Our “Sense of Place” class had its April field trip last week to the North Carolina Arboretum. It couldn’t have been a prettier day for a tour of the gardens and a walk through the woods. We had an eye out especially for those ephemeral spring flowers, and here and there we found a few – yellows, pinks, whites: tiny flowers that pop briefly out of the leaf litter before dying back without a trace before the tall trees overhead leaf out and blanket them in shadow.
Except for these flowers and a few early shrubs, the forest looks inert at this time of year. Last fall’s leaves are drained of color, and things in general have a beaten-down look from the snows and winds and frigid temperatures of winter.
We know, of course, that outside of our sight there is a lot going on. Sap is running in the trees and tiny tendrils everywhere are reaching out as daytime temperatures rise. That’s the thrill of a walk in the woods in this season: each day something new emerges or unfolds. A seemingly dry and colorless landscape is shot through with the electricity of life; out of the ordinary, the blah, the unexceptional, something exceptional, amazing and fresh is entering the world.
And so, with that image before us once again we enter the Easter story, that great tale of death and resurrection that centers the Christian tradition. It’s a story that lives with us as Unitarian Universalists as well by virtue of our historical roots in that tradition, although our practice is to give that tale a different take than Christian churches do.
As Frederick May Eliot, historic Unitarian leader, put it more than a half century ago, “When I go to church on Easter, I expect to be reminded of the elemental truth that in this universe of ours, with all its hesitancies and timidities and tragedies, the tides of life are flowing fresh, manifold and free.”
What speaks to us isn’t the magical story of bodily resurrection at Easter, which has dominated the Christian narrative for the past millennium or so, as much as the need for rebirth. Just like the forest floor in early spring we find times in our lives when we feel beaten down. Circumstances, some of them of our own making, shut us down or cause us to draw in on ourselves. We get quarrelsome and cynical and just stuck.
Easter serves as a reminder that there are stores within us, within the world around us that can lift us out of our funks and offer a way forward. There are those who will say that this is just those UUs again messing with a well-established religious tradition, picking and choosing the parts they like, but leaving the hard parts behind. Curiously, though, thanks to recent scholarship, we’ve learned that our take on the Easter story connects in interesting ways with the perspective of early Christian communities.
Several years ago, Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry, one of our seminaries, and a colleague, Rita Nakashima Brock, wrote that in studying early churches they found that for hundreds of years the image of Jesus was very different from what appears in many churches today.
Instead of the crucified Christ whose death was recompense for humanity’s sins, they discovered a figure with welcoming arms inviting followers into a luminous scene that was strongly reminiscent of the Mediterranean landscape where they were situated. Parker and Brock realized they were looking at a vision of paradise, not as a distant heaven, but as the world of those people’s experience that was infused with a brilliant energy.
Paradise, in other words, was not another world; it was a way of looking at this world that had been lost to its people. The purpose of worship and other dimensions of community life, then, was to restore this lost connection to a sense of that sacredness, and it was communities that sought to live by Jesus’ teachings of justice and compassion, rather than dwell on his death, that were offering that path.
Parker and Brock argued that there was a strong parallel to our work as religious communities today, communities that celebrate the beauty and wonder of this world while seeking to cultivate practices of what they call “ethical grace.” They describe this as living in a way that is “attuned to what is beautiful and good, and responsive to legacies of injustice and currents of harm.”
With this view in mind, Easter could offer us the opportunity to praise that which upholds life and to call forth that in us that awakens hope and courage to act in such a way that we might bring such a world into being and learn to live rightly with the Earth and each other.
OK, OK, sure: Sounds great, but often a whole lot easier to say than to do. Again, back to that funk: “praise life, awaken hope, live rightly with the Earth and each other” is just a lot of words unless something connects with us directly. So, here’s where this business of blessing comes in.
As John said earlier, the traditional meaning of blessing is an act of or in the name of God. I’m wary, though, of anyone who presumes to speak or act on behalf of God or any other image of divine authority. For we fragile, fallible sorts, the source of our authority is our own authenticity. We speak for ourselves, and only ourselves. Yet, if we are fully present and true to the best within us, we are capable of conferring on each other gifts that might waken us to the wonders of the world around us, to life abundant, to the ethical grace of our lives together
The author Barbara Brown Taylor, who is also an Episcopal priest and professor of religion, writes that for many people the prospect of conferring a blessing is daunting. Who am I to do such a thing? So, she invites them to begin with something simple – say, a stick lying on the ground.
The first thing to do, she says, is to pay attention. “Did you make the stick?” she asks. “No, you did not. The stick has its own story. If you have the time to figure out what kind of tree it came from, that would be a start to showing the stick some respect. It is only a ‘stick’ in the same way that you are only a ‘human,’ after all. There is more to both of you than that. Is it on the ground because it is old or because if suffered a mishap? Has it been lying there for a long time, or did it just land? Is it fat enough for you to see its growth rings?”
This stick has a history you cannot know. Did a bird once make a nest on it? What was it like to be part of the deep mystery of drawing water up from the ground against the pull of gravity? How was it to launch green leaves from its buds in spring and only to have them drop off and float to the ground in the fall? It has arteries not so very unlike yours and tissues that as you stand there are breaking down, returning to the soil from which it sprang.
What might you say?
“Bless you, stick for being you?”
“Bless you for turning soil and water and sun into wood?”
We only need remember, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, that “the key to blessing things is that they beat you to it.”
Blessing is ultimately an act of deep appreciation and once you are in the posture of doing it, the act redounds to you. The respect, the care that comes from a blessing speaks to an unplumbed depth within you. It is the place from which the “path to plenitude” that John Donohue spoke of in our reading opens for us.
This also connects us to another way of looking at the Easter story. The scholar John Dominic Crossan has examined much of the historical record around the stories of the Bible, and he notes that as lyrical as the death and resurrection narrative is, there is nothing historical in the finding of the empty tomb.
The most that we know from the record, he said, is this: there was a movement of people organized around a man named Jesus; he was executed by the authorities; but the movement continued and spread. The final point, Crossan argues, is the key one, and how it did so is the subject of one of the final episodes in the Gospel of Luke in the story of the walk to Emmaus.
In it, two disciples are on a road leaving Jerusalem shortly after Jesus death, talking about all that happened. At some point, they are joined by a figure they don’t seem to know, but later identify as Jesus, who tells them to continue his teachings.
Crossan argues that the story is intended not to be historical, but apocryphal: in his words “a metaphoric condensation of the first few years of Christian thought and practice in one parabolic afternoon.”
In essence, he says, Jesus opened a “path of plenitude” for his followers, a blessing that helped them see the world in a new way. This lives on in the gift that Easter gives us, the reminder that death is never the final answer. There are, as Frederick May Eliot put it, “tides of life flowing, fresh, manifold and free” – just look at the green points poking through the soil in your garden – ready to be employed if we can imagine ourselves as agents in bringing the future about.
And for many of us this is perhaps the greatest reach of all. Who am I? Pretty small, let’s face it. Life abundant, living with ethical grace. Wow, yeah! But . . . well, we each have our own reasons for why we think that path is a bigger lift than we’re capable of, but more or less they all fit under that classic Facebook post: “It’s complicated.”
But think about this. Today, you scribbled a few words on a slip of paper, crammed it in a plastic egg and dropped the egg in a basket intending it for one of our children to find and read: a blessing! What was that like? How was it to imagine your words being read, or perhaps read to someone?
How will that child receive it? I don’t know, but I call tell from what I have been told in past years that our children are kind of amazed by this gesture. They may not understand all the words, but they get the gesture.
It is a step or two above blessing of a stick. It is a moment of meeting that communicates abiding care, care that every one of us is in the position to offer each other in many ways. You may not be able to move mountains, but you can communicate abiding care.
And, hey, remember there’s another one of those blessings waiting for you in a colorful plastic egg that our children have secreted somewhere in Sandburg Hall. How will you read that blessing? What will you do with it? How will you let it touch you?
Annie Dillard paints it in stark terms: there’s nobody here but us chickens, nobody else to do all that heroic work that needs doing.
Remember the image from Wendell Berry’s poem that I offered as a meditation: amid our fears and tormented dreams there is within us the capacity to see beyond our outcast state, to make ourselves available to that well of abiding care within us that connects us with each other, a source that, if we will let it, can bathe us like a quiet, summer rain.
It is a weakening and discoloring idea, Annie Dillard says, that “rustic people knew God personally once upon a time – or even knew selflessness or courage or literature – but that it is too late for us.”
No: The absolute, the ineffable, however we might understand that unfolding possibility that moves like electricity in us and all things, is available to everyone in every age. And we who go about our busy lives – knowledgeable and important, fearful and self-aware – we well-meaning folks, who nonetheless sometimes cut corners, who promote and scheme and deceive, we who long to flee misery and escape death – we are all that we have to bring it into being.
Our destination is not clear, but as John Donohue puts it, we can trust the promise of this opening and unfurl ourselves into the grace of beginning.