jesus loved.

Then the two disciples raced to the tomb. Peter barged right in. Hesitating for a moment, the disciple Jesus loved saw the folded grave clothes and believed.

That’s “Easter like you mean it.”

Later, when the Risen Jesus met the bewildered disciples, he commissioned them to “Easter” the whole world. Infused with Easter power, they did just that.

Easter is proof that death and the dark forces that want to control us have been defeated. We can live with joy and abandon, knowing that everything Jesus followers do is part of renewing God’s creation.

Nothing could stop Jesus from rising from the tomb, and nothing can ultimately stop Easter people like us.

Live with joy and abandon. “Easter like you mean it.”