Easter Stories: Staying Grounded Amidst Tears and Dancing
After our worship service on Easter I went down to Phoenix Children’s Hospital and spent the afternoon with my sister, whose year-old son has a serious form of cancer. Later in the day I spoke with two friends whose marriage is in serious danger because of infidelity, and I opened the newspaper to read about mounting tension between Russia and much of the Ukraine, and a report on Christians being persecuted for their faith around the world, especially in the Middle East.[caption id="attachment_1154" align="alignright" width="300"] “Easter Eggs” by renagrisa is licensed under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/[/caption]
As I was wrestling with dissonance of these Easter Sunday afternoon experiences with the triumphant Scripture readings and hymns of the morning I came across an opinion piece by Simon Critchley called “Abandon (nearly) all hope.” In this piece, with its title based roughly on the sign over the gate into Dante’s Inferno, he takes Christians (among others) to task for believing, in spite of the realities all around us, that there is something better, something beautiful, somewhere, if we just wait long enough. He goes so far as to call the kind of hope that Christians have “a form of moral cowardice that allows us to escape from reality and prolong human suffering.” He criticizes St. Paul (and also, interestingly enough, President Obama) for encouraging hope that “blinds us to the reality of the world that we inhabit and causes a sort of sentimental complacency that actually prevents us from seeing things aright and protesting” the injustice in our world. Does Critchley have a point?
To some extent, yes, he does. For many Christians, hope of eternal life has led to a passive disregard, or even denial, of the systemic injustices in our world, and also the degradation of the environment. To the extent that we use the hope of heaven as a way to avoid the harsh realities of life, or to let ourselves “off the hook” for working to combat these realities, we have, so to speak, missed the point of Easter.
Mark Labberton, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote in a Holy Week reflection titled “The Turning Point, Not the Finale” that the resurrection of Jesus isn’t a magic wand that Christians can wave over the brokenness in the world to make it go away, but rather, “the start of God’s work of re-creation when the firstborn of all creation becomes the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:15-18), and God’s new creation begins.” Thus, Labberton encourages Christians to engage the world in all of its imperfections and injustices from a place of confidence, knowing that our prayers and actions on behalf of the crucified and resurrected Christ are anticipating the day when, finally, all things are made new.
Along these lines, N. T. Wright begins his powerfully provocative book Surprised by Hope by asking two questions: “What are we waiting for? And what are we going to do about it in the meantime?” Wright forcefully argues that true Christian hope is not “going to heaven when we die,” but rather the renewal of God’s good but mortally wounded creation, and that Jesus’ resurrection, is, to use Labberton’s words, “the decisive but not final act in God’s work of making all things new.”
This kind of hope, then, rather than leading us to deny reality that, in Critchley’s words, “prolong[s] human suffering,” actually strengthens us, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, to confidently, yet realistically, engage the brutality of our world. I’ll quote Wright at length:
“Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrection power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.”
Labberton cautions us that, while the resolved major chords of Easter hymns are essential, we need some minor chords as well, reminding us that the work of remaking creation is not yet done. Yet, when I look at the world around me, I so often hear minor chords; I long to hear major chords, resolved and triumphant chords. Where are they?
If we look hard enough, I believe we can find Easter stories all over the place. Several years ago I heard a fascinating story on the radio program This American Life about a young man who was raised in a conservative Christian home but, after taking some religion courses at a secular university, began to question his faith. He became quite arrogant and argumentative with Christians, and, at a lunch with his dad, he was waiting for an opportunity to pounce on his irrational beliefs. After a verbal assault on his dad’s faith, the father simply said, “Before I became a Christian, I was miserable. I wanted to kill myself.” Then, he told his son about going into a church where his instincts were telling him that the people were crazy, but he “could not ignore the love in that room, the care that they had for each other.” The father continued, looking at his son with so much love, “Here’s what I know. I follow Jesus, and the Lord gave me a family.” The argumentative son stopped. His conclusion was simple, “You can’t argue with decency, you can’t argue with goodness.” His dad’s life, and his witness, is an Easter story.
I also recently heard a great interview with Desmond Tutu in which he shares about the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa. The apartheid system in South Africa was one of the most egregious examples of injustice in modern history. Once the apartheid system collapsed, however, the perpetrators of the system could have been, justly, brutally punished. Instead, however, inspired by New Testament principles of forgiveness and reconciliation, South Africa began to heal in a shocking example of Easter. South African society, including the church, is still very broken, but the testimony of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission demonstrate the possibility of societal change.
As I meditate on these stories of transformation – on both individual and societal levels, I begin to remember celebrating recently with a friend whose marriage was nearly destroyed by betrayal and addiction but, through repentance and faith in the resurrected Jesus, had been restored. I remember stories of Christians in Phoenix taking in foster children and refugees, giving them a new lease on life. These are stories of Easter.
It’s these stories that keep me grounded. It’s these stories that, through the tears, anger, and confusion of our broken world, allow me to keep praying, keep loving, keep working.
What are we waiting for? Nothing less than a remade heaven and earth. What are we doing in the meantime? Singing and praying, weeping and dancing, rejoicing and protesting, creating and tearing down. We’re living in the reality of Christ’s resurrection, the reality of a still broken world, and in the hope, yes, the hope, that the same God that raised Jesus from the dead is at work all around us.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!