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Multiply That by Infinity

Have you ever been

so filled with joy

you felt you might

burst with delight

All of your dreams

vibrate with possibility

colors shimmer with energy

the air is heavy with hope

Time stands still if only

for a brief instant

and you glimpse

through a thin veil

the miracle of eternity

Multiply that by infinity

And you have a glimpse

of God’s heart

 ©Janet O. Hagberg, 2006

Reflections on this poem

1. When have you felt time stand still and vibrate with possibility?

2. How does this poem relate to the hope of Easter?

3. Where is the joy in your life currently?

4. How does God’s heart reveal itself to you?

Up From Our Graves

I am a bit anxious writing this essay because I have to admit that the main Christian belief about Christ’s death and resurrection does not resonate in my soul. Each Lent I face the same dilemma; that the sacrificial substitution of Jesus because of my sins, and the idea that Jesus is the lamb that was slaughtered in my place, brings up old feelings of guilt and shame, not of inspiration and love. The message I got as a child was that I was so bad, and filled with sin (even before I was born), that it was my fault that Jesus had to die. I’ve heard hundreds of people’s faith stories as a spiritual director and a healer, and I have come to believe that more people have left the church and faith as a result of externally inflicted guilt and shame than have entered it.

I’m not saying that this view of Jesus’ death is wrong or untrue, just that it has never drawn me closer to God, motivated me to live a different life, or helped me deal with my sins. This theology, which is predominant in the church, coupled with the fact that Maundy Thursday or Good Friday often fall on my Birthday, make it hard for me to celebrate, and help me understand why Lent is a trying season for me.

So with this dilemma, which I think I share with a lot of people, how can I experience the cross and the resurrection differently in order to respond more deeply? In my prayer time recently I felt God gently opening a new way for me, perhaps too simple for some people, but more relevant for my life.

The Cross: Letting Go to God

As I experience God’s deep love for me and I reframe my childhood image of God, I can see how close Jesus was to God, how much time he spent in prayer and how God worked through him; teaching, healing, feeding and transforming. Jesus gave his whole will over to God and trusted God for the bigger story of his life, the ultimate truth: God is pure love.

I hear Jesus encouraging me to let myself be so loved that I am able to let go to God too. Jesus invites me to offer myself to God and to let God hold me and soothe me, even in pain, as the angels did for Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane the night he was arrested. When I feel God’s love and involvement in my life, I feel I am called to a similar kind of self-offering, an emptying of myself to be what God chooses for me, to lay my burdens down before God and let God change me.

The next thing I hear Jesus asking of me is simply to be with him, to comfort him, to embrace his loss and my own, to face his pain and my own, to let myself be held and heard. Jesus asks me to trust that whatever is happening—no matter how it feels to me–God is still available to me and goes through it with me. Jesus last words from the cross were “Into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

Most challenging of all, Jesus invites me to die to the world and to be alive to God as he was—not to hide from God any more. This can mean so many things to each of us, but essentially it means releasing to God all that is in the way of our increased intimacy. Ultimately I think it means letting go of control.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, God in Pain, says that letting go means chasing God instead of ourselves. She says, “We can do everything in our power to protect our lives the way they are—if we successfully prevent change, prevent conflict, prevent pain—then at the end we will find that we had no life at all. But if we hate our lives in this world, which as far as I am concerned can only mean if we hate the ways we cheapen our lives by chasing after comfort, safety, and superiority in this world—if we hate that enough to stop it and start chasing God instead—then there will be no end to the abundance in our lives.” (Pp.62-63).

Jesus is suggesting that in our self-offering, we give our whole selves, free from our particular encumbrances. That means “leaning in” to God and releasing our personal gods; security, ego, care taking, performing, perfecting, martyrdom, being right. I personally think this is why there is a three-day time-out between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It takes time to process our journey with God and to be emptied so God can use us. For many of us those three days represent three years or thirteen years or thirty years!

So the main question Jesus asks us from the cross is this: what in you needs to die with me?

How do we know what we are being asked to release? We ask God to put us on this path to self-emptying and see what happens. We surround ourselves with supportive people to help us on this journey. And then we fasten our seat belts.

The Resurrection: Walking Hand and Hand with God

The meaning of the resurrection emerges from our self-emptying. Jesus is asking us to be ready for God to come to our graves and raise us up from them, from whatever we were chasing instead of God or whatever was controlling us. God is eager to bring us to a new way of being, to the fullness of ourselves, to whom we were created to be. God is also eager to give us God’s spirit and to live within us as we move about our daily lives, transformed, cleansed and calm, walking  hand in hand with God.

In order to rise from our inner graves we need to forgive ourselves and let God forgive us. Then we are free. Free to forgive others. Free to reach across boundaries and lines that may have frightened us before. Free to seek out new friends. Free to teach and serve without recognition. Free to care for others without rescuing them. Free to take risks to love more fully. Free to let God’s spirit loose within us. Free to become God’s incense in the world.

In Ezekiel 37, that famous chapter called the dry bones chapter, we find God asking the human if he thinks the dead bones can live. As the human watches the scene, the bones and sinews come back together. Muscles surround the bones. Skin forms. And God breathes life back into the body. When we allow God to raise us up from our graves and put our bones and sinews back together, breathing life into our deadness, we become whole again. We become an invaluable part of God’s economy by helping others to come back to life too. God breathes the spirit into us and places us in our own new land. This is how we know that God has spoken.
When we walk hand in hand with God we bring beauty and joy with us because we are filled to overflowing with God’s spirit. People will feel that spirit when we enter the room. We don’t bring chaos, drama, pity or self-loathing any more. We bring God’s calm and humor. It does not mean we have no problems but that we are now walking hand in hand with God who gives us the capacity to embrace our issues and not run from them.

So the main question Jesus asks us from the open grave is this: What in you needs to be resurrected with me now?

 

When I think of the cross as letting go to God and the resurrection as walking hand in hand with God I feel deeply loved but also challenged to give more of myself to God. I feel God counting on me to be available and faithful. I like that. It makes me feel worthwhile to God. This inspires and motivates me to draw closer to the One who created me for fullness of life in the first place.

Ó Janet O. Hagberg, 2013. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

1.What is your view of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Where did you learn it and how has it changed for you over the years?

2. What in you needs to die with Christ?

3. What are you chasing instead of chasing God?

4.  What in you is crying out for resurrection?

5. How is God asking you to be faithful in the world?

6. What does joy look like in your life?

Unless a Grain Falls

 Sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor

 John 12:20-33

Last week a woman came to see me for some help with her power bill. After I handed her the check, she said, “What kind of church is this, anyway?” I told her it was an Episcopal church, which did not appear to help her any. “I never heard of that before,”  she said. “What do y’all believe?” I started to tell her, but she had specific things in mind. “Do you believe you have to be saved?” she asked me. While I was trying to decide whether to give her the long answer or the short answer, she said, “Let me put it this way: Do you believe Jesus died for your sins?”

“Of course,” I said, and while she still looked a little sorry for me, as if she knew I was saying something I did not fully understand, she decided to let me pass. “Well, so do I,” she said, tucked the check in her pocketbook and left.

That was the end of it for her, but not for me. By asking me about the connection between my life and Jesus’ death, she opened up all the old uncomfortable questions for me again. Yes, I believe Christ died for the sins of the whole world—only how did that work, exactly? Were they all piled up there at the foot of the cross, sins past and sins to come, and when he breathed his last they simply vanished.

Or was it more like a ledger in the hands of an angry God, with every person’s name followed by a long list of debts? Every time God wrote down another one, God said, “Someone is going to have hell to pay for this.” Then one day Jesus said, “I will. I’ll pay the whole thing,” and that was that. God closed the book and threw it in the trash. Only how did something that happened two thousand years ago affect what I may do tomorrow? Does Jesus go on dying for our sins? And what kind of God would require that?

Since Christ’s death and resurrection are central to this faith we profess, I think it is extremely important that each of us struggle with what those events mean to us, both as individuals and as a community. It is not enough to repeat what we have been told. If we really believe there is a connection between our lives and Christ’s death, then the least we can do is spend some quiet hours asking God to teach us about that.

The twelfth chapter of John contains most of what Jesus had to say about his own death in that Gospel. According to John, he said it in Jerusalem during Passover, the last week of his life, when some Greeks who were in town for the festival asked to see Jesus. Their request was a sign to him that his hour had come.

These were not local people who had heard about him from their neighbors. They were Gentiles from across the sea who wanted to meet the Hebrew holy man. When the authorities heard about it, they would step up their efforts to arrest him. The more famous he became, the more dangerous he was to them. Something had to be done about him, and soon.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus told them, and not only them but the whole crowd standing around. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” he said.

It is a statement about the redemptive power of suffering, both his and ours, and it is no easier to hear now than it ever was. What he is telling us is that if we do everything in our power to protect our lives the way they are—if we successfully prevent change, prevent conflict, prevent pain—then at the end we will find that we had no life at all. But if we hate our lives in this world, which as far as I am concerned can only mean if we hate all the ways we cheapen our lives by chasing comfort, safety, and superiority in this world—if we hate that enough to stop it and start chasing God instead—then there will be no end to the abundance of our lives.

Those were the two choices he laid out for his listeners, the same two available to him as the net drew in around him. The first way, the way of self-protection, was closed to suffering. If he chose it, he could do a couple of things. He could stop walking around in the open and go underground instead, sleeping in a different hideout each night. Or he could simply tone down his message. That would work too. He could find more pleasant ways to phrase things. He could stop eating with outcasts and start showing more respect for organized religion. If he loved his life and wanted to save it, that is.

If, on the other hand, he loved something more than his life, then there was a second way open to him. Call it the way of self-offering. That way contained not only the possibility but the probability of suffering—not as the main goal but as a by-product of the main goal. If he kept walking around in the open where anyone could get to him, if he kept speaking and living his confrontational message, then eventually he would suffer for it. There were no two ways about it. He was crossing lines of power you do not cross without getting electrocuted. His only choice was whether to cross them or not.

But he did have a choice, which is essential to his story. There are so many kinds of suffering in this world that have nothing to do with the gospel. There is nothing redemptive about famine, genocide, or incest. There is no choice for those who suffer from such things, and no one should have to endure them. The only kind of suffering I am talking about today is the kind Jesus chose—again, not as his goal but as a by-product of his goal—which was to be fully who God had created him to be no matter what it cost.

A grain of wheat cannot grow unless it dies. That is how Jesus put it. If you encase it in plastic and hang it around your neck, it will never be good for anything but a bauble. For the seed to do what it was meant to do, it has to be given up. It has to fall into the earth and be buried. It has to sit down there in the dark until its hour comes, when it will swell, crack, and hatch new life—a green shoot that will climb toward the sun until it breaks through, becoming a golden stalk of wheat that bears much fruit. If you dig around in its roots looking for the seed, you won’t find it anymore. It is dead and gone. It gave up its life so there could be more wheat in the world.

This is a very different understanding of Jesus’ death than the one most of us were taught, which was that Jesus died to atone for our sins. According to John, Jesus died to fill the world with wheat, with so many sons and daughters of God that no one would ever want for bread again. Only in order to do that, the seed had to be planted. It had to die, or it would never grow.

If Jesus had saved his life, gone on a speaking tour, and written some books, there is no telling how long his movement might have lasted—a hundred years, maybe, or at least until the books fell apart. But because he was willing to lose his life—because his message mattered so much to him that he was willing to show people what it meant instead of just telling them about it—his seed bore much fruit, more than it ever did while he was alive.

Because Jesus was willing to die, God could raise him from the dead. Because Jesus was willing to die, people could discover that death was not the worst thing that could happen to them. Because Jesus was willing to die, a new community could form in his name, one that redefined its life on the basis of his death.

One of the main points in that redefinition was a new view of suffering. It was no  longer something to be avoided at all costs, nor did it mean that God was mad at you. It might in fact mean that God loved you very much, because when someone on a path toward God deliberately chooses the self-offering that goes with that path, then suffering becomes one of God’s most powerful tools for transformation. It is how God breaks open hard hearts so that they may be made new. It is how God cracks open closed lives so that they can get some air into them again.

When Jesus died, this power was made manifest. By absorbing into himself the worst that the world could do to a child of God and by refusing to do any of it back, he made sure it was put to death with him. By suffering every kind of hurt and shame without ever once letting them deflect him from his purpose, he broke their hold on humankind. In him, sin met its match. He showed us what is possible. These are just some of the fruits of Christ’s death, things that could never have happened if he had not been willing to fall to the ground.

Each of us has a grain of wheat with which to cast our votes.

So here we sit, the local field of wheat who owe our lives to him. If he had not died, we would not be here. Because he did, we are. He has spoken to us about the way of life and the way of death, letting us know that these are the only two choices and that none of us may abstain. When the hour comes, each of us has a grain of wheat with which to cast our votes. It is the grain of our lives, and all of creation is holding its breath to see what we will do with it. Amen

From God in Pain, Teaching Sermons on Suffering, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998, Ronald Allen, editor

If you are interested in a time for deeper reflection during Lent I have three possibilities for you to ponder.

Lenten Opportunities for Reflection:

Central Lutheran Church will host a prayer experience based on the Prodigal Son story reflecting on the five parts of the story and where we fit in with the themes.

March 21, 22, & 23 and then daily through Maunday Thursday, in Fireside Lounge and the adjoining stage area of Fellowship Hall.
Thursday, 3/21 – 4:00-9:00 pm (or whenever building closes);
Friday, 3/22 – 12:00 noon to 5:00 pm;
and Saturday, 3/23 – 10:00 am to 3:00 pm.

No Regrets: Let go of your regrets. Live life more fully. Enhance your life/work decisions. Tele-class offering. Four 1 hour sessions, Tuesdays Apr 2-Apr 23, 7:30 pm, cst. Betty Olson and Ruth Rounds leading. To register go to lifedimensionsinc.com/LD/TopOfTheMorning

Colonial Church Prayer stations using Janet’s icons. Two of my Psalm 23 icons, Valley of Shadow of Death and You Set a Table Before me in the Presence of my Enemies are available as a prayer experience in the chapel off the main hallway during all of Lent. Tracy Ave at the Crosstown in Edina. 952-925-2711.

If you can’t attend any of these, I hope you find some time, if even for just 10 minutes, to quiet down and ask yourself what needs to die during this Lenten journey and what needs to be resurrected in your life. Halleluia.

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