Wineskins Archive

December 21, 2013

Experiencing Easter in the Midst of Winter (Mar 1993)

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by Mary L. Resner
March, 1993

10Winter came to me suddenly and unexpectedly with all its heavy, icy stillness six years ago. I had only known lightness, warmth, and motion before the day my most terrifying nightmare became reality and I was forced to say goodbye to my firstborn only son. It was time to leave him on the hospital bed. I laid him gently down. I turned to look at him one more time knowing I had only one more chance to see his precious little body until the day I would see him at God’s table. I had only one more chance to take in all that he was and I strained to absorb him into every fiber of my being so he could somehow live within me. All I could think of was, “How long, oh Lord, will I have to wait to see the brightness you bring back to those huge, curious blue eyes? How long, oh Lord, will I have to wait to hear my son say, ‘I love you, Mom?’ How long, oh Lord, will I have to wait to feel those warm around my neck and that feathery hair tickling my nose? How long, oh Lord, will I have to wait until you replace the sterile hospital odors with the sweet scent of my boy? And how long, oh Lord, will I have to wait until the bitter taste of death will end and I will sit at the glorious feast of yours with my son at my side?”

The paradox of the beginning of winter both crushed and exhilarated me. My faith screamed and questioned my benevolent God. And my faith was never stronger, more sure, and evident as my God listened to and comforted me. My hope stood with heels dug into the sludge and fist raised in protest. And my hope leaned toward union with God and my son in heaven while God gave my hope eyes to see heaven even in the people and simple events around me now. In the loneliness of grief, no friend, relative, brother or sister in Christ could understand the cycles, dept, and manifestations of my pain. And in the loneliness of my grief the love of people who cried with me, prayed with me, sat silently with me, rekindled memories with me, embraced me, listened to me, and fed me was the most powerful love from God I have ever encountered. The huge void in me where my son used to be cannot be filled in this life by anything or anyone. And yet this huge void gave me a sense of urgency to share God with people and to recognize our common wounds of loss. The God I could share with people was not bigger. God was no longer the happy, benevolent “daddy” who says YES to my every request. God is not immune to the pain of sorrow – he cries with us. God alone knows the pain of losing that which one loves perfectly. Through my common tears I could see the holy tears of God.

The crushing exhilaration of my winter came in the storm of a memorial service for my son. At this most sorrowful, empty, dark, hopeless moment came traces of the resurrecting God. Perhaps those traces are always around me, but I don’t choose or cannot see them until all is darkness around me. The graduate school community in which we lived literally gathered around us as one in all their diversity. One by one they embraced us with tears and gave us some of the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard. As the days and months passed by, they continued to envelop us and each other. There would be a hot dinner left at our doorstep by someone who must have known how hard it was for me to cook because of the memory of my son sitting in his high chair eating while I made dinner each night. I would go to the daily campus worship service and some fellow students would honor the dead in a lament service. I would be walking in the snow alone and depressed and a friend would look into my eyes with compassion and say, “How are you today?” The friend would receive an answer of only tears and enfold me in his or her arms. Wonderful notes and poems arrived declaring they had not forgotten. Professors at academic odds with each other would stop and embrace each other. Lives changed. People grew closer to God – some just for a while – others still are.

The one place I needed to be fully myself in all my grief was with my church. After all, that is where God’s person and presence is made known like nowhere else and that is where full acceptance is possible as people honestly open themselves up to God and each other and receive God’s forgiveness and comfort in utter gratitude. unfortunately, my church was not a place I could find these things. The songs of praise mocked me. The shallow sermons angered me. The prayers represented only a few voices. The eyes which once delighted in my son now avoided contact with my eyes. The lips which once spoke playfully and lovingly to my boy now were silent as if he never existed. It soon came to be the last place I wanted to be was with my church because they seemed to be the least able to face or express the pain with honesty. I’m so thankful to God for my graduate school community which unexpectedly played the role for me that I thought my church would.

Now in the complacency of my winter, with many days of warmth and new children on each knee, I sometimes long for the pains and promises of paradox to be as close to me as they were in the earliest days of winter when the elusive presence of God was as real as my pen and paper are now. I know life cannot believed on that edge all the time, but I don’t want to lose the tension of waiting for the hope of the resurrection to be realized. I grieve that I forget too often that there is nothing but God that lasts. God alone can sustain me – not any other child, not health, not a comfortable home, not a good marriage, not another academic degree, not any friend or relative, and not any act of Christian service. Only God in Christ Jesus. God is faithful to us, and will give us what we need if we allow ourselves to turn to him in full honesty when winter comes to us.

The honesty I speak of is the darker side of paradox. As a community of faith in God I believe we need to let the winter enter worship, and not deny its presence in the everyday life of the congregation. The believers whom God worked through as they penned our Scriptures believed and practiced this. For example, almost half the Psalms are laments to God. We need to reclaim this missing part of our heritage. It is vital to the health of Christ’s body and the church’s witness to the world that we express our pain honestly to God and to each other. Such honestly expressed pain is not vain because while we wait for the tears to be dried that last time by God’s very touch, we experience God’s healing power and presence now as we weep.

How can we help those who mourn (not just the death of one close to them, but the loss of a job, a friendship, a pet, a physical function, etc.) as they await the fullness of the resurrection? Because we are one with each person in Christ’s body I encourage us to:

1) “sit on the mourning bench” with those who grieve (See Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son). Even though they are not without hope their tears are valid. Our ignoring them or trying to dry their tears too early puts salt in their wound. Our silent tears are soothing ointment for their wound.

2) Listen to the griever’s lament and allow it to influence our own prayer life if we honestly can.

3) Follow the biblical example of lament even in worship times when we are all together.

4) Hear what the mourners say as they interpret the Scriptures from their new and urgent perspective of the eternal.

5) Acknowledge the deceased by talking about him or her to the one who can think of little else. Those acts can caress the bleeding heart with the warm oil of shared suffering.

Not many people want to open up the wounds of their own losses because they don’t want to go there again; they’ve bled and scabbed already. I encourage us as the people of God to take the bandages off the scars. The balm of healing that only God can offer cannot salve the wound which one has covered hastily with bandages. Therein in the fearful removing of the bandages, will God’s strength be found. We all have lost or will lose everything and everyone around us – all that lasts is each of us naked over a dark chasm with God transparently holding us up. In that humble position we receive the only gift that remains when winter strikes – a relationship with God. And God can raise up even dust and ashes.

All of God’s creation (including the church) is groaning as if in labor waiting to give birth to the new creation in its fullness. We’ve had glimpses of the new creation as it moves about in us, changing our form. We know it’s there even thugh we don’t see it. But the pregnancy is not over. The birth process is still happening. We still feel pain even as we anticipate that baby in our arms soon. The Old Testament traditions, Paul the author of the Book of Hebrews, and Jesus all knew of the necessity of groaning. (See 2 Corinthians 4:7-6:10; Psalms 3-7; 10; 13; 22; 28; 38; 42; 51-61; 69; 80; 83; 88; 120; 137; 139-143; Hebrews 4:14-5:10; Matthew 26:36-46; 27:45-50.) In addition, our worship times cannot avoid death At the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim Christ’s death. In preaching, Paul exhorts us to preach nothing but Christ crucified. At baptism, we die with Christ. Through our relationship with God and each other we gain strength to die daily and take up our cross. We open up our arms to all the death-filled people who come to our community seeking God. Death is all around us and if we’re to be like Jesus we refuse to look away.

Does this mean we’re to be a people who sit around groaning? Yes, some of who are in winter do. What do we look like to those seeking to know God?

1) A spiritually and psychologically healthy, honest people who can accept in their presence the person who is dying from broken relationship with God no matter how that death manifests itself in lifestyle.

2) A people who are transformed in the vision of NOW as being the place where God can and will act powerfully because of the past redemption through the cross and the future hope of Christ’s return (See Philippians 1:6 – God working in us transforms us NOW).

If we do not allow people to express the pain of their winter in every area of the church’s life, we hinder them from experiencing God’s presence NOW. I know many people who have experienced a loss and feel the last place they could express fears, doubts, rebellion, confusion, etc. is among the body of Christ. They often find a place of honesty and true community support among the self-help groups which are on the rise in our country.

Let him or her who laments to God in the midst of winter know that:

1) The biblical tradition wails with you.

2) Your outcry from your suffering is the beginning of “healing” or “spiritual wholeness.” To hold in the pain is the beginning of self-destruction.

3) You’re experiencing the joy of salvation because you’re facing everything in life with God. This can never be taken away from you.

4) You will experience God’s comfort where your wounds hurt most. As you bleed, God’s tears are mingled with your blood.

5) Your faith and courage are evident because you’re taking your honest questions to God whose relationship you take seriously. Even if God doesn’t give you the answers you seek, God hears you and gives you his presence.

6) You have the freedom now to be honest with people both in and out of Christ because you have the gift of knowing that today is all you have, even as you long for his kingdom fully come.

In the midst of our individual and collective winters, can we experience the resurrection power of Easter? After all, what do springtime flowers, frilly hats, chocolate bunny rabbits, and colored eggs have to do with a graveyard? There is no Easter unless we’re at the graveyard in winter when the only colors we see are gray and light brown, when all is vacant except the wind blowing a few dead leaves around the graves, and when our hope is planted on the one who tore the boulder away from his son’s tomb.Wineskins Magazine

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