Weeping Before Resurrection

Jesus Wept by Daniel Bonnell

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

My last course at seminary wasn't even a class. It was a small conference about spiritual formation with classes I took for seminary credit. For one of those classes, about spiritual formation in worship, our main assignment was leading the conference participants in opening and closing worship. The theme was Jesus' "I am" statements.

The day before our conference started, the Pulse nightclub shootings occurred. Only days into the conference at this point, we were all still reeling.

Our professor let us choose which statements we wanted to build our worship time around. I chose Jesus' "I am the resurrection and the life" statement. I spent the morning worship guiding the participants through a theater exercise I had based my capstone project around. I invited those gathered to hear me read John 11:17-35 out loud while they "acted out" a role. They could choose any "role" they felt led to embody: a main character, a side character, an invisible character, Jesus himself, and anyone in between.

I began to read, watching everyone get into their characters. Some walked around like Jesus' disciples entering the scene. Some ran like Mary approaching Jesus. Others wandered around, feeling a bit lost and self-conscious. But it took very little time for my own spiritual director, Linda, to get into her role.

She had a small scarf with her that she placed around her head. She sat cross-legged on the ground.

And she wept.

She wept loudly. She wept like a woman in the throes of grief, pain, and loss. She wept like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus' other mourners.

Her niece had unexpectedly lost her life only weeks prior to this conference. I knew she was heartbroken, seeing it in the tears in her eyes when she first told me, but I didn't expect her to react this way, so public and raw. That morning, I saw her grief in the shaking of her shoulders, the pain and loss literally doubling her body over.

This wasn't acting in a way that went through motions, something detached from the actor. This was real, raw, embodied engagement with the text, with her own story and the story of God. This was a real expression of grief and pain.

She wasn't acting like Mary, Martha, or another mourner. She had become one of them. She had become part of the story, because she was already living it.

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.

Eventually, I brought everyone back together to reflect on their experiences and conclude our morning worship. But the whole time, I worried my professor would tell me I had ended the experience "wrong." I feared she would tell me I shouldn't have left the group with Jesus' weeping when the hope of Jesus being the resurrection and the life was the "point" of the story.

But I couldn't do it. I couldn't get to the resurrection first thing that morning. It didn't feel right.

Jesus weeping was the reason I had chosen the text, after all.

And I needed to weep.

So did Linda. So did most of the people there, more than likely.

So do most of us at any point in time in our lives.

 

We needed to weep over the fact that terrorist attacks against the most vulnerable in our society still happen, beautiful people still lose their lives at tragically young ages, and despite our best efforts, death continues to be a reality.

Y'all, I get it. Resurrection, new life, justice, and peace are things coming, that we await with bated breath and cling to in our darkest hours.

But in the midst of the pain and shit, we need to bawl our eyes out and grieve over the fact that it's not freaking here yet.

I've heard various reasons given as to why Jesus weeps in this scene. The one I've heard the most is that Jesus felt overwhelmed at how much the people didn't seem to get that he was the resurrection, that they didn't understand the true weight of his words.

This seems a little weak, not to mention more than a little petty, to me. I don't see Jesus as the kind of guy to get moved to tears because silly mortals didn't get everything he tried to explain them.

I think Jesus grieved his friend's death, Mary and Martha's pain, the fact that any of us have to die, and the fact that he, too, would suffer death's sting.

Sure, Jesus might have known he would survive in the end. Perhaps he knew death wasn't going to have the final say.

Yet he still broke down in tears at his friend's funeral.

He still needed to grieve resurrection's absence in that moment.

When I get really strong anxiety attacks, all I can do is curl up in a ball and weep, because even though I know my anxious, intrusive thoughts aren't true and don't have the final say, I need the space to weep and mourn the fact that they are there and will always be with me.

We know the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, but holy shit is it long, and we lose way too many people as we push it to bend faster and be more inclusive. Sometimes we just need to weep so we can honor the exhaustion we feel, grieve the lives we've lost, and be pissed that things still have such a long way to go.

We know the principalities and powers of the world are nothing compared to the glorious, upcoming reign and kingdom of God, but it's still necessary to cry out and scream against the unjust practices of our politics if we hope to bring that kingdom to earth.

Jesus wept before he went and woke up his friend. We have every right, and perhaps even the duty, to do the same.

 

Fangirl Theology: Doctor Who, the Church, and my Messiah Complex

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eleventhtenth.deviantart.com/

Today, I am beginning a three-part series called Fangirl Theology. I will be presenting theological interpretations on three of my favorite “fangirl-worthy” works: Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Harry Potter.

I would like to dedicate this particular post to the memory of my stepdad, Robert Barnette, who passed away on October 28th. He was a big fan of Doctor Who, but I never got into it while he and my mom were together. As a result, we never got to talk about it in person when I did start enjoying it. This is for you, Rob. Rest in peace and rise in glory.

Also, an obvious spoiler warning for those who have not seen Doctor Who or those not caught up with the current season (Season Nine in the rebooted series).

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I love Doctor Who.

For those who have read some of my past posts, this is not a surprise.

Granted, the show took some getting used to. This was my first serious foray into the sci-fi territory, and when the reboot’s pilot involves killer mannequins, there’s an inevitable adjustment period for the not-yet-initiated.

But when I did get acclimated, I fell in love. I fell for the adventures, the timey-wimey explanations, certain companions, and the Doctor himself.

I will not digress by getting into debates about who my favorite incarnation of the Doctor is. That may be for another post at another time. I do, however, want to talk about a trait of the Doctor in each of his incarnations which I both love and fear: his Messiah-(and sometimes God-) complex.

Anytime the Doctor is on an adventure, on Earth or elsewhere in the universe, he tries to solve their problems. A famous tagline he uses in the most recent season is, “I’m the Doctor, and I save people!” And for the most part, the Doctor really does stay true to this statement. In one adventure, to save the life of a child who is “destined” to be the yearly sacrifice to an angry god, the Doctor offers up his own lifetime of memories to appease the being and save the girl. He makes himself show mercy to Davros, the creator of the murderous race of beings called the Daleks, because in doing so, he ensures that their creator instills the smallest piece of mercy in these killing machines. He saves many planets, including the Earth, from evil beings and averts many catastrophes. He bears a significant amount of the suffering of others and even takes things into his own hands when they are not his to take.

But he is a very dark Messiah. After losing a beloved companion, he almost lets an entire race of creatures go extinct for threatening humanity. He only stops when his new companion begs him to have mercy. He forces another companion to make a decision over whether or not to destroy the moon, which is in fact an egg protecting a creature and about to hatch, instead of helping her with the decision. When she realizes how close she was to making the “wrong” choice, she cuts the Doctor out of her life in rage. He is most dangerous when he is alone, because in these instances, he refuses to be ruled by any higher authority or different voice of reason, because he believes he is the highest authority and the law of the land.

Attributes like this led showrunner Steven Moffat to describe the Doctor as “an angel trying to be human.” And in the most recent season, he was someone who wondered whether or not he is a “good man.”

I relate so well to this character, because I am a human trying to be God, someone wondering not if the world is “good” but if it’s OK.

I wake up some mornings with great hope in humanity and the world around me. On those days, nothing gives me greater joy than to relish in humanity’s achievements and wonder how I can participate in making a beautiful world with them.

Other mornings, I wake up wishing the world would just burn already, and I ask if I can have the match to get the fire going.

I want to take the world in my hands and mold it gently, and I want to take it in my hands and smash it.

In other words, I have a strong Messiah-complex. I think I have the answers to all the world’s problems, and I think if people just did what I thought was right, our problems would disappear. When people don’t do what I want, I become angry and vengeful, wondering why we can’t start over with better people or a better world.

And I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world, especially during election season, who feels this way.

I am also a member of the Church, where I am taught we have a gracious, merciful Messiah who will one day usher in a new age of peace when he returns to us. Because this Messiah is the centerpiece of our theology, you would think the Church would be the place where we’re told our Messiah complexes are hilarious at best and damaging at worst. We are supposed to be taught we are not the be all and end all of this Creation, but Someone greater than us is in charge. We are called to do what we can, but we are not called to be Creation’s saviors. This mission, according to the stories in our Bibles, belongs to someone else.

Suffice it to say, I have often felt my Messiah complex encouraged, nurtured, and at times even exploited in Church. Church is the body of people I aim to please the most with my gifts, but not always in a good way. Church has often been where I strive to prove myself by signing up for as many things as possible, and it is a rare day when someone stops me. I sign up for leadership roles and mission events to prove I am worth belonging to these people. I have continued leading in places I should have left, for the sake of my health and even the congregation’s health, but I feared my loss of status in the community.

After all, if I was not a leader, I had no purpose. If I was not leading a mission project which actively “helped” or “saved” others, I was not doing enough work for God or my community, and they would disapprove of me. I also did not trust that anyone could do my job as well as I could, and I put myself at odds with people in my communities at times over how things should be done. If it wasn’t my way, it couldn’t possibly be right.

I have also felt this Messiah-complex encouraged in the labeling of enemies. Either explicitly or implicitly, groups of people, even (and sometimes especially) communities of faith, establish “insiders” and “outsiders,” those who are “us” and those who are “other.” When we do this, we allow ourselves to think we can determine the boundaries to God’s presence. This can enable us to think we, not God, are the keepers of the gates of heaven. It’s a difficult trait to combat, yet how often do we see our leaders calling this out in us?

When my Messiah-complex is left unchecked, I throw myself into ministry work the way the Doctor throws himself into cataclysmic predicaments, without regard to my own sanity or the capability of others to do this work well. I do things no one else will do the way the Doctor does things for humans they could never, and maybe should never, do for themselves. It’s like we both have a voice inside us screaming at all times, “Everything will be lost forever unless YOU, and YOU ALONE, do something.”

It’s always up to us. Not someone else. Not life, death, or resurrection. Not even God. It always has to be us, and we keep throwing ourselves into these situations until we are burned out and need a regeneration.

So, how do you heal a Messiah-complex?

I find healing the same way the Doctor has: I keep surrounding myself with people who drag me out of my own dreams of “how things should be”and plant me firmly back into the world of “how things are.”

Like the Doctor, I have companions who love me when I am at my most human and when I try to be better than God. I have companions who tell me when I’ve gone too far and when I need to let things go and be as they are. These people are my saving graces and help me realize that even if I am not always a “good person” and the world around me is not always “good,” I have the promise of love to keeping me going and learning through each new adventure. Together, the Doctor and I are learning, in a slow yet undeniable way, that we cannot be God to humanity or even to ourselves, and this is OK.

Like the Doctor, we find healing from our Messiah-complexes by finding and maintaining friends, communities, and even ministries and vocations which empower us to do all we can while reminding us we are not God. We need the Church to point us to Jesus, the Messiah full of grace and mercy, and remind us we are not called to be the world’s Saviors but imitators of the One who saved us and continues to save us.

Like the Doctor, we can help people. We can be kind and present even when all else is lost, and every now and then, we might save the day.

But like the Doctor, we are not God.

With the Doctor, we learn to accept our own limitations, our own humanity, and our divine spark. With the Doctor, we learn how to invite life, death, and resurrection into the world without controlling the final results.

We can do this without being God or Jesus, and like the Doctor, we can become all the better for it.

An Exchange Between a Frustrated Millennial and a Fatal God

rebirth

artcorner.com My favorite symbol of death and resurrection

In a recent post, I described a severe morning panic attack I experienced over a month ago.

A week after that attack, I was in Harrisonburg returning a book to the local library for perhaps the last time, and internally, I was mourning the loss.

At this point, I had lived in Edinburg, a middle-of-nowhere country town about 40 minutes away, for almost 2 months, and I continued to mourn both my move away from the town I called home for the past 4 years and my graduation from seminary. I also continued to live into the transition of the new joys of my engagement to Bryce and a new job as a church secretary.

But the transitions, both the joyful and the heartbreaking, were still hard to navigate. Instead of feeling joy and excitement for the future ahead, I felt anxious, sad, and a bit miserable. I worried about my stress levels, my relationship with my fiance, my work competency, my adult competency, the unsettled state of the new house, our future wedding, and the upcoming Rally Day at my Episcopal congregation (which I had agreed to do when everyone else said we didn’t have to.)

Here I was in front of my beloved Harrisonburg library, realizing I would probably never check out books from it again, and I felt the deepness of this loss  weighing upon me with all of the others.

So as I walked away from the library, mourning the loss of my past home and fearing what the future held, I once again cried out to God, and once again, it contained a lot of frustration.

Excuse you, God, but why does everything feel uncertain and scary? 

I want you to tell me that everything will be OK.

Actually, no…I want more than that. I want you to guarantee that everything will be more than OK. I want everything to be perfect, because if it’s not, then it’s wrong. 

I thought if I followed you, things would go well for me, but I’m beginning to realize this was never part of the promise, and that irks me.

So where is the happiness and the guarantee for things to go well? Why won’t you promise me that much?

Believe it or not, I got an answer, but it wasn’t one I liked.

The answer was this:

There is no guarantee for things to be perfect, because I have called you to die, and you continue to see death and dying as imperfect and wrong. You continue to cling to the hopes, dreams, fears, and failures to which I call you to die every day.

I have called you to die in order to enter everlasting life, but I didn’t say this life would be easier. Those deaths will lead you to life, but not the one you expected. 

You have to learn to die in order to live, to let go of your enslavement to your own expectations in order to live into the beautiful, terrible reality that is real human life.

Here it was: the call to let go and learn to open my arms and let life be what it is. This is a call to die to my desire to be perfect, my desire to be God, and my seeming need to control my life and the lives of others.

I know it is so very necessary, and I also know it is so very difficult.

This is where church actually helps me, though.

Each week at Emmanuel Episcopal, as we prepare to receive the Eucharist, the priest tells the story of the Last Supper, and when he finishes the story, the congregation is asked to proclaim the mystery of our faith. And as a group, we chant:

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

It’s not a mantra I only say on Sunday. It’s what I have to tell myself every single time I want to be the one in control, when I refuse to die to myself and my ways. Every day I have to tell myself:

As Christ has died, so must I die. As Christ has risen, so will I rise. As Christ is returning to us, so will I return to this life and the life to come.

Thanks be to you, God. Now please, help me be a bit more OK with this.

Resurrection in the Prayer Labyrinth

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http://www.emu.edu/year1/faith

There’s a song by Casting Crowns that resonates so deeply with me called “The Altar and the Door.” Growing up in my Pentecostal church, I simply understood God’s grace and love. In those days, on the surface at least, I was so certain that no matter how many times I had to go to the altar, I could leave with confidence out those doors that I was turning a new leaf. This song kind of challenged those preconceived ideas about forgiveness and resurrection, but it still slightly reinforced my idea of God’s love. Now it hits me in the gut more than ever is because I actually understand the narrator’s doubts about his own merit, motives, and strengths. Now, I feel like I’m waiting at the door to go to the altar, but I’m too afraid to go in. Why? Because I know that before I know it, I’ll have to go through this whole process again, more times than I’m willing to admit. You could say I finally understand the song now.

Repetition can be really annoying, especially when it’s concerning my flaws, insecurities, and, dare I say it, sin.

Which brings me to seminary.

On the second day of seminary orientation, we were invited to walk a prayer labyrinth. They made it very clear that it wasn’t a maze, lest we be worried that in the midst of our prayerful walking we had to worry about getting lost. Honestly, though, I think a crazy maze would have been more realistic, as I find myself too frustrated to be prayerful in the every day because I’m staring at a tall hedge, wondering how to find my way out of the dead end and chastising myself over my poor direction skills.

I was the fourth person in my group to start walking the labyrinth, so there were three other people ahead of me on their journey that I had to be conscious of and make room for. There were some paths that were very short and had quick turns, and there were a few longer paths. After a while, I took off my flip flops so I could feel the hard, cool stones and damp grass under my feet. I remembered how as a child at my grandparents’ farm, I used to run around barefoot all the time. Whether it was rain or shine, through freshly mown lawns or cow-pie covered fields, over soothing grass or jagged rocks that ripped my little feet to shreds, the ground of my youth was too holy for sneakers. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed those more innocent days until I removed my shoes on this holy ground.

As I was walking, I reflected on what had brought me to seminary, my life thus far, where I was now in my faith. However, as I drew closer and closer to the center, where I could stand and reflect with God about the journey and enjoy a spectacular view of the Blue Ride mountains, I started to get worried about reaching the final destination. When I finally reached the entrance to the center, I hesitated. I realized that I was scared to enter the center of the labyrinth. Because suddenly it hit me: I’m going to be back here again.

I’ve returned to the altar so many times. I’ll return to that center of the labyrinth just as many times if not more so. And honestly, I’m kind of sick of it. And to be even more honest, I am sick of myself.

I’m sick of always finding myself back in this spot. I’m sick of having to confess that, once again, I’ve failed expectations, that I’ve failed in general, that I’ve let people down and disappointed them. In short, I absolutely hate admitting failure and defeat. I’m sick of admitting that I’ve been acting as human as Peter in his denial and as proud as the sons of Zebedee when they asked if they could be the greatest. I hate having to ask for mercy from Someone who has already seen me this way innumerable times, and the human that I am is only thinking of the times I have left until This One’s patience reaches its limit with me.

Because honestly, I just don’t get it.

How can God keep taking me back? Why does God keep loving me this way? What good does God see in taking me back and giving me the chance to start the day anew? Why does God still have that much hope in me?

On good days, I get it. On good days, when my hope for the world and my spirits for the day are at new heights, God’s grace is immeasurable. It only makes sense to me on those days. On bad days, I just don’t get it. On bad days, I’ve taken God’s place on the throne to issue judgment on the world and myself, because I think God is too damn exhausted with me to deal with my problems at the moment.

Because to be honest, resurrection doesn’t make any sense to me. Resurrection, for the longest time, was a one-time thing. You got saved, and while you stumbled every now and then, things were overall supposed to go pretty well for you. Now, resurrection is a long, exhausting, tedious process, and I honestly don’t see how God can keep throwing the second chances my way for much longer.

I don’t trust God. I don’t trust God to keep loving me, to keep giving me chances, to stick by me through my best or my worst. I don’t trust that my best will be good enough for God, and I definitely don’t trust God to love me at my worst, because my own shortcomings make me cringe. And if I can’t trust God in these ways, how can I trust others? If I can’t trust the Love within me, how can I trust the Love outside of me and throughout the world to not reject me?

Maybe that’s why I like the Psalms and the books of the prophets. They get this fear of a God who gets frustrated with them to the point of packing his bags and leaving us to our own destruction. And they’re a lot more honest and upfront about it than I usually am. But they also, like me, have this flicker of undying hope that maybe, just maybe, this God loves them enough to return and restore them, to give them another chance, to stay by their side in the midst of chaos.

Maybe God really does get that we’re human, that we mess up, that it’s not always OK, but still gives us the grace to die and live again, to be forgiven. Maybe God wants to open the door to forgiveness for us when we insist on locking ourselves inside and have even thrown away the key to our freedom. Maybe God really hates us stewing in the prison of our lack of forgiveness, for ourselves and the world around us, and for some reason wants nothing more than to let us out of it so we can truly live in love.

I still don’t get resurrection. I still am kicking myself for all the returns I’ll have to make to the altar, or the center of the labyrinth, in the future. But I have a few glimmers of hope.

I know that worry will consume me and doubts will plague me. I know that impatience, injustice, anger, and hate will get the better of me. I know I’ll have to come right back to the center, where the God of Love still stands for some crazy reason, and die to it all again.

But then again, joy will overtake me. Love will always be in my midst. Community will support me. Growth will come. Discernment will take place. And maybe, instead of always coming back to lay down all the pain again, maybe I’ll come back and thank God for the fruit of resurrection in my life.

I eventually walked into the center of the labyrinth with some of my peers, my fellow companions on this journey of faith. Some stared into the beauty of the horizon. Some bowed to their knees. Some wiped away tears. I stood there and got a bit snippy with God about all this resurrection stuff, and finally I left in the hope that even though I still don’t understand resurrection or God’s love and grace completely, I can still look forward to coming back to the center of God’s Love, even when I have my doubts that God will still be there.

Every day, I have a choice. With every breath, I have a chance for redemption. For some reason, deep in my bones, I know this.

But I still don’t get it. Not at all.