Doubting Thomas

This coming Sunday we hear the Gospel story that we always hear on Sunday right after Easter:  the story of “Doubting Thomas”.   Thus, I offer the following poem, by Michael Harris.

Doubting Thomas Discovers His Brother

(John 20:24-29)

by Michael Harris

Suppose you were on an island,

The only island in the world,

Which would make that island the world.

And suppose you were the only person on that

Island world who could read letters, and know what they mean and

You were surrounded by people who could not

Read, but who wanted to hear your story,

Because you talked about your story in letters

(And you fascinated them, so they wanted to hear about You)

Which they could not read.

Suppose you told them your name was

Doubting Thomas and that you had a Twin Brother,

Who came back to prove to you that he had come back,

From something other than what he was before.

And when you told them this part of the story,
they said, “Tell Us More.” They then asked a profound question:

“Did he, your Twin, want you

To touch him where it hurt the most, so that

Touching him you touched yourself as well,

Knowing that the wound in the two of you

Was really the same wound?”

Then the man who could read began crying,

And said, “Yes.” It was the same wound in which

I discovered myself in my brother.”

Then the people on the island who could not read

Letters but who understood, began to attend to this

Man.

M. Harris © 2011

When the Rituals Make Sense

Last week, as we stood at the threshold of Holy Week, I published as my blog a version of Psalm 51 by Norman Fischer, a man who grew up in the Jewish community and became a Zen teacher.  His book, Opening to You, seeks to present the essence of the psalms through the filter of Fischer’s Zen experience and practice.  I chose Psalm 51 because it is used in The Episcopal Church on Ash Wednesday to set the tone for the Lenten season, and I thought it made sense to renew that tone as we were about to enter Holy Week.

There is one verse of Fischer’s Psalm 51 that particularly got my attention last week, and which continues to resonate with me as we stand on the threshold of the Great Three Days (in Latin, the Triduum, referring to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter).  Here is the verse:

A humbled heart, quiet and receptive, You will always receive.  Take it and make Zion strong.  Take it and pile high the walls of Jerusalem.  And then the rites and rituals will make sense.

I was struck in this rendering by the relationship between “heart” and “ritual”.  In ancient understanding, including Hebrew understanding, the heart was used to refer to that which was the essence of a person, the core of being, the place where the human and divine meet.  This verse of Psalm 51 says that when one’s heart is humble, “quiet and receptive”, God will “take it” and make use of it.  “And then the rites and rituals will make sense.”

Whenever we approach the annual celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection, we encounter mystery, confusion.  We want proof, but there is none to be had – at least not in a conventional way of thinking.  Ultimately, Resurrection is and always will be a mystery.  The invitation and the challenge of Easter is to have the courage (another “heart” word!) to entrust ourselves to this mystery.  We are invited on Easter morning to humble our hearts – that is, to turn away from all our temptations to overthrow the mystery with our attempts to rationalize it – and to be quiet and receptive to the mystery of new life in Christ.

When we are able to do that, when we are able to entrust ourselves to the mystery of Resurrection, then the rites and rituals will make sense.  Then, the celebration will come alive to us, and we will discover the ways in which the new life that is in Christ becomes new life in us.

May the joy and blessing of the Risen Christ find you this Easter.

Hebrew Zen

One of the psalms that is emblematic of the Lenten season, and of Holy Week, is Psalm 51. Recently, I have gotten acquainted with Norman Fischer’s Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms.  Norman Fischer grew up in the Jewish community and then became a Zen Buddhist.  From his Zen perspective, he returned to the psalms of the Hebrew Bible and, in consultation with both Jewish and Christian friends, rendered a version of the psalms that he believes is faithful to the intent of the Hebrew Bible but which seeks to illuminate the meaning of the psalms from a Zen perspective.  As we stand on the threshold of Holy Week, I am moved to offer Norman Fischer’s version of Psalm 51:

Be gracious with me in your loving-kindness.  In your tenderness blot out my confusion.  Wash me, let my impurity run off.  Cleanse me, squeeze the poison out. For of my twistedness I’m painfully aware.  My weakness is before my eyes all day long.

Against you, weaver of the hidden pattern of things. Has the shape of my actions inclined. Necessarily – For I am human. And my pain must rend the cloth. Unraveling right and wrong. Tearing the fabric of my own heart.  That in its woundedness it has no choice but to seek for you.  From the first I was this way.  Mothered in conception and division –Your eye looks through the fabric to the nothing beyond–Cause me there, in my soul’s exile, to find brightness.  Freshen me with hyssop.  Wash my heart and my body will be whiter than snow.  Let me hear with inward ear the gladness and the joy.  Of my sensual life.  So that the bones you’ve crushed in bringing me to be.  Can click and sing, repaired.  Let the light of your eye in mine.  Clarify my tangles and snarls.  So they do not pull nor strangle.  And my heart becomes clear.  And my spirit new

Don’t’ push me away.  Don’t remove your natural love.  Remind me of the joy I find in immersion in you.  Support me – free me–And I will remember you to all who’ve fallen away.  And they’ll rise up, face to face with you again.  Deliver me from division within myself.  That I can find my tongue to sing your allness–Open my lips and my mouth will praise you. For this is what you desire, not sacrifice.

If you wanted burnt offerings I’d give them.  But the sacrifice you desire is a broken heart.  A humbled heart, quiet and receptive.  You will always receive. Take it and make Zion strong. Take it and pile high the walls of Jerusalem. And then the rites and rituals will make sense. Then the bullocks and the incense can be offered on the altars

Sacramental Time

I must admit that I have been seriously thinking about writing letters to our local school boards.  Not about the kinds of things people usually write to school boards about, but about the way in which they schedule Spring vacation.  Here, where I live, it seems to be a long-standing practice to schedule Spring vacation to coincide with Holy Week.

Last year, my first Easter in Menlo Park, I assumed that the coincidence was simply because Easter happened to fall in March.   Then, when the calendar for this Spring was published, low and behold Spring vacation had moved a month later, to again coincide with Holy Week.  It is interesting to me that when I live in Tennessee — the buckle of the Bible belt — Spring vacation always happened at the same time in March, which meant that sometimes it matched Holy Week but often it did not.  Yet here in Northern California, where “church” is generally discussed in hushed tones if at all, our local schools are still making their calendars with an eye on Easter!

Part of my irritation with this is admittedly personal:  as long as this practice persists, my family and I will never get a real Spring vacation, unless we make the decision to take our kids out of school for a week after Easter.  Less selfishly, however, is the unfortunate effect this has on my fellow followers of Jesus who also have kids in school.  They are forced to choose between staying home and observing the Holy Week services or going away and most likely missing them (though, they could find churches near their vacation sites….).   Most of the time, in people’s calculations, Holy Week loses.

And that is too bad.  Because the Holy Week cycle of services — Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Great Vigil on Saturday and then Easter Sunday — have an ancient design that is meant to lead us through a deeply meaningful and transformative encounter with God in Christ.  Each of these days, and the services that go with them, help us encounter the mystery of Christ in different ways.

Palm Sunday, particularly the Liturgy of the Palms that opens the service in The Episcopal Church and many others, leads us into the joy that the first followers of Jesus experienced when they believed he was going to enter Jerusalem to begin a earthly revolution.  That joy quickly turns to disappointment and then anger when Jesus’ actions don’t match those expectations, and the cheering crowds are transformed into jeering mobs calling for Jesus’ crucifixion.

Maundy Thursday moves us from the crowds to the intimate circle of Jesus’ followers, sharing with him in the Last Supper as he tries to get them to understand that one of their number will betray him, leading to his arrest and execution.  He tries to prepare them for this betrayal, and to leave them with a sense of hope that this betrayal and his death will not be the final word.  But the service of that evening ends with the stripping of all adornment from the sanctuary and in darkness.

Good Friday can really be thought of as the memorial service for Jesus.  It brings us face to face with his death and with the way in which that death was brought about.  As well as bringing us face to face with the continuing injustices of the world that, in many ways, crucify the oppressed.

Then, the Great Vigil of Easter moves us from darkness into light with the baptism of new followers and the proclamation of Easter – a light and celebration that is extended into the morning light of Easter Day.

Each of these services is about more than the events surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Most importantly, they are about the life, death and resurrection of us.  Palm Sunday should bring us face to face with those times in our own lives when we have gone from cheering to jeering, allowing ourselves to be overcome by anger and its destructive affects on ourselves and others.  Maundy Thursday brings us face to face with the ways we have betrayed ourselves and others, and with the ways in which we ourselves have been betrayed.  It puts us in touch with our brokenness, our yearning for wholeness.  It is a place where healing can begin.

Good Friday, of course, puts us in touch with our own losses and invites us to consider how we have been a part of injustice.   It brings us face to face with the hollowness and emptiness we sometimes experience.  But Good Friday moves into Holy Saturday and, ultimately, to the Great Vigil.  That service reminds us that God has always been present in all of these moments, even when we cannot see that presence.  And all of this time, God has been offering us God’s grace to lead us back into wholeness, into new life.  The promise of that new life for us is renewed as we witness the baptisms of others, and we celebrate it joyously on Easter morning.

So the Holy Week services are really designed as spiritual therapy.  As we meditate on the key events in Jesus’ life so long ago, so we are put in touch with the fact that these events also represent the pattern of our own lives.  The services help us to experience this pattern with greater intensity, and to recognize God’s presence within the pattern.   These services call us to deep spiritual work, and all of it culminates in joy, hope and new life.

So, for now, anyway, here in Menlo Park, the school calendars won’t cooperate with us parents.  A sign, perhaps, of the way in which our secular lives can sometimes become barriers to our spiritual lives.  The school calendar also calls for us to make a choice, however; to decide where our priorities are to be found.

Wherever you find yourselves this Holy Week, I hope you won’t let the sacred days pass by unnoticed.  Seek out a Maundy Thursday and Good Friday service, consider attending an Easter Vigil, and, yes, there’s still Easter Day.   Is it a lot of church going?  Well, yes. But it is the most meaningful church going of your life.

May you find the blessings waiting for you this year in Holy Week and Easter.