Tomb Sabbath…

As I write about my experience of my father’s death, and since we have just come through the Easter season, my thoughts have been with the followers of Jesus in the stories after his death. Actually, I find myself in their stories, which isn’t too surprising because I usually find myself in many characters in the bible.

Obviously there is the trauma of the death, and the practical matters associated with burial. One benefit I had which was denied the followers of Jesus was the formal gathering of family and friends publicly to commemorate his death and celebrate his life: a funeral. Maybe that is what the Easter feast is for: to do as a Church, what our forebears in faith were unable to do. I’d like to mention several ways their experience and mine were similar…

Dreams and Expectations…

Life is full of death. In fact, in the natural world, death provides the foundations of new life. Death is part of the cycle of releasing nutrients back into soil so plants are nourished and seeds can sprout and have access to sunlight. The natural world exhibits resurrection every time a wild fire blows through a forest or prairie. Similarly, our lives are full of deaths. The followers of Jesus experienced not only the death of their friend, leader, and significant public figure; but also the death of their unrealized, and possibly unrecognized expectations and dreams about just who Jesus would become. There is a significant difference between dreams which occur during the day, and expectations. Dreams are manufactured by our imagination as to what would be a bright future. While we have personal capabilities to act towards bringing this bright future into reality, they also require the action of other people in our lives. Dreams are shared hope. Expectations on the other hand, are below the level of consciousness. They are reality as we have always known it to be.

The appearance of Jesus in the cultural life of Roman occupied Galilee, with the manifestation of power through him to bring about miracles, scattered seeds of hope along his path. The seeds especially began to grow and develop in his followers. They could begin to imagine a time when Roman rule would be crushed, and the Jews would once again be a self-confident nation, under the rule of God. Economic and political structures would be overturned, and the disciples would be part of the elite power structure. Although Jesus tried to work counter to these dreams by staying out of the local seat of power, Jerusalem, and teach that God’s realm wasn’t as they understood it to be; the dream still grew. They watched Jesus dragged away in the darkness of the garden, which in itself has symbolic overtones to Genesis’ Eden, taken before the political and military leaders of the Roman occupiers and puppet regime of Jewish leaders, then executed as if on a whim, and finally die. The dreams that had been growing died with him.

Jesus’ death also brought to surface their expectations of what Godly rule would look like, although his life also uncovered those expectations, if they could have heard what he said. However, when the expectations are buried so deeply within, only a crucifixion will uncover them.

Dad’s death was the first crucifixion in my life. I was laid open to the core, and my dreams of a stable, extended family received a knife shot to the ribs. All the expectations I wrote about two blogs ago were brought to the surface and crushed.

What’s Next?

Many of Jesus followers locked themselves away together, afraid of not only the authorities, but also from dazed confusion of what would come next. They sought comfort in being together with those who had walked the same roads with Jesus, heard the same words, and saw the same miracles. Embarrassment may have dogged their emotions, as well. They had believed in the dream, but the dream was now dead.

Emotionally, I did the same. I tried to keep my sadness and growing anger under lock and key as I began to get back into the rhythms of “normal” life, although my anger would often creep out as I continued to coach football. My mother moved from Ukiah to live with me as I finished school. While together, we both were faced with the realities of daily life without my dad. It was awkward and difficult at times, but ultimately beneficial in confronting our shared loss and new reality. I also found solace in one of my professors. Prof. Gary Moore was my voice coach. I took voice lessons from Gary for most of my years in college. While initially it was a little unusual for me to do so, because he was a bass/baritone and I was a tenor, our time together developed a rich friendship. Around the same time frame of my father’s death, Gary’s wife died from cancer. There were often lessons that were spent not in singing, but in sharing our grief experiences and remembrances of our loved ones lost. I fondly remember he brought an arrangement of a beautiful duet for baritone and tenor that we began to sing together:

The King of Love My Shepherd Is
By: Henry W. Baker

The King of love my shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his
And he is mine forever.

Where streams of living water flow,
My ransomed soul he leadeth
And, where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love he sought me
And on his shoulder gently laid
And home rejoicing brought me.

In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With thee, dear Lord, beside me,
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.

Thou spredst a table in my sight;
Thine unction grace bestoweth;
And, oh, what transport of delight
From thy pure chalice floweth!

And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never.
Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise
Within thy house forever.

We sang together, often with tears in our eyes, and my voice often choked with emotion. Then, at the end of the lesson, we would hug, and bid each other to be courageous through the next week, and know of each other’s love, prayers, and thoughts for the other until we came back together. A safe haven of shared grief.

Tomb Sabbath…

It is significant and symbolic that Jesus lay in the tomb on Saturday…the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a traditional Judaic practice which echoes back to the Creation narrative in Genesis. The Sabbath is the seventh and last day of the week, on which “…God finished the work that God had done, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work that God had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work God had done in creation.” (Gen. 2:2-3; NRSV…with a little further revision from me…) It is interesting that Jesus…a follower of Torah…would lie in a tomb on the day set aside as holy as a remembrance of God’s finished work and God’s resting. Tomb Sabbath is a symbol that human effort and doing are insufficient in themselves to bring about the Eden of generative, sustainable relationships between people and the rest of the natural universe and each other. Frankly, God is in the mix whether we recognize….or authorize….it to be. Once we personally and collectively, no matter how many are collected, realize this, resurrection occurs. The resurrected Christ met his followers where they were both emotionally and geographically:

Mary by the tomb, bringing spices to embalm the now vanished body…

Friends travelling together to Emmaus…

Followers behind barricaded walls in dazed fear…

Thomas as he returned to the group after doing practical tasks in the practical world…

The resurrected Christ alternatively hid his identity, and walked through barriers to reach his friends. I can tell you that many times in my life I found Christ hiding his identity until I was able to recognize him. Often I was surprised when and where he met me. I must also confess that most of the barriers in my life have been….and still are….

barriers of my own making…

doors I have locked…

wanderings I have chosen…

…and yet…

the resurrected Christ meets me…

behind my barriers…

within the locked doors…

on the road of my wandering…

That is why…

all the death of dreams…

crushed expectations…

isolating fears…

searching journeys…

are blessed beginnings not endings.

Because there is no resurrection without death. Christ calls me…

to my own cross…

to my own tomb…

and to my own resurrection…

Dad’s death was but the first of many more deaths which would  come, and which are still to be. I am convinced that in each death, lie the nutrients for resurrected new growth and life for me, and for others.

That is why I defiantly hold to Christ, and…

graciously…

Christ holds me…

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My Brother Thomas…

“Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.)  So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”  Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days,  and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”

 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”

 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”

 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.”  Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead,  and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

  Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:1-16)

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“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.  You know the way to the place where I am going.”

  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14: 1-5)

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” On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

  Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”  And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

  Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

   But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

  A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 

 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”(John 20:19-29)

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The church I have been attending is in downtown St. Petersburg. It is a fairly small church plant, yet has just the right vibe within which I fit. We meet in an art gallery, and the exhibits are constantly changing… which is a great thing! A creative community in a creative environment. (If you would like to find out more about it, check it out here: http://themissiodei.com/home.htm ) This past Sunday, Doug McMahon, one of the three co-pastors, spoke about Thomas and used the last of the three scriptural passages above as his text. Doug pointed out that when Thomas finally saw the resurrected Christ, he not only looked to the wounds of Jesus, but also brought his own wounds into the room. Doug’s sermon was the impetus for my own thoughts about Thomas.

I have come to believe that the common religious practice of painting Thomas in a demeaning corner of weakness is a bit unfair. I sited the prior passages (also in John, by the way) as a means of examining the man Thomas. I believe Thomas to be:

…a practical man…

…a man of action…

…a man with a lion’s heart…

… yet a man whose underlying motivation was fear.

Thomas shows his lion’s heart in the first passage as well as a tendency towards the dramatic, when he proclaims his intention of going with Jesus back into harms way. “Let us also go,” he quips, “that we might die with him!” By this statement, Thomas belies not only a lion’s heart, but also a mind which tends first towards action. Thomas’ words  sound courageous, yet I wonder what was behind them. Sometimes, the most practical way to fight fear is to go straight at it. To attack. Maybe Thomas had a feeling that the road they were on following the fearless Jesus was bound to end badly. He had to know the religious leaders were intent on crushing the insolent, big-mouthed carpenter from Nazareth; so why not confront them now? “Let’s go out in a blaze of glory!”

Thomas shows both his practical side, as well as unwillingness to let Jesus off easy as he confronts Jesus after Jesus’ eloquent promise of peace for the disciples. Thomas wants to know where Jesus is going, that he might go there, too.  He is saying…practically, “How can we go where you are going, Jesus, you haven’t told us how to get there!” All the while, Thomas’ question shows a lack of trust in “the Way” Jesus. Instead, he still believes that his life and future are his own to ferret out. He is afraid to lay his life and future in the hands of Christ, so he responds in clarifying practicality.

Finally, Thomas is absent when the disciples are in a room “with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders”. I have a theory about why Thomas was absent. I believe Thomas had returned to his normal life. Or maybe he was out getting food for the group. I suspect he was doing some sort of practical activity.

Jesus was dead. Sitting around and crying would not bring him back. Besides, it felt more comforting to be in motion, as if the motion could keep away the reality of Jesus death…or Thomas’ grief. “It feels too out of control to grieve. I need to be DOING something!”

Anyway… the scripture isn’t descriptive of what or where Thomas was, he just wasn’t with the disciples. I think it notable, that the disciples were locked into a place of fear. So, I believe, was Thomas. While the disciples’ fear led them to hide away, and worry about the unknown future together; Thomas’ fear may have led him to face into reality. He was locked into a place of action and personal control. A different expression of the same emotion. While the disciples’ fear was expressed more like a lamb, Thomas’ fear was expressed like a lion.

For both the group of disciples and Thomas, the resurrected Christ walked through their self-imposed walls of fear, to join them in their isolation. Thomas’ statement about seeing and touching the wounds of the living Christ before trusting, is not surprising… it is practical. It is a statement of grief and anger of having trusted in someone he saw die, and Thomas’ hopes with him. Thomas needed to touch and see the open wounds of the living Christ, before he would open his own woundedness to be healed by them. So, Jesus joins him in his place of fear, yet invites him out of the isolation of his personal need for control and into faith in the activity of God, rather than his own.

(More to come…)