Last week my husband took some vacation time from work, and although we didn’t travel, we spent more time outdoors with our guys. One day we hiked at Turkey Run State Park in central Indiana. Now, if your image of Indiana is of cornfields, you are imagining something accurately. However, if it is exclusively of cornfields, you might be surprised by the lushness and other-worldliness of this picture.
It is our favorite place in Indiana. I have a sense that a hobbit hole is around the corner or a pointed elfin ear will emerge above a rock.
Here stands one of the largest species of trees in Indiana. The solidness of this growing thing is always so humbling and impressive to me. This giant American Sycamore reaches her massive arms heavenward recognizing her dependence on the Creator. It is a sure reminder of how much I rely on God’s graciousness. It is a specific embodiment of so many of the psalms that describe trees growing strong “planted by streams of water,” (Psalm 1:3) or even the gentle reminder that “all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” (Psalm 96:12)
As our path narrowed and followed closely alongside Sugar Creek, the red slats of this bridge built in 1883 caught our eye. We backtracked a bit in order to get a better view of it downstream. We usually cross the suspension bridge at the beginning of our hikes here. It was interesting walking across this one as well. I thought about different times in my life when I have been a connecting bridge. I have a history of connecting different types of people together. This is a good thing and sometimes a lonely thing. Many of you may understand this. If you are often bridging the gap between groups, it may mean you never fully belong to any one place. The bridge is not on any one side of the creek but straddles it.
I thought about how the apostle Paul describes Christ. Not as our bridge exactly, but as our reconciler, our peace, the one through whom we have access to the Father. (Ephesians 2:11-18) And we are not only reconciled to God, but also to one another. Bridging any distance, foreignness, and animosity, Jesus brings us closer to one another.
Lately, however, I feel I have pushed people away, not brought them near. I have fought hard against it. I feel I have unintentionally added bricks on to that “dividing wall of hostility.” It is a sobering thought. If Christ destroyed the wall, why do we continue to put up barriers? Walls and bridges can both be lonely things, but I would rather sit back and admire the role I play in connecting rather than dividing.
This is my final post on my thoughts from Luke 24:1-35. With a simple meal, surprisingly hosted by Jesus, we read how the gospel story ties those of us in the modern world to antiquity, as well as to eternity. Christ is with the disciples who were traveling on to Emmaus after his crucifixion and resurrection. Hurt and scared, discouraged and uncertain, the disciples are struggling for meaning in these new events.
They came near the village where they were going, and he gave the impression that he was going farther. But they urged him, “Stay with us, because it’s almost evening, and now the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
It was as he reclined at the table with them that he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road and explaining the Scriptures to us?” That very hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and those with them gathered together, who said, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” Then they began to describe what had happened on the road and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:28-35, CSB)
For whatever reason the disciples did not recognize Jesus. Was his post-resurrection body so much sturdier? Was it altered like an old friend appearing after ten years clean shaven when he had previously worn a beard? Did they see him from some new perspective? Did the Holy Spirit simply prevent them from recognizing him immediately?
As they walked along with him, he trained them in preaching the gospel. They spoke of the facts and events that led to their grief. They shared their past joys and aspirations. They did not get the ending right. They just didn’t understand. Not yet. But Jesus, patient, loving, author of their stories, gently corrects them.
Can you imagine having the experience of retelling the gospel story to God? How did it help them improve it the next time they told it? And the next?
Jesus deepened their understanding using Scripture, that is the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. He spoke authoritatively but also endearingly, for they did not want him to leave. His message “burned in their hearts.” Did it ignite in them because of its beauty, or its truth, or both?
The Christ appeared to them as a hitchhiker along a country road, but soon they accepted him as their host. It was not until they sat down to a meal together that they knew who he was. When he broke the bread they saw him. Finally, as he picked up the loaf of bread – and broke it -(had they previously witnessed the miracle with the five thousand?) they saw Jesus, their Lord and Friend. Was it sight given by the Holy Spirit? Was it the ordinariness of the daily bread that helped them to connect the dots? How many times must they have relived that moment in their minds and through their stories to others! Would we ever stop retelling such a story? Do we ever tire of encountering his presence in the breaking of the bread? Do we recognize him there? Whether we partake daily, weekly, monthly, do we ever have enough of his presence?
Tucked away in a quiet room at a small meal, Jesus’ once-broken body broke the emblem of his body and shared it with those who would soon also be referred to as “the body of Christ.” Is it any wonder this is the moment his identity and the gospel became clear to them?
If we look around our ordinary homes, churches, lives, we see ordinary people. It might be easy to see the Eucharist or communion as just a ritual. We eat bread or a cracker and drink juice or wine bought at a grocery store. It seems too ordinary to have real meaning. Do we recognize Jesus with us? He is here. In the bread, in the brother and sister next to us, in, and through, and among us. If we do this every Sunday will we recognize that Jesus is real and present and powerfully with us, among us in the breaking of the bread?
He is here.
After jotting down these thoughts, a song I have not recently sung has floated back into my mind with its beauty and mystery. And now I realize it retells this part of the gospel story in a much more beautiful way. I invite you to read or sing the words with me. Simply follow the link.
“Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:23, CSB)
In my last post we imagined what it might have been like for the women visiting Jesus’ grave early in the morning. Before the world was turned upside down, when death still held irreversible sway, the angels proclaimed a disquieting message. “He is not here.”
Sometime later that day, two different friends, traveling a country road, quietly conversed and struggled through all the “what-could-have-beens.”
Now that same day two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. Together they were discussing everything that had taken place. And while they were discussing and arguing, Jesus himself came near and began to walk along with them. But they were prevented from recognizing him. Then he asked them, “What is this dispute that you’re having with each other as you are walking?”And they stopped walking and looked discouraged.
The one named Cleopas answered him, “Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened there in these days?”
“What things?” he asked them.
So they said to him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet powerful in action and speech before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they cruciifed him. But we were hoping that he was the one who was about to redeem Israel. Besides all this, it’s the third day since these things happened.” (Luke 24:13-21)
These followers shared loyalty to the Nazarene. Had one of them been healed by Jesus? What did that matter now since he had been executed? Were they awaiting the retaking of Jerusalem, the Roman dispersion? Could a prophet be defeated? Did they belong anywhere anymore? How to make sense of a world in which your hopes had been utterly destroyed?
“But we were hoping…”
We all have disappointments, either personal or collective, either recent or suppressed deep in our past, that have shaken us and our beliefs. On that road to Emmaus, Jesus’ friends were devastated and lacking in confidence. At this point in the narrative they grappled with what to do. Not only had the Passover ended, but their plans for a new future. I wonder how you feel this morning? this evening? Have we lost hope? With so much brokenness and disillusionment around us it is difficult to see where that country road might lead. Obviously things are not happening as we might have expected. The way seems discouraging and we quietly talk with one another (or is it resentfully) about how things were supposed to be different.
Have we forgotten the promises of Jesus, that he will always be with us? Are we tempted to throw away the narrative in exchange for a harsher, grittier, more jaded one? Or can we stick with him to allow the Christ to redefine for us what it means to “redeem Israel?”
Unemployment, COVID, sickness, spiritual and social isolation, political strife, racially-based and economically-based injustices. Our world is hurting and desperate for hope. How could Jesus redeem our situation?
Can we hope in something we don’t understand? We may not be able to retell the story’s climax or predict the resolution, but the reason for our hope has been told to us once before. Two friends on the road to Emmaus held on to a ragged hope. We don’t understand where we are in our story, but we hold firmly onto the one in whom we have placed our hope, our confession, our beautiful inheritance.
Lord, you are my portion
and my cup of blessing;
you hold my future.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. (Psalm 16:5-6)
Sundays look and feel different right now for our family. If you have maintained the habit of attending church, I bet they do for you or your family as well. Even if you are physically back meeting together, there are surely fewer people present. The attendees are spaced further apart. People may be wearing masks; you may forego congregational singing or even the partaking of the Eucharist or communion. While some of us balk at tradition and habit, most of us, admittedly or not, lean on it as a stabilizing force in our lives. Particularly when it relies so heavily on relationships.
Our family has been meeting in homes on Sundays. We alternate with a few families hosting. It is not the same. We miss so many people, but it provides us with the fellowship and encouragement we would otherwise be lacking.
This past Sunday we read Luke 24. We read about Jesus’ followers grieving his brutal death on the cusp of the marvelous discovery of his resurrection. As a reader, I know what happens on that early Sunday morning, but as a character in a narrative, I am like one of the disciples confused, grieving, misinformed and misunderstood. I find some strange comfort in these stories of wounding and pain. We called out three phrases in the text from Luke 24:1-35.
“He is not here.” (Luke 24:8, CSB)
“But we were hoping…” (Luke 24:21)
“…he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:35)
I would like to write some notes on each of these phrases from the text. I might spread them out across three blog posts. I hope you’ll stay with me. If you are hurting and lonely, too, you will find comfort in these stories along with his presence.
“Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” asked the men. “He is not here, but he has risen! Remember how he spoke to you when he was still in Galilee, saying, ‘It is necessary that the Son of Man be betrayed into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, and rise on the third day’?” And they remembered his words. (Luke 24:5-8)
These women, to whom the angels appeared at the tomb of Jesus, were only trying to show respect and express their honest grief. They had cared for him, financially supported him, and had been spiritually and physically healed by him. They were not being illogical in showing up to the tomb. The man had died, had been buried. They were returning to the place they had left the body. Only it wasn’t there.
When Jesus was twelve years old visiting Jerusalem at Passover, Mary and Joseph looked in the wrong place, too. (Luke 2:41-50) He was not in the caravan returning to Galilee with family or friends, but in the synagogue “in his Father’s house.”
“He is not here. He is not here.” After each uncle or cousin denied knowing where the adolescent Jesus was, Mary must have panicked. How could you lose God?
Where am I searching for him? Am I making the wrong assumptions about where he needs to be? Of course God is everywhere, but is he moving me in ways I cannot see? Am I at the tomb when he has already resurrected?
What are we grieving right now? Sickness and death? Loss of friendships or relationships? Have we buried dreams we thought could never be realized? Jesus’ death was gut-wrenching, but it opened up possibilities to so much more.
“He is not here.”
The grieving women were being reasonable and logical in making heir way to the tomb, arms laden with spices. Jesus had died; he had been buried, so that’s where they expected him. But God is not reasonable or logical; he is extravagant. He is gracious.
In his extravagance he sends out messengers to tell us, “He is not here.” And with our arms laden with our unnecessary burdens we earnestly search for him.
“All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”
– Flannery O’Connor
In the last post I discussed some comparisons in O’Connor’s short works with Christ’s parables. I suppose outside of Jesus’ pointed stories, Flannery O’Connor owes the greatest debt to the life and story of Jonah, son of Amittai. Just as the protagonists in her Southern Gothic tales are hardly likable characters, so the prophet Jonah is far from the amiable hero. Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation,” the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Hulga in “Good Country People” are self righteous, graceless figures devoid of compassion, but full of ferocious retribution. In other words, in them we see ourselves. Any grace which breaks through in the story comes in forcefully, unwelcomingly. It knocks them off their feet and, in at least one instance, quite literally hits them upside the head.
In commenting on her best known story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O’Connor says, “There is a moment of grace in most of the stories, or a moment where it is offered, and usually rejected.”
We are meant to judge these characters as pig-headed, small-minded, bigoted and hateful, and then, with a sudden shock, realize we might be looking into our own heart.
Jonah, the largest recipient of God’s grace in his story, is commanded by God to warn the Ninevites of their wickedness and urge their repentance. Jonah, however, truncates the message from God by simply announcing certain doom and damnation to the Assyrian capital. God, in his bounteous grace and mercy, sends a storm, a great fish, a vine and a worm all to save Jonah from his judgemental attitude. Even by the end of the question dangling at the end of the book Jonah never understands the depth of grace God has offered him. He never see himself in need.
In his half-repentant and desperate prayer, Jonah preached against his own soul from the belly of the undetermined fish. “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” (Jonah 2:8)
“All human nature vigorously rejects grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
In a time of profound polarization, when we automatically write people off for their looks, or their geography, or their background, when we feel justified for excluding someone or fearing someone, Flannery O’Connor is good for us. In a time when we congratulate ourselves for being American, or Republican, or open-minded, for thinking the label “Christian” can be pasted on at whim to mean morally decent or “nice,” the southern Gothic writer still holds up a relevant mirror for us.
Flannery recommends her stories be read as parables. Narratives full of spiritual depth and earthy grit with shocking conclusions. If we grant her this request, then we might read “Revelation” as we would Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, (Luke 18:9-14) searching through our hearts hoping to find purity, wincing at our hubris and duplicity. This is not to say we take Flannery’s words as the inspired Word of God, but we honor her efforts as she employs similar medium to Christ’s teachings.
Jesus began with the familiar, the typical, the understood, and by the end of his story, his listeners were either hit between the eyes, or deeply offended and scandalized. We, who are religious and well-read, have become comfortable and de-sensitized to the parables of Jesus. Both familiarity with the stories and the strangeness of ancient culture can make them feel somewhat safe. Yet “Good Country People” and “The Displaced Person,” though now already sixty-five years old, are yet modern and relatable to us in startlingly interpretive ways; they slap us across the face so we can ultimately listen to Christ.
Jonathan Rogers, author and host of The Habit blog and podcast, is offering a six week online course, Writing with Flannery O’Connor beginning June 4. Rogers, though now in Nashville, originally hails a short drive from Milledgeville, Georgia, O’Connor’s home town. He has authored The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor.
I signed up. My family and I are currently going through some significant changes, some good, many not. We are dealing with different kinds of losses and sadness. This course comes at a good time for me. A writer whose themes are racism, bigotry and gratuitous violence may not seem an obvious way to extricate myself from emotional upheaval. However, grace is surprsing like that, whether it hits you in the hillsides of Galilee, the deep South or the morally tame Midwest.
There should still be time to sign up if you are interested. Find out more information here.
“He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command, GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seed opening one at a time in his blood.”
Gathering together in the mornings has always been important for me in our home school. On the rare days we skip it, I feel it is hard to reconnect with the older ones particularly. As we come together, I hope we are able to set a tone for our day of rest, an attitude of attentiveness to God and one another.
[Wipes away tears, laughing] Ok, ok, when we both collect ourselves again, I will continue. I mean, I do have three boys, right? Their priorities are not likely the same as mine. Often they begin their day with no greater goal than to hurry up and be done with their work. Even so, we plug away at our morning meetings, because over time the things we do repeatedly, unthinkingly, in mundane ways can form us into better people. This is how God forms us. As we cast our cares on him, or say our meals, as we sweep after dinner or talk with one another late at night, these habits and traditions make us who we are and can transform us into who we will be.
And so each morning, whether my boys care or not, whether they are engaged or not, we gather together for a few moments before we all disperse to our separate corners of the house or living room or kitchen to complete our own work.
Every day our family experiences its own micro-diaspora. Like the early Christians gathered in Jerusalem waiting for instruction after the ascension of Jesus, we gather in our sunroom before being sent out.
Each year our morning time looks slightly different. This year we have my oldest back with us. He put in a few years at a private school, but is now back with us to finish out high school next year. Our road has been up and down with this one, but we are so grateful to have him back home.
We always have Bible readings. Some years we incorporate art appreciation or poetry. Here is what the 2019-2020 has looked like:
B I B L E
This year we read through the book of 2 Samuel as the youth in our church were studying this particular book.
We moved on to Advent readings in the prophets, then 1 John and the Gospel of Mark guiding us through Lent. As we finish out the school year we are choosing selected passages from the Gospel of Luke. My oldest has been choosing these for us. He uses YouVersion Bible app and likes to randomize the translations he reads from. Admittedly, this aggravates the youngest who has more difficulty following along if the words don’t match up just right.
Mostly, we read the passage and pray briefly. Other times we might practice lectio divina, although they are often too impatient to participate in this. They do enjoy periodically practicing imaginative prayer, placing yourself within the story and using your senses to explore the text.
We name things in the story we wonder about.
T H E B I B L E P R O J E C T
Along with our Bible reading we started watching YouTube videos produced by the animators at thebibleproject. This is a crowd-funded group who creates animated videos on the literary themes and stories of the Bible, as well as podcasts and other resource teaching materials. They are impressive for their quality, accessibility and depth. Each book of the Bible has its own 5 – 7 minute video highlighting the setting, genre, structure and message. We are currently up to the book of Jeremiah.
And we follow this all up with the day’s episode of CNN 10 with Carl Azuz. We have watched the ten minute world news report off and on over the last several years. It keeps us just enough informed without the news becoming oppressive in our thoughts. You know what I mean, right? Often, a human interest story or science and technology feature will inspire us (sometimes read, distract) to look something up or ask questions. The nine-year-old usually stops Carl at the end before he starts in on his “cringey” puns. G’s words, not mine.
So what do I hope we gain this year from our morning time together? A few things:
1. I hope we recognize ourselves as a single unit, a unified family with many members functioning together. ( 1 Corinthians 12:12-14)
2. I hope that God’s word seeps into all the cracks of their minds and hearts, and stays. I hope that years later they will remember reading passages in times of need. I hope that this daily Bible reading will become so normal, so habitual that they will do it on their own.
3. I hope they learn how to read the Bible well. I hope they will understand that these ancient documents have personal and eternal significance, but that they also have specific genres and settings and immediate audiences.
4. I hope that in engaging with the text of Scripture in a variety of ways, they will develop an appreciation for it. I hope that through its stories they will learn how to empathize with the characters in it. I hope they grow their biblical imaginations and that it leads them into more profound lives of faith.
5. I hope that by maintaining an awareness of the world,we can maintain a worldview that confirms God’s sovereignty in all things while recognizing our partnership with him as his people. I hope that they love the world.
Next year may look different. We may not include as many things in our time together. My guys may be sick of watching videos. It is difficult to rally 2 teenaged boys out of bed at similar times. But our priorities will always be the same.
Home schoolers, how do you start your mornings? What is your favorite thing you do together?
Other schoolers, how do you develop routines in your family? What has been the most beneficial habit that has stuck?
Yesterday was Orthodox Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead as commemorated by Eastern Orthodox Christians. Their observance of this most significant Christian holiday is often differentiated from Christians in the West by a week or two as they liturgically follow the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian. Even so, we remember the same event, the rejuvenation of the body and life of Jesus. We celebrate and hope in our eventual resurrection because of his sacrifice and promise and triumph.
Good Friday is a day of mourning and loss and confession. The world is not what it should be. Our hearts are not what they were meant to be. Saturday is a day of sitting with this loss in uncertainty, learning to grieve before we can experience the joy of Easter. Saturday is painfully remembering Friday, but hopefully looking toward Sunday.
Yesterday I posted these photographs on another social media site. My own backyard demonstrated the process and change the resurrection makes in our lives.
As we sit with his mortality and our own, Saturday provides us with flickers of hope and the beauty in his promise. We will not always know death and sickness and pain and sadness. A day is coming when all of creation will be full and new. It will perpetually refresh and bloom, and it will defy the laws of entropy and ennui.
Sunday, the day of his resurrection, we fully acknowledge his eternal nature. We are glad because he is alive and has restored life to us. We can now live with the faith that he will perfect us and guide us into the flourishing life he longs for us all.
Many of you are busy, taking full advantage of the vast amounts of free time newly at your disposal due to the Covid-19 quarantine. As we shelter in place, one of my friends cleaned out all of her closets. My brother painted his back bedroom he uses as a studio. The neighbors are organizing their garages. I, on the other hand, have had no such motivations. I have been reading several books and have taken our mini labradoodle on even more walks. In other words, life has not been too different, except I do miss my people. I hope you are all doing well, staying healthy, remaining hopeful and loving.
Yesterday, however, something made me turn to my old friend Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who suffered under and survived the Stalinist regime. Yesterday was Palm Sunday, a day both joyous and sobering. As we picture ourselves in the story, we cheer with the crowds while knowing the path leads to death. We feel the triumphant victory of Jesus’ humble entrance into Jerusalem, yet know he will be buried by the end of the week. I feel these conflicting emotions in Akhmatova’s poetic laments. They are only the more beautiful as she uses biblical images and biblically-rooted characters to relate both her grief and her hope.
Born in 1889, Akhmatova survived the Russian Revolution and married fellow poet Nikolai Gumilev with whom she had a son Lev. Nikolai was imprisoned and secretly executed by the Bolsheviks. Many years later, in 1935, their son was arrested as an enemy of the state and Akhmatova virtually lived outside of the prison walls in Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) in hopes of catching a glimpse of him, bringing bread, fighting for his release. Although they were estranged at the time of his death, she had lost a husband to the Soviets. She could not lose a son.
It is as this grief-stricken mother she writes the “Requiem” over the next several years each section a part of a cycle of loss, lament and persistence. In this portion entitled “Crucifix” her lament is both human and holy, a grappling for justice when there seemed to be none. Her identification with the mother of the Christ in the hour of deep sorrow seems so honest.
This portion of the poem is beautiful because of its simplicity. In the original Akhmatova employs spare, clean language with an AB rhyme scheme. There is surely a good translation of this work, but I was not happy with the one I found online. I have produced an average translation mostly for the sense and understanding, not really capturing the style. As we approach nearer to Good Friday, I am thankful we have this poet’s perspective on grief. It reminds us that in Christ’s story no one is forgotten.
“Не рыдай Мене, Мати, во гробе зрящи…”
Хор ангелов великий час восславил,
И небеса расплавились в огне.
Отцу сказал: “Почто Меня оставил!”
А Матери: “О, не рыдай Мене…”
Магдалина билась и рыдала,
Ученик любимый каменел,
А туда, где молча Мать стояла,
Так никто взглянуть и не посмел
“Weep not for me, Mother, seeing me in the tomb….”
A choir of angels glorified the great hour,
and the heavens melted in fire.
To the Father he spoke: “Why have you forsaken me?”
If I were to count up all the hours my boys and I read Strega Nona, or Days of the Blackbird, or our very favorite Tom, it would span a life time. At least, it would seem so. I cannot think of another author whom we read more than Mr. Tomie de Paola in those preschool and very early elementary years. He absorbed the largest amounts of time, along with perhaps, Beatrix Potter, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Barbara Cooney. This all makes me smile through my sadness, because, well, what great friends I introduced my children to!
Tomie de Paola passed away yesterday due to complications from surgery after an injurious fall in his studio. Because of the necessity of isolation during COVID-19 concerns, he apparently died alone in a hospital room. I don’t want to think about this too much. He was not alone. From all I have read about him, he was a gentle man full of kindness and joy. I know he provided our family with more laughs and hugs than we would have otherwise shared.
Today, we will sit under the willow tree in our backyard. The leaves are just barely returning to bending branches. G has always called it “the Jesus tree,” because the flowing branches waft in breezes as he imagines Jesus’ hair did. We will sit and we will thank Mr. de Paola for Strega Nona, and Big Anthony, for the beautiful Bible story illustrations, for Fin McCoul, for The Night of Las Posadas, but especially for Tom and his poignant and hilarious relationship with his grandfather. And he will be in our thoughts and prayers. He will not be alone.