What is Heaven?
“What is heaven?” asked Victoria DuBois, a senior at Pilgrim High School who had asked if she could interview me for a film she is making about “Heaven.” She was amazingly organized, especially for a high school student. I say this as someone who has worked with teenagers since I was one myself, which is a long time. She had emailed me at the church, set up an appointment, arrived on time. She filmed our worship service, and then our conversation. I asked if her film was her senior project. She said, “No, it is just something I am interested in.” Right away, I liked her. I also was amazed at her maturity. I would have guessed that she was in college, rather than high school. I love the fact that she at such a young age is living her life as spiritual adventure, seeking to learn about the things that intrigue her!
At 53 years old I feel blessed to have the freedom to say what I think.” “Well, you may find my idea of heaven is not exactly orthodox, but I believe “heaven” is not a “place” where we go when we die, but rather a state of being which we can live in right here, right now.” Victoria, with the maturity of someone my age, responded, “That’s kind of how I think of it too.”
To me “heaven” is all about relationship: our relationship with God, with others, (including our planet), and with ourselves. When we are living in a deep, right relationship with God, others, and ourselves, that is “heaven.” When we live in deep communion with God, seeing God in all others, in all that is, and treating all others, all that is with reverence, that is “heaven on earth.”
Jesus had several names for this: the “kingdom of heaven,” or the “kingdom of God,” or “eternal life.” Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is among you (or within you.)” (Luke 17:21) In other words, it starts NOW. He also said, “THIS is eternal life, that that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) (Also NOW!) Saint Paul writes: “Behold NOW is the acceptable time; behold NOW is the day of your salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2)
We also discussed heaven’s counterpart: hell. I confessed to Victoria that I do not believe in “hell” as a place either, but rather as a state of being in which we are not living in right relationship with God, others, or ourselves. I quoted Albert Einstein, who said that “evil,” or I would say, “hell,” is “the absence of God.” I love that. When we live our lives in the absence of God, that is “hell.” In other words, we create our own “hell.” Victoria said she felt similarly.
During Lent our “theme” in our community of faith was “Deepening Faith.” We used a film series called “Animate Faith.” It featured seven leading voices in the post-modern, post-Christian, “emerging” church movement. The session that was everyone’s favorite was the one on “Salvation,” (a very “churchy” word) which for many means the same thing as “heaven.” The speaker for this “Salvation” clip was a young man named Shane Hipps. He was the teaching pastor at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but before that his career was in the advertising industry, with accounts like Guinness and Porsche. His ten minute clip on salvation says pretty much the same thing: that heaven is here and now. (See link in sidebar)I admit, when we watch the news we ask ourselves, “Surely this life of prejudice, conflict, war, income inequality, injustice, oppression, racism, sexism, etc. – this cannot be heaven, can it?” No, as I learned in seminary, “heaven is both “already,” and at the same time “ not yet.” A paradox, yes. Prejudice, injustice, conflict, war, is when we are not living in right relationship with God, others, or ourselves. (In other words, “hell.”) But when we stand against these things because we seek to live in deep communion with God, others, and ourselves, we are one by one ushering in the reign of God, “salvation,” or “heaven.” Some time ago there was a film, a comedy, called “Heaven can wait.” But look around, and you will see that “Heaven cannot wait.” Here, now, you and I are invited to live in right relationship with God, others, and ourselves, to live in the reign of God.
Right here, right now, today and every day, may you see God in all you encounter, and may you reflect God to all you encounter. When you do, you will see that heaven is right here, right now.
Pastor Linda Copyright, May 6, 2014
Have you ever noticed that some of the most significant encounters or experiences of our lives happen while we are “on the way” to someplace else? Side trips, detours, the conversation we have with a stranger on the train or the plane, the encounter we initially looked at as an “interruption, “ in retrospect turn out to be the very things that change the course of our lives. But are we so focused on the end of our journey, on the goal, on the destination, that we miss the way God is breaking into our lives right now, “On the Way?”
In the Christian tradition, now is the time “after” Easter. We celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on April 20. So…now what? How does the resurrection of Jesus Christ change your life? Or mine? How did it change the lives of his first disciples? Interestingly, before they were called “Christians,” the early followers of Jesus Christ were called “People of the Way.” The Greek word for “Way” is “odos,” meaning “Road, path, way.” In our Lutheran tradition we are organized into these weirdly named regions called “Synods,” which literally means, “Walking the Way together.” (syn: “together” plus “odos, “road/path/way.”) I like that because it is about Life as a Spiritual Adventure. In fact, I like to think of Easter as a verb. Some years ago I titled my Easter sermon, “Easter US!” What would it look like in your life, if God were to “Easter” you? What would it look like if we journeyed through the adventure of this life, expecting God to show up every step of the Way?
One of my favorite mystics, Meister Eckhart (1260-1327 CE) said about the birth of Christ, “What difference does it make that Jesus Christ was born all those years ago in Bethlehem if he is not also born this day in your life and mine?” We might tweak Eckhart’s words to ask ourselves, similarly, “What difference does it make that Jesus Christ rose from the dead all those years ago if you and I are not also raised up to new life today?”
Some of my favorite stories about Jesus are his “after Easter” appearances. I especially love the story of the two disciples “On the Way to Emmaus.” It is found in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 24, verses13-25:
“Now on that same day (in other words, later Easter day) two disciples were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him…”
This “stranger” they met on the way asked them what they were talking about, and they told him all about Jesus, their teacher, and how the women who had gone to the tomb that morning had seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. This stranger then explained to them how all of the scriptures came together and were fulfilled in this resurrection event.
As night fell, the two disciples, one named Cleopas by Luke and one named Susanna by later tradition, arrived at their destination, the village of Emmaus. The stranger they had encountered seemed to be traveling on, but they invited him, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in and stayed with them. We read, “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” (Bible scholars call this the “Eucharistic formula:” took, blessed, broke, gave). “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”
Only then, in retrospect, did they say to one another: “were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road/path/way, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” We read that that same hour, that late night hour, when it was still dark and they had just travelled seven miles from Jerusalem, they got up and travelled seven miles back, back to the same place from which they had come, only everything was different now. They found the eleven disciples and their companions, and told them what had happened “On the Way,” and how he had been made known to them “in the breaking of the bread.”
Some years ago I participated in a four-year training program through Sacred Heart University to become a certified spiritual director. For four years every July we would gather for a week-long intensive class, and then throughout the year, do all of our readings, papers, course work, and peer supervision in small groups. Every year during our one-week intensive class, in the middle of the week of really long days of class work, we would take a Wednesday afternoon break. The instructors would literally pull names out of a hat, and we would be paired up in a kind of impromptu “buddy system,” for what our teachers called, “An Emmaus Walk.” For the rest of the afternoon we would literally walk, meandering around the paths and roads of the retreat center, sharing the stories of our lives. At the end of the afternoon, we would share our evening meal together, and talk about what had happened “On the Way/path/road.”
Did not our hearts burn within us as we shared the stories, the joys and sorrows, the hopes and longings of our lives? Did we not recognize the Christ as we walked the road/path/Way together? And later, as we shared our experiences with others over our evening meal, in retrospect, did we not recognize Christ in the breaking of our bread? In our meal shared together?
If our eyes/hearts/minds are open, do we not recognize that this life really is an Emmaus Walk, and every meal shared among friends is sacred, and everyone we encounter “On the Way” reveals Christ in our midst?
After every yoga class you will ever go to, the final word is “Namaste.” Namaste is a Sanskrit word meaning, “May the holy one in me acknowledge the holy one in you.”
This day, each day, may our eyes and hearts and minds be opened to see that every day is an Emmaus walk, every meal is sacred, and every stranger we meet “On the Way” is the holy one, Christ in our midst.
Copyright April 28, 2014
Today is the day after Easter. I am exhausted, to say the least. That is because I led eleven worship services last week. Why so many? Because for Christians Holy Week – the week leading up to Easter – is the heart of what the Christian faith is all about. The good thing is that I did not have to preach at all of those worship services (only at seven of the eleven) because most of the worship services during holy week are experiential. I like that. Educators have done studies about learning and retention, and it turns out that people only retain a small percentage of what they hear, a slightly higher percentage of what they read or see, and a much higher percentage of what they actually participate in or experience. Think about your own life. Think for example about when you travel to a new place. I always research the place I will visit. But it is one thing to read about something in a book, and look at photographs and maps. It is a completely different thing to actually travel to the place and experience it. Only after experiencing a place, do you truly know it. So at our church we try to make holy week as experiential as possible. (See Post “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Holy Week”)
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and comes to fulfillment on Easter day. “Easter” in the biblical language of Greek, is “Pasca,” which is the Greek word for Passover. Over the years I have grown to love the Easter Vigil, which is held the night before Easter. In some churches their Easter Vigil lasts the entire night, ending with the sunrise on Easter morning. At our church we do the short version of the Easter Vigil. It lasts around ninety minutes. We start outside the front door of the church, cars zooming by, wondering what is going on. We light a “New Fire.” I get some Eagle Scouts (really good at lighting campfires:) to start our fire. We get a new Pascal (Christ) candle, which is the huge, ornate candle you see when you go into a lot of Christian churches. We light our Christ candle, which we have not lit throughout the entire forty days of Lent, and we chant “Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.” We pray, that “On this holy night, as Jesus”passed over” from death to Life, so may we his followers, also “pass over” from death to new life in Christ. One Holy Saturday, right before our Vigil, I visited the home of a beloved friend and member of our church community named Mary. Mary had fought a valiant battle with cancer, and was drawing near to the end of her battle. She was at home, under hospice care, and her family was keeping their own vigil. I loved this woman fiercely. She was, and always will continue to be, an inspiration to me in my own life of faith. She was a true matriarch of faith for me and our entire community. On that Holy Saturday, Mary was no longer conscious. She lay on a hospital bed set up in her living room. I held her hand, and prayed, and read the Easter Gospel according to John (John 20). In John’s Gospel it is Mary Magdalene who goes to the tomb of Jesus alone that first Easter morning. She is very distraught when she finds the tomb of her beloved friend Jesus empty. Through her tears, she asks the blurry vision of a man she supposes to be the gardener, where they have put Jesus’ body. The man speaks her name, “Mary,” and she knows it is Jesus! As I read this part of the Gospel to my beloved friend, also named Mary, my unconscious friend squeezed my hand at the sound of her name! I will never forget this experience. For me it was my beloved friend assuring me that I should not be afraid for her, that she was “passing over” with Christ on this holy night, from death to new life. When I got to church a short time later, and prayed the prayer at our vigil, “On this holy night, as Jesus “passed over” from death to new life, may we also “pass over” from death to new life in Christ,” this prayer took on a whole new meaning for me. Now, each and every time I celebrate our Easter vigil, I remember my beloved friend, Mary, who literally “passed over with Christ” into new and eternal Life that Easter. But I also reflect on what Easter means in my own life, and invite you to reflect on what it means in your life, and the things we need to die to in our lives, in order to pass over to new life with Christ.
Historically, Holy Saturday is the day when new converts to the Christian faith are baptized. Today, around the world, new Christians are baptized on Holy Saturday. Adult baptisms are very powerful to witness because there truly is that dimension of dying with Christ to their old way of life, and rising with Christ to a whole new way of life.
The most famous bible passage used for adult baptisms (and also, interestingly, used for funerals), is from Saint Pauls’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 6, verses 4-6: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried with him by baptism, into death, SO THAT as Christ was raised from the dead to the glory (brilliant dazzling light) of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Christ in a death like his, surely we will be united with Christ in a resurrection like his!”
In other words, just as Christ “passed over” from death to life, so also do we! The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is all about you and me through the power of Christ dying to our old way of life and rising to a whole new way of life in Christ. No matter what your past, in Christ you are offered a completely new beginning, a completely new life! At every Easter Vigil, as we witness adult baptisms, we remember and renew our own baptisms.
Easter is not something that only happened 2000 years ago. Easter is an invitation to you and to me to die to our old ways, and to say “yes” to a new beginning in Christ. This Holy Saturday a friend of mine is celebrating her third anniversary of being sober. Talk about a new beginning! I remember when I met her three years ago, when she decided to give up drinking, and asked for God’s help. This Easter, what is it you need to die to in order to live a new and abundant life?
Five years ago when my mother died, someone recommended a book, Proof of Heaven, by Doctor Eben Alexander. Although I hate the corny title, I do like the book. It gave me great comfort after my mother died. This year, just before Easter, I re-read it, because my father recently died, and I needed some comfort once again. Eben Alexander is a neuroscientist, who has taught at Harvard Medical School (no slouch!) He also is a brain surgeon, who specializes in brain tumors and brain traumas. In this book he confesses that he was never really a person of faith or an active church-goer. He was one of those Christmas and Easter church attendees. Throughout his career of operating on people’s brains, there were numerous occasions when his patients, during their recoveries, would tell him that they had had an experience of death, but then had “passed over” back to life, new life. Every time they had told him this, he had patted them patronizingly on the arm and said, “That’s nice.” He never believed any of it. Then when he was 52 years old, he contracted an extremely rare form of E.Coli bacterial meningitis, and was in a deep coma for one week. In deep coma he experienced a state of consciousness beyond anything he could have ever imagined. He confessed that words fall grossly short of describing the intensity and magnitude of this experience. He uses images from music, like a glorious symphony! He uses images of brilliant, dazzling radiant Light. Most of all, he uses images of a profound Love which undergirds all things, a sense that he personally is loved beyond anything he could ever have imagined, and so are we all. His lack of faith prior to this experience, he claims, is “living proof” of the validity of his experience. If you have lost someone you love, I encourage you to read this book. I pray that it brings you comfort, as it did to me.
The most remarkable thing to me is that this experience changed the way Eben Alexander lives his life. In other words, his “death” raised him to that “newness of life” Saint Paul wrote about. His experience of divine Love completely changed the way he lives his life. He invites us to live in this newness of life also.
During Lent this year we did a Video series called “Animate Faith.” It featured seven “Post-Modern, Post-Christian “Emerging” Christian speakers. The one that struck our group the most was a young man named Shane Hipps. He spoke about “salvation,” which is one of those “churchy” words which even most church people cannot define. I always define salvation as “God’s saving love.” This is the same thing as what some people call “the kingdom or reign of God” or “eternal life.” Many Christians think of “salvation” or “the kingdom of God” or “eternal life” as something we receive when we die. I think of it as a way of life we are invited to live right now. When we say “Yes” to God, when we live our lives open to God who comes to us through all things, through everything we experience, and through everyone we encounter, that is living eternal life right now. I liked Shane Hipps’ presentation because that is how he thinks of it as well. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is among you and within you.” Jesus also said, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” John 17:3 Saint Paul also confirms that salvation or eternal life is now: “Behold today is the acceptable time; behold today is the day of your salvation (that is, of your experiencing God’s saving love for you).” 2 Corinthians 6:2
Invitations to this new way of life are everywhere. Holy Saturday morning I went to a yoga class. At the end of the class, during the closing meditation, the teacher played a song. It was a new version of a song I remembered from long ago, by the Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn, “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” The words are:
Sun’s up, uh huh…it’s okay; the world survived into another day.
And I’m thinking about eternity; some kind of ecstasy’s got a hold on me!
My favorite verse is:
Walls windows trees , waves coming through
You be in me and I’ll be in you
Together in eternity
Some kind of ecstasy’s got a hold on me!
Bruce Cockburn is a brilliant poet and lyricist, whose lyrics are replete with biblical imagery. He is inviting us to live in this amazing new, ecstatic way of life! In my own imagery, I invite you to live your life as the spiritual adventure that it is. When we do this, as Rabbi Heschal says, “All of life is sacred!”
Good Friday, after our stations of the cross walk, I went back to the church to set up our sanctuary for our Holy Saturday Easter Vigil. Two women and I transformed our altar space, stripped bare the night before, into a place of vibrant color and beauty. Over a hundred Easter plants, of various shapes and sizes and hues, cascaded down both sides of our altar and filled the chancel (space near the altar). Fragrance, color, beauty filled the space.
Downstairs, two women, members of our church who started a Swedish baked goods business, were baking Swedish coffee breads for Easter, and the scent of sweet breads filled the hall. A husband and teenage daughter of one of the women helped us decorators break down all of the boxes in which the plants had arrived. Across the street my secretary worked feverishly to complete all of the Easter bulletins (programs). Two brand new people to our community helped fold and collate all of these bulletins. In another building our youth director and several teenagers stuffed eggs for our children’s Easter Egg hunt the next day.
Good Friday morning a mother of five had served up a community meal for the members of our church community, including all of the hungry folks who come to our Christ’s Cupboard Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry. Patricia, a woman who works part time in our church office, was on the front lawn in front of our Oceans of Grace Outreach building, changing the message on our church sign, announcing the times of our Saturday Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday worship. Patricia is one of those “salt of the earth” people whose pure heart reveals a glimpse of God’s light to me. Patricia does every task with her whole being, as her offering to God. I saw her and all of these others, just doing their thing, and sharing their time and their gifts, as their offerings to God. As a pastor, I sighed, and gave thanks, because this is “God made flesh” for me: humble, ordinary people, working together in small but consistent ways to bring something beautiful and sacred and new to life. This is Easter. This is new life. This is resurrection. To see God’s face shining through each and every one of us, giving our simple gifts to each other as our offering to God.
Albert Einstein said, “There are two ways to live our lives. One way is to live as though nothing is a miracle. The other is to live as though everything is a miracle.” It is Easter, it is the resurrection, when we choose to live this other way.
This Easter Day, may you see God in all you encounter, and may you reflect God to all you encounter!
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Holy Week
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and comes to fulfillment on Easter day. Palm Sunday is when Jesus rode a donkey into the holy city of Jerusalem, and people waved branches, or palms, and shouted “Hosanna” Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, “ hailing Jesus as King . Hosanna in Hebrew means “Save us!” It is a variation on Jesus’ name (in Hebrew Joshua, means Savior). This quaint story was actually considered political treason because in the Roman Empire, only the Emperor was to be hailed as King. Riding a donkey not only reveled Jesus’ humility, but according the the Hebrew Bible’s (Old Testaments’s) prophecy in Zechariah (Zech 9:9-10), it was also a declaration that this King Jesus was ushering in a reign of peace. If a King rode a horse during his inauguration, he was declaring that his kingdom would be a time of war. A king riding a donkey indicated a time of peace. But Jesus still got into a bit of a jam with the Romans because of the whole treason thing.
Holy week reaches its climax in what is called the “Triduum” – which is a fancy Latin word most people cannot pronounce – which means simply, “The Three Days.” The Triduum includes Holy or Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.At our church Holy Thursday begins with a Passover Seder.
Our Seder also begins with a foot washing, because in John 13 Jesus says he washed his disciples’ feet. At our church I, the pastor, wash peoples’ feet. Very few people take me up on the offer to have their feet washed! Mostly children and teenagers allow me to do this, maybe because they are not as self-conscious about their feet as most adults are. I understand peoples’ hesitation because when people have asked me if they can wash my feet, I think, “No way!” I have let a couple of people wash my feet, but only people I feel extremely comfortable with. It is a very intimate thing. When I wash peoples’ feet I try to make it into a prayer for the person whose feet I am washing. I use a fragrant holy oil in the warm water, and at the end, make the sign of the cross on their feet, and ask God to bless them in their walk of faith. I also feel that Jesus’ disciples must have felt very uncomfortable and vulnerable when their teacher and master knelt down and washed their feet in this intimate act of love toward them. As a pastor I spend a lot of time visiting sick people who are in the hospital, and that is where I see people who feel similarly vulnerable. No matter how powerful and independent a person is, when they are in a hospital bed, in one of those johnnies that never quite closes, with bare limbs hanging out, and tubes and bedpans about, any one of us would feel vulnerable. I consider it a sacred trust when people allow me their pastor to be with them in their vulnerability.
Most bible scholars believe that Jesus and his disciples, who were Jewish, celebrated the Passover Seder together, and that it was Jesus’s Last Supper with his friends. Jesus took every element of this symbolic meal, and gave it a new twist, turning the Passover Seder into what we Christians now call the Holy Eucharist or the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Celebrating a Passover Seder on Holy Thursday is kind of like traveling back in time, and experiencing a little bit of what Jesus’ disciples must have experienced during that Last Supper with Jesus. If you have never been to a Seder meal, I encourage you to try one. What is especially wonderful at our church is that we celebrate our Seder with Jewish friends. We use a traditional Seder Haggadah (order of service), but also show where Jesus tweaked things and gave them a new meaning. Last year I officiated at a marriage of a wonderful young Christian woman and Jewish man from New York City, who had met at a Seder. A mutual friend of theirs, who was a non-practicing Jew, had decided to get in touch with his Jewish roots, had researched the Seder meal, and had invited several friends to his apartment in New York to celebrate Passover with him – Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc. I encourage you to try this. It really brings the Passover alive. I am happy to share resources with anyone who is interested.
After our Seder, most of our Jewish friends go home, and the rest of us go upstairs into our church sanctuary for Maundy Thursday worship. Maundy is a weird word, which comes from the Latin word “mandare,” which means “to command,” or “commandment.” We call Holy Thursday Maundy Thursday because after Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he told them to love one another by going and doing likewise. “A new commandment I give you, that you should love one another as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35)
At the end of the worship service, the members of our Altar Guild (the people who set up and clean up our Altar or “table” for holy communion) strip down the altar, leaving it completely bare. All of the fancy paraments (colorful altar cloths, for the different worship seasons), communion vessels (dishes), candles, crosses, bibles, books, vases, etc. are removed, leaving only the altar’s stark nakedness. This is because the altar (table) represents God’s presence in our midst. For Christians, Jesus is God incarnate (literally “God made flesh”). The stripping of the altar is to remember how, after his last supper with his disciples, Jesus went out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. “Gethsemane” literally means “olive press,” which is kind of an appropriate name for the place of Jesus’ great internal suffering and anguish. The Garden of Gethsemane is believed to be on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple in Jerusalem. The Seder is a meal which is several hours long, during which you drink four glasses of red wine, each glass with a different symbolic meaning. The first time I celebrated a Seder meal, and drank all that wine,I realized why Jesus’ disciples all fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane! Gethsemane is where Judas showed up with the guards, gave Jesus a betraying kiss, and then Jesus was arrested, and brought before the religious authorities. All of his disciples fled. After his trial before the Sanhedrin (a council of the Jewish religious leaders) Jesus ended up before the Roman official, Pontius Pilate. Jesus was stripped, humiliated, spat upon, mocked, tortured. This is why on Holy Thursday we strip the altar, and leave it bare and exposed. It is a powerful visual reminder of how Jesus was stripped and also abandoned by those he loved. We cannot help but ponder those moments when we in our own lives have felt completely betrayed and abandoned by those close to us. As I read of the human cruelty toward Jesus, I cannot help but think of such acts of cruelty going on today in various places throughout our world. As a Christian I believe Jesus’ incarnation means that all human beings are “God-made-flesh.” We cannot separate our relationship from God from our relationship with others. If the divine spark is within every person, then whatever we do to others, we do to God! Jesus said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, so you do unto me.” (Matthew 25:40) This is why we should treat others – all others – with the same reverence with which we would treat God.
The next day is what we call Good Friday. Originally it was called “Long Friday.” It is the day when Jesus was crucified. Again, when I have researched what takes place in the physical body when a person is crucified, it makes me feel aghast at the level of humanity’s inhumanity to other human beings. How could a human being even conceive of such a cruel and torturous death? Yet when we see the news today, we see similar atrocities continue.
In our community we have a Stations of the Cross Walk. This is the most experiential part of our whole Triduum (Three Days). Our young people make crosses from the branches of trees. We gather in our church to read the Passion story from one of the Gospels in the New Testament. (Passion literally means “deep suffering.”) We hand out copies of the Gospel, and have different people read a paragraph as the Spirit moves them. I like hearing the different voices, of people of all ages, sharing the story. Then we carry three crosses (one representing Jesus, and the other two representing the two criminals who were crucified beside him) down the street, and through our town, to thirteen “stations,” or places where people today are suffering: Soup kitchens, a hotel where we clergy pay for homeless people to stay, the train tracks where a teenager from our youth group was struck by a train and killed.
At each of our thirteen stops or stations, we have a bible reading about Jesus’ own suffering, followed by a symbolic action, and a brief prayer. Some people stop and stare at us, as we walk by carrying our crosses. Others sitting in coffee shops or driving by do not even notice. I imagine this is what it was like when Jesus walked toward his own crucifixion. I bet some shopkeepers and townspeople didn’t even notice Christ in his suffering as he walked by their doors. How blind are we to the suffering which is taking place all around us?
Good Friday evening in our town we have a community Taize worship service. Taize is an ecumenical community (open to all denominations of Christians) in Taize France. Taize worship involves simple repetitive chanting, lectio divina (sacred or divine reading of a short verse, with several moments of silence for contemplative prayer with the verse), adoration of the cross, and lighting candles as we offer the prayers of our hearts to God. I always think of this worship service as a time of waiting, just as during that first Good Friday, when Jesus’ friends and companions had to wait, because it was the eve of the Jewish Sabbath (the Jewish Sabbath is from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday).
Finally, Holy Saturday arrives. For Christians throughout the world this is when we celebrate an Easter Vigil. “Easter” in the biblical language of Greek, is “Pasca,” which is the Greek word for Passover. Over the years I have grown to love the Easter Vigil. In some churches their Easter Vigil lasts the entire night, ending with the sunrise on Easter morning. At our church we do the short version of the Easter Vigil. It lasts around ninety minutes. Easter Vigils have four parts: the Service of Light; the Service of the Word; the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist (Communion). During the service of Light we light our new Christ Candle and chant “Jesus christ is the Light of the world; the Light no darkness can overcome.” During the Service of the Word we read key passages from the bible which highlight our salvation history – the stories which highlight God’s saving love for us, culminating in the Easter Gospel. Then new converts to the Christian faith are baptized, and other members of the community reenact and remember their own baptisms. Finally, we celebrate the Eucharistic meal. Again, this entire service is participatory and experiential.
Easter Sunday we gather at a beach near our church, and have a simple time of worship as the sun rises. Then we return to our church where we celebrate the resurrection of Christ with the fullest expression of music, Word, and Sacrament.
If you have any questions about Easter or Holy Week, please respond to this post, and I will be certain to get back to you. Also please read the post “Easter Is,” which is my Easter sermon. May you experience the new life of Easter!
In Christ, Our Resurrection and Our Life!
Pastor Linda Forsberg
Copyright April 20,2014
Welcome to Life as Spiritual Adventure
I love to travel. To me all of life, in fact, is an adventure. Whenever I travel somewhere, near or far, I research the place where I am going, and decide what things I want to see and explore. Traveling opens us to a life that is so much bigger than our small, provincial, day in, day out routines of sameness.
Everywhere I go, I meet new people. People of all ages, but for some reason, a lot of young people. When you meet a new person, and hear her or his story, the struggles and wounds, the hopes and dreams, it is another kind of adventure. It is like visiting a completely new landscape. Every person, every encounter, is amazing to me. I listen to each person’s story with reverence, knowing that in each person I glimpse the face of what I call God.
When the people I meet ask me “What do you do for a living?” for some reason my answer always surprises them! I am an ordained Lutheran Pastor of a congregation. Almost everyone says, “You don’t look like a pastor.” I reply, “Well, what is a pastor supposed to look like?” They usually say “An old guy, with a beard and a clerical collar, very stern looking.” I laugh at this because only a few of my colleagues fit this description, but I also think that maybe my vocation in this life is to engage those who would never talk to the old stern guy in a clerical collar. People I meet tell me “You look so “normal, I feel that I can talk to you.”
Inevitably, our conversations always become “spiritual.” Now “spiritual” can mean a lot of different things. To me it means that there is a bigger dimension to life, and to us human beings, than the physical, material world. I do not believe in a God who is above us and removed from us. I have studied and experienced most of the world’s religions, and have observed that we share so many things in common. Most of the major world religions teach that “God” is not only all around us, but also within us.
The thing I love the most about my own religious tradition, Christianity, is the “incarnation.” What the incarnation means to me is that God is not something or someone far away from us, or removed from our every day lives. No, God is “with us” (one of the names for Christ is Emmanuel, which means “God-with-us”) in every moment, every experience, every adventure and encounter of our lives. God is also “incarnate” (embodied) in every person we encounter, because everyone was created in the “Imago dei,” which is a Latin phrase that means “in the image and likeness of God.” So the guy next to you on the subway, or the young woman who hands you your morning coffee, or the old woman you pass by as she is struggling to climb the stairs, all reveal a glimpse of God to us. And…the really freaky part of it is that you and I also reveal the face of God to those we encounter! That’s the most amazing part of all.
Not only do most of the world religions think of God as part of everything, but so do artists and scientists. Sting sings “We are spirits in a material world.” Rabbi Heschel wrote “To live is holy.” An early Christian Father, Iranaeus wrote”The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” The Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us to live mindfully in every moment, because this very moment is sacred. Albert Einstein writes: “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is.”
Today I begin this blog because the people I meet on my travels have asked me to do this. I write this for everyone, but especially for those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” I think of life as a spiritual adventure. I know from experience that when you say “Yes” to God, when you say “Yes” to the spiritual dimension of life, life truly does become an adventure, because you never know where the Spirit will lead you! In every age spiritual people have shared the lessons they’ve learned from this life – from their own spiritual adventure – with others, especially with those who may be just embarking on this journey. In every age the message has been passed down through the media of that age: stories around a fire, drawings on the walls of a cave, oral tradition, sacred texts, stained glass, vaulted ceilings of cathedrals, art, music, television, poetry, dance, etc.
Today we are blessed with new technological media. One young man I know held up his i-phone and said, “This is my religious community.” Several others of the people I meet, especially young people, have said, “You should blog.” Today I am taking up their challenge in the birth of this blog, which I am calling “Life as Spiritual Adventure.” Because I am a busy Pastor of a very active congregation, I will start with a weekly blog.
Today it begins. I feel that it is a fortuitous beginning because today is the beginning of the week we Christians call “Holy Week.” What is Holy Week all about? Tune in later this week, as that will be the focus of our Life as Spiritual Adventure blog.
I hope you will join me on this Spiritual Adventure! I want it to be a two-way conversation. If you have spiritual questions or topics you want to focus on, please let me know. I do not have all the answers, but I have devoted my life to exploring its spiritual dimensions (you can check out my short bio here, and there is a longer one on my church’s website: firstlutheraneg.org). I may not be that “old guy with the beard and clerical collar,” but I am old enough to have learned a lot from my travels through many spiritual landscapes, and I do feel that at this point in my life, the Spirit is calling me to share what I have with others. Come, be part of “Life as Spiritual Adventure!” Today may you see God in all you encounter, and may you reflect God to all you encounter! Pastor Linda Forsberg (Copyright, 4/14/14)