Easter: Life is Changed Not Ended

It’s something I’ve witnessed a few times in my life when working in hospitals. Generally, it’s happened something like this. A person has a heart attack and a team of people rush in with a defibrillator. After frantic treatment, the person is stabilized. In some cases, the person’s heart appeared to have stopped but they were resuscitated. Sometime later, as chaplain or pastoral minister, I’ve been able to talk with people about the experience of being brought back to life.

I’ve never had anyone tell me that during this experience that they saw a white light or experienced other “near death” events when being revived in this way. Some have spoken about being aware of everything that happened to them and around them. Others have little memory of it at all.

In contrast, there have been other times when people have told me about near death experiences, of traveling down a tunnel, seeing a white light, and being told to return to life. Whatever happened, it was very real to them. Ultimately, they returned to the lives they had been living. Perhaps they had some new insights about the lives they were leading, but essentially they returned to a typical way of life with relationships, work, and hobbies.

As I think of the experiences I’ve shared with others about life after near death, I wonder: how does one make sense of the Christian belief in the resurrection? What does it mean to celebrate Easter and the mystery of Jesus rising to new life? Is this idea of resurrection just a way to avoid the reality of death?

As I think back over my education, something about this concept of resurrection has stayed with me. One of my first theology professors made a particular point repeatedly and emphatically: resurrection is not resuscitation. At the time I thought, “Well, yeah. That just makes sense.” As I’ve matured and had more life experience, particularly as I’ve lost family members, close friends, and acquaintances to the reality of death, this seemingly obvious distinction became more relevant to me. Indeed, people die. They won’t return to share the life we knew together. They won’t be resuscitated and continue on with their lives as those who are resuscitated after heart attacks or following near death experiences. Nor do I believe that one day an angel will play some version of reveille and bodies will pop out of the ground to stand at attention. That’s not resurrection but some sci-fi version of religious reanimation. Instead, like the words of a liturgical prayer, in the new life of resurrection, “life has changed, not ended.”

The mystery of the resurrection celebrated by Christians at Easter is not about resuscitation or reanimation. Instead, it’s about new life, a different life, a life that’s somehow changed but yet continues on. This isn’t an avoidance of death. The fact is that Jesus died and was buried. Similarly, we each will die and our bodies are likely to be buried or cremated. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Life as we have known it will no longer continue. There’s no denying the reality of death.

Yet, on the first day of a new week after the death of Jesus, on the day that marked a new beginning, the followers of Jesus experienced a new kind of life, a new kind of presence, and new dimension that was the life of Jesus. The gospel stories tell us that at first the disciples didn’t recognize what was happening. In the graveyard, Mary thought she was speaking to the gardener; on the road to Emmaus, the two travelers thought they were speaking to a stranger; along the shore of the lake, Jesus needed to prove that he wasn’t some sort of ghost. He wasn’t the same, but there was something of his life that continued in a new way. These Biblical stories encapsulate what the Christian tradition understands about the new life of the resurrection of Jesus.

At Easter, we affirm the belief that life doesn’t end. Instead, there’s something new and different on the other side of death. It’s not life as we know it day to day, but it’s something new.

At best, I can only offer a comparison to the essence of this new life. In my back yard, there is a small memorial garden in remembrance of my mother who died about two years ago. One of the plants growing there originated in my mother’s garden. Perhaps thirty years ago, one of my friends visited my mother and got a tour of my mother’s garden. My mother gave her seed pods from a flowering plant. My friend planted those pods in her own garden and they grew and blossomed. At my mother’s burial, my friend brought some of those flowers and laid them on her coffin to be lowered into the ground with my mother. In turn, my friend gave me pods from that plant for the memorial garden. Today, that plant once grown by my mother continues to live on, yet it’s not the same plant. The plant my mother grew died long ago, killed by frost and buried in snow. But something of its essence has continued through the seed pods that brought new life. For this plant, life had changed, not ended. Life became something new and spread from my mother’s garden to numerous other gardens.

What does this mean for us? I can’t exactly be sure what all it means. Yet, it offers me hope by recognizing that life changes but does not end. In this spring time of blossoms and new buds, on a holiday decorated with eggs and chocolate bunnies, I can affirm that there is something mysterious about the design of life that it continues to change, but it doesn’t end. At Easter, I take delight in a belief that somehow I, too, will experience life in a new way. How? I don’t know. It’s a mystery. But affirming it, I join the ancient chorus and sing, “Alleluia!”

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Do You Know Judas?

Judas: the name is associated with words like traitor, back-stabber, turn-coat, false-friend, and double-crosser. We want to view Judas, the person who set-up Jesus so that the religious authorities could arrest him in secret, as not just wrong but as evil or perhaps demonically possessed. In doing so, we miss something very significant: Judas was chosen by Jesus as a discipline and learned the teachings of Jesus in a very personal setting.

Yes, Judas was called by Jesus as one of his intimate followers. Further, Judas wasn’t just one of the twelve. Judas had a vital role in the group. He was the treasurer. How did someone who was an important member of this group of disciples end up as such a tragic figure?

While the New Testament gospel stories paint one picture of Judas, other sources from early Christianity present various ways of understanding the man. Could it be that we want to view Judas as a traitor so that we can see ourselves as good and faithful? Is Judas our scape-goat for our own tendencies to betray others? Could it be that if we were to think about Judas as someone who was chosen to follow the teachings of Jesus, he becomes more like us?

During this Holy Week, I want to offer you an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be faithful and what it means to give up on faithful living by listening to a recent sermon by my friend and colleague, the Rev. Glenna Shepherd. Glenna considers multiple ways to understand Judas and helps us to understand that just like us his actions and motivations were quite complex. Glenna, the senior minister at Decatur United Church of Christ – my home church – provides a thought-provoking consideration of a Biblical figure we think we understand. Perhaps by learning more about Judas and his path, we’ll learn more about our own.

If you enjoy Glenna’s presentation, be sure to listen to other YouTube recordings or join Decatur UCC for the live streaming of its service each Sunday at 11:00 AM Eastern.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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The Spring Garden

Spring: it’s fresh, green, and full of promise. It’s with optimism that I spend what time I can in the yard, clearing the debris from winter, preparing the ground, and planting both flowers and vegetables in the garden. What will this season of planting and new growth bring? Will there be the right amount of rain? Is the soil rich enough for what I’m planting? What about the sunlight?

So far, I’ve planted seeds for lettuce, a variety of peppers, onions, as well as various kinds of wild flowers – including seeds from last summer’s vacation in Alaska. The seed company sent complimentary packs of sun flower seeds with my order of vegetable seeds, so those were planted in the back of the yard along the deck. Last week, heirloom tomato plants went into the ground as well. So did some herbs. The winter was so harsh that none of the herbs made it through the winter from last year. This week – well, I’ll see what I find as I shop for more plants to fill the garden.

There remain some parts of the garden that need to be cleared and fertilized. I mix up the chores rather than complete each step at once. That’s because I can plant some things earlier and other things later. If I plant some areas early enough, that section of the garden may be clear for a second planting in autumn.

Each year, some of the things I plant do well and others don’t. To that end, I’m glad that gardening is a hobby. If I had to depend on what I grow as food throughout the year, well, I probably wouldn’t have much to eat. But each year, I learn a bit more and discover what things work best in my back yard. A variety of factors come into play: the quality of the soil, the amount of sun light, the moisture level, and, of course, the attention I pay to the things that grow in my garden.

Gardening is associated with spiritual practice in many of the great religions of the world. Japanese Zen gardens not only provide the gardener practice in mindfulness while caring for the garden, but Zen gardens are places of refuge for others to still the mind and heart while taking in the beauty of the garden. Many Christian spiritual writers use images of gardening in their writing, like the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila and German mystic Gertrude of Hefta.

Rest assured that my skill as a gardener would never be confused with that of someone who carefully tends a Zen garden. Nor do I have the level of insight into the spiritual life reflected in the works of mystics like Teresa and Gertrude. But I do find many insights about the spiritual dimension of life through gardening.

When I go to the yard to work or even simply look over the garden, I go with expectancy and hope. I look to see something wonderful unfolding. Is there new growth? A new bud? Or something ripening? In much the same way, I need to approach my time in prayer and spiritual practice with a similar sense of expectancy and hope. Can I be open to allow something to bud in me? Do I have the patience to allow the fruit of the Spirit to ripen in my own life? Do I look for it? Or am I lulled to sleep by the routine of prayer and spiritual practice?

When working in the garden, the planting and watering are the easy part – at least I find them to be. The tough work is keeping the weeds cleared and keeping the ground from becoming dry and hard. It’s much the same with spiritual practice. It’s easy to allow oneself to experience joy and bliss. But the real work, the difficult stuff, is allowing one’s heart to be open to others, so as to live out the joy found in prayer. To do that means to clear out the resentments that I often cling to and to keep my inner life moist like the rich soil in which I plant.

As the garden begins to grow, it requires regular attention. A little time each day or two assures that everything growing is properly cared for. Missing a week or two means that plants aren’t watered and begin to shrivel, weeds take over, and plants begin to go wild. This is much like caring for the garden of the soul: a little time each day makes all the difference. Waiting until one has hours to spend in spiritual practice results in a lack of real growth that nourishes one’s life.

The lessons of the garden ring true for me not only for bringing good food to the dinner table but also as a reminder of my own spiritual practice. Both my garden and my inner life need to be kept free from the weeds that choke off life. There is the need to nurture, water, and provide nutrients for the garden as well as for my spirit. Most important of all is the gift of sunlight to cause the growth both in the garden and in my life. For the garden, the sunlight shines down with warmth; in my life, the inner light continues to guide me onward along the path through life’s garden.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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