Dorothy Richard, Diane Lukins, Kathy Markgraf, Ryan Beck, and Olivia Avery share their experience of being engaged in the mission of YPM
Please pray with me: Gracious God, reach into the hidden places in our souls, where fear and pain lurk, and love us until it heals. Amen
You have heard it said that this text is about Thomas and his doubts. That he is an example of what not to be, but I want to tell a story about God’s love for Thomas, a story about a love so powerful it can see into every crack and cranny where fear might hide. Every crevice where pain hides out, whispering those painful, anxious thoughts that cause us to withdraw on too many a fine day. I want to tell you a story about a god who is, in and of God’s very self, relational. A god who, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, is engaged in this wonderous dance, first one leading, then the other, as each celebrates the other. A god who reaches out to each and every one of us, swinging us up into God’s very arms, bringing us into this dance of love and joy. This is the god I want to speak of. Not the recriminating, you don’t have enough faith god, but the one who reaches for us even when we pull away. One who loves us in the depths of our misery and despair, in the midst of our anger and pain, in the midst of our fear and anxiety; a god who meets us where we are, but doesn’t leave us there. This is the God we meet in Jesus Christ. This is the God I want to speak of today.
I want to meet this god through Thomas and his story. I want to join Thomas in his grief and his loss, in his exclusion and his pain. I want to hear Thomas from across the centuries speak to us. I imagine it would go something like this:
First it was the women, saying they had seen Jesus, had spoken with him, but really, we all know that could never happen. I understand their grief, their desire to believe that what had happened could be undone, could be erased, but that’s not the way life works. I felt for them, in their pain and grief, but that was all.
Then it was everyone else! Saying that Jesus had come to them, not as spirit or a ghost but as a living breathing man. They assured me it was real. But, that’s not the way life worked. It hadn’t worked that way when my childhood friend died, or my grandparents, or, well death happens, there had been others. Once dead, one stayed dead. What they were saying was silly, and a bit disturbing.
We had to get on with things. We couldn’t just pretend that death could be reversed! Hadn’t I said, if we go to Jerusalem, they will kill him, and if our teacher, our rabbi and prophet, set his face to Jerusalem, was resolute, then we ought to go with him expecting to die also! Hadn’t I said that? This is the way of the world! This is just the way things are! You can’t change the way things are.
But, I couldn’t let it alone. The thoughts played through my mind over and over. If only I’d been more faithful, more courageous, maybe he would have come to me, I mean, if it could happen. But I hadn’t. I hadn’t gone to the cross with him. I’d been so scared.
Somehow, and I could think of so many ways it might have been, somehow I had failed him. The others were all lit up by his presence! Oh but I could see it. I knew that look on their faces. I knew that feeling, how he could reach into your heart and soul and make everything all right again, but this time, I had been denied, and I both knew why and didn’t know why. I just kept thinking over and over of what I might have done wrong, but mostly, I just tried really hard not to think about it. Because that’s not the way life works.“
We’ve all been there haven’t we? Last to be picked for sports teams in elementary school. The one left dateless on prom night. The one without an invitation to the party. The one who is left wondering why they aren’t good enough, not loved, not chosen, not appreciated, not valued. Not loved.
And don’t we all know what it is to face a hard reality? And the frustration of people telling us to “just think positive” or sharing one miracle cure after another that they heard of on the internet?
Can we take hope from Thomas’ story? For who among us has not wondered, can I be loved? Who among us has not secretly thought, well if they really knew me, they wouldn’t like me. And if you haven’t, and bless you if you haven’t because it’s a wonderful and gracious thing to have such a wonderful sense of yourself, still we can empathize. We’ve seen this kind of pain all too often. It’s the pre-teen girl who posts a picture of herself online asking this anonymous community if she’s pretty enough to be loved. It’s the angry young man who bullies and threatens because the whole world feels unsafe and he’s sure no one could really want him, love him, as he is.
I want to share a story that touched my heart. It’s the story of an elementary school teacher who every Friday, would ask the kids in her class to write down who they want to sit with next week. Who they want to have on their teams in group projects and then for hours she would pour over these lists of who is most loved, most wanted, who is chosen, who is not. A friend asked her about this and this is what she said,
“I know it might be arrogant, but I feel like I’m preventing the next Columbine, the next school shooting. You see, I’m looking for the kids no one wants to sit with, the ones no one notices or befriends, the outsiders, the excluded, the unwanted. I just think, if I could help them find friends now, when they’re still little, if I could help them to see themselves as beloved and wanted and chosen. I don’t know if it makes any difference really, but after Columbine, I had to do something.”
There is such power in being seen, in being invited in, in being included, in being named and claimed as one of us.
This is evangelism, this is the bringing of a good word, of a life-transformative experience of love, and the really cool thing is, we get to do it. The cool thing and the scary thing, is that God has entrusted us with the love and care of God’s very beloved children-each other.
That moment when your name is called, and you know, you know that finally it’s really you. Not those times when you are first chosen or even chosen in the middle of choosing, but that one time when all the choosing was done and you were sure that you were forgotten. When all the invitations have been sent out, but none for you. When all the names have been called but not yours. When it seems like no one sees you anymore they are so busy celebrating their loves, their invitations, their moment of glory…and then, as if from nowhere, someone calls your name!
That moment. But Jesus wasn’t done yet. He wasn’t done reaching into the pit of despair and loss and grief that had been welling up in Thomas’ heart. Thomas the one who had been prepared to “go with Jesus to Jerusalem and die there with him.” Thomas who had never expected any moment of reprieve from the loss he had experienced. Thomas who was willing to bravely soldier on through all the pain and grief, but please, please, don’t expect me to believe in miracles. It’s just too hard, too unfathomable, too outrageous. That Thomas. But no, just no. Thomas was a realist. He faced life on life’s terms and he knew that once dead is always dead. So no. No to the outrageous hope which defied all reality, all experience. Jesus was never going to call his name again. Never embrace him again. Never laugh with him again. Never share a meal with him again. And Thomas bravely moved through this finality. He didn’t deny it, but what rational man would?
So yes, that moment. When all hope is lost and the crazy ramblings of a few people wasn’t going to change that.
It is that moment that Jesus steps into and calls Thomas’ name. It is that moment, when it feels right and natural to harden one’s heart, to just move on, to get on with life, because nothing can be done. It is into that hardness and determination to survive that Jesus invites Thomas into a softer, more vulnerable, intimate embrace than he had ever thought possible. Into the pain, the grief, the loss, the hardness, Jesus brings gentleness, intimacy, vulnerability. “Go on, touch my wounds. Come close and feel my breath, breathe in my scent, hear my voice, come close. Do not be unbelieving, but abide in me.” Do not let your fear harden your heart and make your life small and desparate, but become soft, take the risk and come close to me again.
Jesus comes bearing his wounds and his flesh for Thomas to touch and feel, but it is Thomas’ wounds which are healed. It is Thomas’ despair, grief, and loss which receive that breath of new life.
Thomas’ head must have whirled with confusion, with desire and fear all at once. To touch the beloved teacher, to feel the warmth of his skin and see the gentle laughter in his eyes? Was not Thomas’ heart burning within his chest? Was he not rocked almost to his knees? To be so loved, that even death could not touch nor diminish that love, that even a brutal, tortured death, could not prevent that love from stirring his heart back to life one more time!
Had not some part of Thomas, some hope, some faith, died on that cross with Jesus?
And was it not the certainty of that loss rather than doubt which closed Thomas heart? But the moment he hears his name, doubt is stirred, doubt questions, and hope bubbles up in his chest! And Thomas, who had so bravely declared that he would die with Jesus, is just brave enough to let that hope fully enter his heart, overwhelm his certainties, and open his fearful heart to wonder, mystery, and a love that is well beyond his or our understanding.
It’s in those places where we’ve hardened our hearts and we’ve given up hope, where we’ve accepted that this is just the way life is and it won’t get any better, it’s into those locked down, locked up places that Jesus speaks our name, calling us into a new future, a new potential, asking us to be vulnerable enough to hope again, to love again, to believe again. It’s in those raw and painful wounds that Jesus breathes new life. It’s into that joyless resignation that Jesus takes our hand and invites us to join the dance and in so doing to abide in him as he abides in the Father. We are swept up, carried away, like a child who is caught up in a loving parent’s arms.
Doubt is the open door through which Jesus enters. Doubt is the glorious openness to the unknown. It is the refusal to accept the common answers. It is both the refusal to deny death, grief, and loss and the willingness to transcend them.
It is my hope that when you are asked to doubt all that you have ever known, about how life is, about death and taxes, about broken hearts and not-good-enough, when you are invited to doubt that things really have to be this way, you too will doubt, will wonder, will question. That you too will be swept up in those loving arms giddy for a moment, laughing, surprised and delighted, and that you will allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to be carried away, overcome by emotion, that you too will join Thomas in proclaiming, my lord, and my God!
Ah my friends, we arrive at the crux of the matter, why go into the desert anyway? Why go on these wilderness journeys, why not hide our head in the corner and just refuse? It isn’t fun. We talked about how crisis is so often the thing that gets us off the couch and into the wilderness, we talked about losing all that we think we are and need to be, that holy stripping of identity and boundary markers by which we say, ‘I am this.” We talked about getting lost and how scary it can be, and how much we want to be in control, so we resist ‘letting go and letting God,” because that reminds us all too much that we aren’t in control anyway and we really want to be.
So why go? Why face our mortality every year, looking death in the face and saying, yes we know this is coming and we are mortal. Why do it? Why not stay where everything looks grand and beautiful and if it doesn’t we’ll just tuck our heads and our hearts away and refuse to look. What I don’t know, I don’t have to face, so there.
I imagine poor Lazarus and his sisters must have been wondering the same sorts of things as they waited for their friend, the healer to come and heal Lazarus and he just didn’t come. What good did it do for them to believe when he didn’t come? I feel for Mary and Martha in their recriminations when they bluntly say to Jesus, “You could have saved him. You didn’t come. You didn’t show up.” Bam. There it is. So why look death in the face if you can do nothing to prevent it, why embrace hope and salvation if it isn’t coming? Our Lenten practice of facing our own darkness, our own mortality every year must have some benefit right? I mean because we keep doing it. So why?
We finally hit that point in our journey when rock bottom shows up. When we experienced this holy stripping of identity, of boundary markers, that place where we can say, Hi, I’m Cyndi I’m…and all those things we hold precious are listed, I’m Joyce and Gunther’s mom, I’m Betty ‘s daughter, I’m a Christian, I’m here to help, I’m this, I’m that, all of this is just gone. This is a holy striping. It’s what happens to Job. When all he has is just ripped from him and all he has left is “I belong to God.”
One of my favorite confessions begins by identifying our chief comfort, that we belong to God and no one and nothing can take that away. The man who wrote that, Frederick the Electorate, did so as he was being hauled before the courts on a charge of heresy. The outcome of the trial would determine whether he lived, or was burned at the stake, so he needed to be sure. He needed to know that he was staking his life on something solid and sure and the most important thing he could grasp hold of, not unlike Job, is that he belonged to God.
This is what a wilderness journey does, it strips us down until all that is left is our essential truth. Every year we rehearse this, we gather together and remind one another that is part of who we are. Mortal, vulnerable, fragile, and that in our tender mortality who we are matters a very great deal. Yes we are dust, and to dust we shall return, but what we do in the meantime is an act of co-creation. We are not powerless automatons but vibrantly alive and graced by the love of God, God’s very self. That is amazing!
In our day to day acts we miss this. We get busy with our to-do lists and we miss that every act we give our energy to matters. It matters whether we speak ill of one another or good. It matters whether we stand with the outcast or the insider. It matters whether we forgive the errors of those we love, choosing love and connection over our insistence that some things just should never have happened! These things matter intensely. And when we allow our self to feel our mortality, feel the need for a legacy, all of this matters.
When we face our wounds and dare to look into the cracks and crevices of our brokenness, we see where we have gone astray, where we have missed the mark and stop fooling our self that somehow it was justified. That we only said this hurtful thing or did that other thing because so and so did this, and we realize there never was an excuse big enough or important enough to justify our being less than we were created to be. Oh, we might say, that person promised me this, and it’s okay if I hurt them because they failed to produce it…but it was never about them, was it? At our rock bottom, in the act of having all our justifications stripped from us, all that remains is that we hurt someone who may or may not have failed us. Ouch. Just ouch, because that is NOT who we want to be. We wanted to be so much more than that!
So we rehearse it, we stop every year and check ourselves. Who am I really? Am I living up to who I said I’d be? Who God created me to be? How far off the mark am I? One of my favorite authors, Stephen Levine, captured this practice well in his book, A Year to Live. As a hospice worker he had noticed that many of his patients were experiencing these glorious ah-ha moments when they could see clearly how far off the mark they had gone and how little they had to lose by moving back toward that mark. The same theory is captured beautifully in that song by Tim Mcgraw, Live Like You are Dying. The lyrics from that song that really touch my heart are the “I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness that I’d been denying,” He had nothing left to lose, “I hope you get the chance to live like you are dying, “ he tells his young friend. Well, Stephen Levine decided that darn it, he was going to do just that, and he spent an entire year pretending that he only had a year to live.
This is our Lenten practice. A place where we stop and remember that we are all mortal, and we will all wonder in the desert at some point. We will lose loved ones, we will see opportunities pass us by, we will some day have that final spring, the one where we, hopefully, stop complaining about all the mud and just glory in the daffodils, we will have that final summer and we hope that as those long evenings go by they aren’t filled with regret that we failed to forgive this person and we failed to repair that relationship because we were just too daggon scared. It felt too doggon vulnerable so we froze up and we didn’t do it.
The glory of our Lenten journey into the wilderness to examine and look at all the things within us that block love that shut out the light, that keep our lives small and timid, is that we get to choose differently. We get to really look deeply at how we are, or are not, living into the being God created us to be and imagine a different way of being. I imagine that this is a big part of Lazarus’s story. We really don’t know much about him, other than that he died, like all of us will, and he got a second chance. Just flip those tables Jesus! We get one chance to get things right, to say how much we love those we care about, to give forgiveness, to do and say all the things that God has laid on our hearts…except that Lazarus gets a do-over. Mary and Martha get a do-over, and that changes everything.
Now it’s hard work to go into the tomb if you don’t have to. It’s a challenge to face one’s humanity, one’s limitations, one’s faults and errors if you don’t have to. Even when we’ve been scared to death once or twice, it’s really easy to re-armor our hearts with lots of should’s and shouldn’ts and it ought to be this way or that, and fail to see what is right in front of us. We are so good at protecting ourselves from loss, so good at pretending that we if do all the right things somehow it will pass us by, that we need to stop every year and say, whoa, wait a minute, You are Mortal. You are dust and to dust, you, yes you, will return. Every year we take this journey, we pack our bags and we unpack our baggage and we take this journey. We look carefully at what we take with us and who we are and who we have become.
And then we get to choose again. Then we get to live like we are dying. The gems mined in your darkest moments are what give you a depth, a courage, a wisdom and a richness that can’t be learned elsewhere. And your ability to fly is in direct proportion to your willingness and courage to face your version of rock bottom. If you’ve ever been at the bottom and bounced back to tell the story, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Now I hope that during our Lenten journey you really looked deeply. That you thought about the ways you keep people from loving on you, and the things you tell yourself that keep you from loving others. I hope that you have looked at the ways you have kept your life small and ‘reasonable’ and perhaps you’ve looked at the ways you fight change, fearing loss so much that it’s hard to let anything go. I hope that you have been shook and all that you wish you could let go of has become a little looser. And I hope too that you have been gentle with yourself during this process, because it’s all okay. There is next year…right? It is in our human nature to pretend that we all have another chance coming, that later is okay, the story of Lazarus reminds us that later is sometimes too late, and even God, very God will weep.
So I hope that you have been shaken on this journey. Let your heart and soul be shaken, for in some measure we are all with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, sending out those messages, “Master come quick, the one you love is ill.” I wonder what words of forgiveness and love were shared around that deathbed, words which might not have been shared if they knew that Lazarus was going to get a second chance. I hope that whatever words of love or forgiveness, are spoken, that love isn’t being denied, that we are all clinging tightly to the knowledge that we belong to God, and that we can truly live as if we are dying.
I hope that in this shaking you have been gentle with yourself and gentle with each other, that those things you want to let go of have been shook loose and are ready to drop. I hope you feel ready to love deeper, speak sweeter, and express that audacious, bold love that we are called to. May it be so,