Speak What We Feel, Not What We Ought To Say or Ode to St. Thomas

Incredulity of Saint Thomas  by Carvaggio ca. 1602

Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Carvaggio ca. 1602

One day I was reading and I came across this….

John 11:1-3 A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, from the town of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus who was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.”

When Jesus got the message, he said, “This sickness is not fatal. It will become an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s Son.”

5-7 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, but oddly, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed on where he was for two more days. After the two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.”

They said, “Rabbi, you can’t do that. The Jews are out to kill you, and you’re going back?”

9-10 Jesus replied, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in daylight doesn’t stumble because there’s plenty of light from the sun. Walking at night, he might very well stumble because he can’t see where he’s going.”

11 He said these things, and then announced, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. I’m going to wake him up.”

12-13 The disciples said, “Master, if he’s gone to sleep, he’ll get a good rest and wake up feeling fine.” Jesus was talking about death, while his disciples thought he was talking about taking a nap.

14-15 Then Jesus became explicit: “Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s go to him.”

16 That’s when Thomas, the one called the Twin, said to his companions, “Come along. We might as well die with him.”

Jesus had been preaching and healing, doing all sorts of crazy things on the Sabbath and offending people all over the place. There were some in Judea who had tried to kill him because of this so Jesus and his friends had to get out of there. While they were recouping elsewhere they received word that a dear friend of Jesus’ was dying. He was to come quick. But for some reason he didn’t. He waited for two days and THEN said, ok, guys lets go back to Judea.   His friends all said, “No we can’t go back there—they will kill you.” John has Jesus talk to them about vague ideas on walking in the dark and waking up Lazarus—stuff they probably didn’t have any context for and were not seemingly tracking with. He got explicit when he finally said, “Lazarus has died and now I can show you something really cool.” (my paraphrase)

But THIS is the part that stood out to me.  It is here that Thomas pipes up….

“Ok guys…I’m not sure what’s going on but if Jesus says he will show us something amazing, lets go. We might be attacked but this is important!”

Thomas….oh the Thomas we are all warned about being too much like if we have any questions….it was THOMAS who was brave, believing, trusting.   Thomas’ faith in Jesus, like all the disciples, was evolving as he was growing in his understanding of just how BIG the presence of Jesus was; of just how much more this Jesus was than what they first understood. And he was willing to follow where this led.

So with that knowledge of Thomas’ character and his response to Jesus, I went back to reread those questions that he asks of Jesus later in the gospel.

In John 14, Jesus has washed his disciples feet—strange and puzzling but maybe good? They aren’t sure and they still don’t know what’s about to happen. They don’t realize that the fulfillment of everything they’ve bet their lives on will take place in a way that they would never have guessed and will leave them reeling. Jesus is talking about knowing God. He is trying to make something clear.   He says cryptically, “I am going to get ready for you. And then I’ll come back. You already know the road I am going to take.” I imagine a pause….a fraught silence….And Thomas asks what everybody is thinking but not saying…”But we have no IDEA where you are going? How are we supposed to know the road?” I love it. I love how I know if I was in that room I would be searching myself in and out assuming that I SHOULD KNOW what Jesus was talking about. I would be berating myself for not understanding—that I should have understood. That I must have missed something. But Thomas is honest. And as we’ve seen before, he is brave and absolutely willing to trust Jesus. He knows there is a method to the madness. So he asks with the honesty that comes from intimacy. And what Jesus answers with is nothing less than himself. To Thomas’ question of “how can we know the road?” he answers, I AM.   I am the road. I am the way. I am the life. Its me. You’re looking at it my friend, Jesus said. These eyes, this face, this body. This is it.

And then in John 20 we come to that famous exchange between Thomas and Jesus. Jesus has been brutally killed. But there are rumors that he is alive. The disciples don’t believe the women ( who always seem to know things) so Jesus appears to them in a locked room. Thomas wasn’t there. We don’t know why. A friend recently told me that he was at a service this year where the preacher suggested that Thomas was not there because of his unbelief—he must have deserted his comrades and gone back to his regular life and that is why he wasn’t there. This doesn’t jive with me. It doesn’t fit everything we’ve been shown about Thomas. If anything, it would be more likely to me that Thomas was out looking for Jesus, taking the women at their word and trying to find him for himself while the rest of them were afraid in a locked room. At any rate, Thomas missed the big reveal. And he said to his friends, “I don’t know if I get it. I don’t know how this could be unless I see it!” And so 8 days later, Jesus came back—to the same locked room. And as he scanned the room, his eyes went straight to Thomas.

He knew Thomas’ question. He knew Thomas’ desire to “get it”-to understand. He knew his need to SEE Jesus. And in the most intimate, revelationary answer, Jesus invited Thomas to TOUCH HIM. No one else got that invitation. To invite someone to touch you is to trust them with yourself. To touch someone else is to give them a bit of yourself. Think of when we invite others to touch us or are invited to touch others….when we make love or give birth or when someone is dying. When we are caring for the vulnerable—children or the elderly, when we make someone beautiful, when we are in pain and grieving. These are the most human and the most profound times. And Jesus led Thomas’ hand with his own to his open side, to his hands, to his feet. I was taught that Thomas’ question was wrong….impertinent….misguided….his faith was a defective one—one that questioned. But for his questioning Thomas received a gift more powerful and profound than any other. He got the risen body of Jesus.

When we question we are not being doubtful. We are not wrong. We are thinking, feeling, reasoning creations, making order out of chaos. Sometimes that order is beyond our present categories and so we are told that it is ok to believe—and sometimes we have to take that next step not fully knowing where our feet will fall.

But in my experience, and maybe in the experience of Thomas, when we question and are being honest with ourselves before God, we are not left out in the dark. We will not be asked, “how dare you?” We will be answered. And we are answered with nothing less than HIM. His body, his wounds, his face, his LIFE. It is an answer that probably won’t make “sense” in that we won’t be able to write it out in a three point sermon. But we will have to walk it, touch it, look it in the eye and keep following it onto a sometimes road we have not known—and yet know more deeply than we can imagine. And it will take everything we are.

Thank you honest, brave, fiercely faithful Thomas for speaking what you felt, not what you ought to have said.

(A lot of the thoughts above were shaped by a poem by Malcolm Guite…again.  Seriously, so good.  When I started thinking about Thomas, I, of course, googled it, and came across a lot of people wondering and saying similar things so in an attempt to attribute my thinking, there are definitely thoughts that started in those readings.)

 

Easter Dawn

XV Easter Dawn          by Malcolm Guite

He blesses every love which weeps and grieves

And now he blesses hers who stood and wept

And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s

Last touching place, but watched as low light crept

Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs

A scatter of bright birdsong through the air.

She turns, but cannot focus through her tears,

Or recognise the Gardener standing there.

She hardly hears his gentle question ‘Why,

Why are you weeping?’, or sees the play of light

That brightens as she chokes out her reply

‘They took my love away, my day is night’

And then she hears her name, she hears Love say

The Word that turns her night, and ours, to Day.

Death on a Friday Afternoon

This is a theological meditation that years ago confirmed what I had already had to live out and wrote about earlier today.  It says it so well…..so because this is my blog, I am writing it out too 🙂

From Richard John Neuhaus’ Death on a Friday Afternoon,

I have said we should not rush to Easter, yet Easter is the necessary presupposition of our contemplating the derelict on the cross.  Apart from Easter, such contemplation would reflect nothing but a morbid, macabre fascination with suffering and death–however “noble” his sacrifice.  Because of Easter, the words of the cross are words of life.  The cross is not merely the bad news before the good news of the resurrection.  Come Easter Sunday, we do not put the suffering and death behind us as though it were no more than the nightmarish prelude to the joy of victory.  No, the cross remains the path of discipleship for those who follow the risen Lord.  It is not as though there are two paths, one the way of the cross and the other the way of resurrection victory.  Rather, the resurrection means that the way of the cross is the way of victory.

“Come, follow me,” says Jesus.  “Take up your cross and follow me.  In the world you will have trouble, but fear not, I have overcome the world.”  In the book of Revelation, the white-robed saints around the throne of the Lamb are those who have come out of the great tribulation.  “I thirst,” said Jesus, and so also those who follow him thirst to drink of the chalice of which he drank.  The way of the Christian life is cruciform.  Jesus did not suffer and die in order that we need not suffer and die, but in order that our suffering and death might be joined to his in redemptive victory.  As Moses dipped the hyssop in blood and sprinkled the people of the first covenant, so those who have tasted of the wine that is now become blood are bound in covenantal solidarity with the One who is risen never to die again.

The Christian way is not one of avoidance but of participation in the suffering of Christ, which encompasses not only our own suffering but the suffering of the whole world.”

Walking through the Days

The Crosses at Kingsfold

The Crosses at Kingsfold

Coming into Easter is different than coming into Christmas. With Christmas there is anticipation of joy. Of arrival. Of a gift. I want to say that I feel the excitement of Easter Sunday’s arrival like I do Christmas—at the triumph of life over death….at God’s victory…..at the beauty of hope and newness and green life.

But there’s always something that gives me pause.

And I think its because before we get there, to Easter Sunday, there are always those few days before.

There is Thursday.  There is confusion on Thursday. There is severe and deep betrayal. There is despair. There is lament—there is a man deeply disturbed in the grass, BEGGING to be spared.

And there is Friday. There is always death, gruesome, tragic, unjust, unfair death. There are real bodies hurting in ways I hope TO GOD I never have to know.   There is weeping. When was the last time you wept….really wept. There is a mother crushed under the weight of her beautiful piece of sky being destroyed and tossed aside.

And there is Saturday. There is numbness. And questions. There is silence. There are so many questions but no words in response. And more tears…..tears of those who don’t know which way to go, or turn now. There is a story ruptured right in the middle of it and no one knows why.

The anticipation of having a child, even while knowing the form of terror and beauty that is first time childbirth, even while knowing that bringing a baby home is life-altering and hard it is still fraught with excitement, with life, and hopefully with a deep joy. Christmas is this-it is a longing fulfilled. A hope given. It is waiting and it is receiving. And so it’s a bit easier to enter into.

But no one I know wants to live through the real life correlative of the Easter story. No one wants to feel that despair, or that confusion. No one wants to have to lament that deeply. No one wants to be torn open body and soul. No one wants to have their worst fears come true. No one wants the numbness that comes from talking to darkness and hearing nothing back. No one wants to have to traverse through these to get to the Sunday. And yet these things ARE. They are our lives. And they are a part of our story as Christians. An integral, inextricable part.

These parts have been my story. I have to continuously own my story—the hard parts. I wish I could have gotten through without them. They bring me shame and they make me sad at some of the hurt they caused other people. And they make me ache in my heart even now as I think of the ache in my heart back then.   But they are there.

___________________________________

AND YET,

On that Thursday, there was also water being made dirty with bodies being washed clean, There was bread shared. These are a presence. A Real and Embodied PRESENCE promised in very ordinary things. And ultimately, after hours of struggle, there was a peace—an acquiescence, an ability to follow that defied every urge to turn away.

AND YET,

On that Friday, there was compassion for another damned body, there was provision for a mother at a time when her knees could not hold her much longer. And there was a closeness of spirit—an intimacy of relationship. There was a cry of ‘DADDY” and an ability to hand over the reigns, to let go in a trust that defied any sort of logic and sense.

AND YET,

On that Saturday, there was community. There were others gathering in darkness. There was rituals for the dead, there were rituals for those still living. There was a presence of bodies and souls touching that somehow made that interminable gray day pass.

No one wants to have to live through these days. WHY, GOD, are they the days that lead up to your SUNDAY? I do not want my babies to walk through these days.

AND YET,

I know they are the way through to Sunday. These are the days that walk us there, up to those crosses on a hill. And there is a presence throughout. This is no small thing. We are not left alone and that sun just keeps coming up on Sundays.

_____________________________________________________________

When I was younger , I thought God had left me. I was lost in a daze of disordered thinking and disordered eating and a disordered spirituality that thought this is what was required.   It turns out that He had not. But he was with me in ways I had not been trained to see. He was with me in the friends I made at the coffee shop who taught me to laugh again even when they were hurting themselves. He was with me in a gay man who LOVED enjoying food and LOVED sharing food. I became a little less broken because of him. He was with me when I found real live Christians who listened more than they declared. He was with me when I walked and walked and walked outside. He was with me over years of recovering and years of learning to let go. And when I came to a point of wholeness, I realized that he had not left. He always was there, present in the daily, body things I had always known.   Work, food, community and the big, big sky.

I had walked through a bramble and found he was there through the thick of it, wincing with every thorn that pierced me for they had pierced Him too. I walked through my own Holy Week, my own passion, and found He was there because He walked through it too.

My Easter Sunday is joyful—it is. There is usually sunlight and color. There is a desire to enter it.   But not with a triumphalism that will ever forget those thorns. And not without having to walk through the days that come before.

Walking up to Sunday is with the expansive joy and relief that sees the past days being redeemed. And it is also with that terrifying and heady sensation of being known and seen. Easter Sunday, for me, is the triumph and lifted heart of hope that life and light will, and do, prevail over darkness and death.

And it is with the knowledge that Easter is rooted solidly in the particular lives that have all walked up that road to that cross. We cannot grasp Sunday until we hear each other’s stories.  We cannot intellectually “get” Easter without all the stories about Thursdays and Fridays and Saturdays. Our collective lives’ own Holy Week.   The cross only makes sense in our deeply personal stories. Our stories are not only for pleasant feel good testimony time—they are for the unedited reality of Easter Sunday to be displayed—for our lives to be redeemed in their telling and in the incredible gift and glory of a Saturday turning to Sunday.

The story of my own “bramble” or my own Holy Week is being redeemed when it can bring new life—when it can bring Presence to my own or someone else’s life. When it is re-told in such a way that it is being brought closer and closer to the heart of God, gathering up other’s along the way. It is being redeemed when I hear my story’s invitation to live closer to my daily and ordinary work, community, food and piece of sky. When my story becomes part of His own Story in the world, it is being redeemed. It has been gloriously and it still is everyday.

I weep with different tears on Sunday morning—the PRESENCE that was always there in those dark days is now revealing itself to be THE PRESENCE that makes us new in the passage of these days. Miraculously, wonderously, unbelievably and in ways we have not always been trained to see –that PRESENCE that makes me whole and retells my story–this is my Easter.   Sometimes with thunder and a grinning angel and sometimes just with that line of light on the horizon that gradually lights up my next step.