Chikondwelero Pasaka!

St. Freddie of Rupert on EASTER:

The Gospels are far from clear as to what happened. It began in the dark. The stone had rolled aside. Matthew alone speaks of an earthquake. In the tomb there were two white-clad figures or possibly just one. Mary Magdalen seems to have gotten there before anybody else. There was a man whe thought at first was the gardener. Perhaps Mary the mother of James was with her and another woman named Joanna. One account says Peter came too with one of the other disciples. Elsewhere the suggestion is that ther were only the women and that the disciples, who were somewhere else, didn’t believe the women’s story when they heard it. There was the sound of people running, of voices. Matthew speaks of ‘fear and great joy.’ Confusion was everywhere. This is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself. Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom did he appear? What did they say? What did he do?

It is not a major production at all, and the minor attractions we have created around it – the bunnies and baskets and bonnets, the dyed eggs – have so little to do with what it’s all about that they neither add much nor subtract much. Its’ not really even much of a story when you come right down to it, and that is of course the power of it. It doesn’t have the ring of great dram. It has the ring of truth. If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They seem to be telling it simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt.
The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.
He rose. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching till they find his face.
— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABCs of Faith



As you know, I spent the earlier part of this week in Bolivar, MO speaking at Southwest Baptist University. When I received the invitation last year to speak there, I was wary. I wondered how in the world they’d heard of me and if, in fact, they really were familiar with my work.

Preconceived notions on my part nearly prevailed. I’m so glad they didn’t.

As it turns, a lone student named Mallory – 20 years old, from a town south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River; Roman Catholic, tiny nose ring, earth keeper, a heart for justice like a young Dorothy Day – had heard my lecture via podcast from last year’s Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College. It was titled, “Jesus is my Mix Tape: a Spiritual Biography. Mallory is a die-hard music lover. We talked and talked about the music that speaks to our heart and why.

Mallory is with a group of students on campus who are responsible for choosing the programming for chapel two weeks a month. She is the one who invited me and convinced the school that it was a good idea.

Mallory was a breath of fresh air to my hurdling-toward-forty spirit. She reminded me of many of my dearest friends when we were 20 and students at Wheaton. Wide-eyed and idealistic. Endlessly curious about the world – this one and the hereafter. She is smart – whip smart – and deeply, deeply kind. A gracious soul. She took great care of me during my sojourn in Bolivar, consummately professionally and wonderfully sure of herself.

An absolute delight. An unexpected blessing. Startling grace.

When Mallory drove me to the airport in Sprigfield,  MO, she gave me a gift: a CD mix of her favorite music. She introduced me to some artists I’d never heard of before. Alexi Murdoch, Josh Ritter, Deb Talen, Mumford & Sons, Oriole Post, The  Avett Brothers and Mike Crawford. One of Crawford’s songs, “Words to Build a Life On” really touched  my heart this Good Friday.

I wanted to share it with you. And give a deep bow of gratitude to my sweet new friend, Mallory.

Blessings and Easter graces to you, dear sister.

“Words to  Build a Life On”

By Mike Crawford

These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine

Blessed are the poor
Blessed are the weak
Blessed are the ones
Who can barely speak
Blessed in your hurt
Blessed in your pain
Blessed when your teardrops
Are falling down like rain
Blessed when you’re broken
Blessed when you’re blind
Blessed when you’re fragile
When you have lost your mind
Blessed when you’re desperate
Blessed when you’re scared
Blessed when you’re lonely
Blessed when you’ve failed
Blessed when you’re beat up
Blessed when you’re bruised
Blessed when you’re tore down
Blessed when you’re used

These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine

Blessed when you’re heartbroke
Blessed when you’re fired
Blessed when you’re choked up
Blessed when you’re tired
Blessed when the plans
That you so carefully laid
End up in the junkyard
With all the trash you made
Blessed when you feel like
Giving up the ghost
Blessed when your loved ones
Are the ones who hurt you most
Blessed when you lose your
Own identity
Then blessed when you find it
And it has been redeemed
Blessed when you see what
Your friends can never be
Blessed with your eyes closed
Then blessed you see Me

These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine

Blessed when you’re hungry
Blessed when you thirst
Cause that’s when you will eat of
The bread that matters most
Blessed when you’re put down
Because of me you’re dissed
Because of me you’re kicked out
They take you off their list
You know you’re on the mark
You know you’ve got it right
You are to be my salt
You are to be my light
So bring out all the flavor
In the feast of this My world
And light up all the colors
Let the banner be unfurled
Shout it from the rooftops
Let the trumpets ring
Sing your freaking lungs out
Jesus Christ is King!
Jesus is my Savior
Jesus is divine
Jesus is my answer
Jesus is my life

These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine

Give us ears that we may hear them
voice that we may sing them
life that we may live them
hope that we may give them
hearts that we can feel them
eyes that we can see them
thoughts that we may think them
tongues that we may speak Your words



I must be an acrobat

To talk like this
And act like that
            U2, “Acrobat”
I am not now, nor have I ever been a subscriber to Playboy magazine.
Now I realize that the Playboy mansion is an unlikely spot to go looking for spiritual insight, but I believe I learn the most interesting things about God sometimes in the places some people say God isn’t supposed to turn up. That discussion with Hef was enlightening, provocative and troubling, but rich and valuable. I was blessed by the time I spent with the octogenarian Playboy, and privileged to witness the openness and candor with which he talked about faith and doubt, joys and regrets, doubts and his eternal hopes.
So when I thought about writing a something to coincide with this Lenten and (subsequently Easter) season, I was not entirely surprised to find fodder for deep reflection in the pages of Playboy.
The November 1976 issue to be exact. That’s where the classic, lengthy interview with then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, just before he was elected, appeared. In it, Carter talks openly and authentically about his Christian faith, and, moreover, the reporter, Robert Scheer, paints a complicated, faceted, fascinating picture of a man of navigating the treacherous political waters of public service.
At the time, such a deep exploration of a politician’s faith was groundbreaking. Nowadays, a kind of spiritual litmus test for the presidency is par for the course. Revisiting the 36-year-old piece on Carter the -Christian-and-the-candidate made me long for the time when such explorations were new and fresh.
In Scheer’s lengthy profile, Carter comes across as a man of devout, abiding faith – the kind that is a compass for every area of his life and, yes, his politics. But Carter isn’t a theocrat. He’s not trying to bring everyone else (including his rather ribald campaign staffers) in lock step with his own beliefs. He’s kind and more than tolerant. He accepts people for who and what they are and if he’s interested in proselytizing, his approach is to lead by example, and not a doctrinaire, iron fist.
Carter rose to prominence during the turbulent early hours of the Civil Rights movement, confronting insidious and violent racism of his home state of Georgia as it wrestled to become what he called the “New South.”
Scheer doesn’t portray Carter is a messianic figure or a perfect man who ever makes decisions for the greater good and in love. Carter is weak and faulted and, the reader feels, that is part of what makes him so appealing and authentic.
One passage in particular in Scheer’s story gave me pause – a catalyst to take stock not only of how we assess public figures, but also of my own heart and soul.
“The real heroes of the era were less then 10 miles up the road in either direction from his home all his life, taking the most terrible punishment, and [Carter] won’t admit that he shunned them like nearly everyone else. Like all of us,” Scheer wrote. “Carter is addicted to the theory that we progress by stressing our virtues rather than by dwelling on failures; this is the major theme of his campaign speeches. There’s undoubtedly some merit to this approach, but it seems to me that it includes serious learning from past error.”
Would that we all would understand the truth of that statement.
We may be believers, but our belief is sometimes shaky. We may be redeemed, but we are far from perfect creatures.
None of us wants to be defined by our worst moments. And our faith tells us that God doesn’t define us that way, either. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should try to obscure our shortcomings, inconsistencies and failures, whether moral, ethical or of conscience.
Lent, which begins in most of Christendom in a few days, is the period during which we believers are meant to be preparing ourselves for the coming Eastertide. We are supposed to take stock, prayerfully. Repent. Prepare our hearts and souls for the resurrection. Lent is the time when we should be the most honest with ourselves and with God. Look our sins and shortcomings and failures straight in the eye.
As I understand it, the point of the Easter story — of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection — is that we can’t fix ourselves by ourselves. We cannot live a perfect life that would earn our place in the kingdom.
Lent points to Easter and the point of Easter is grace.
We can’t do it by ourselves. In fact, it’s nothing that we do ourselves that remakes our hearts and minds into the kind of perfection that God deserves from the people he loves (and who are supposed to love God).
Our leaders (civil or religious) should not be expected to live perfect, consistent lives any more than the rest of us should. We are all hypocrites. We are all conflicted. We all make mistakes.
To pretend otherwise is a lie that cheapens the grace that goes before us all.

Good Friday: Loving ‘The Difficult Ones’ (You Know Who You Are)

Good Friday is the worst day of the year.

For me, at least.

It’s almost always an appropriately cloudy, brooding day, as if the weather is setting the mood for what is, for many Christians, the most somber of days.

It’s the one day a year I know, with absolute certainty, that I am a complete and utter asshat.

The day to recall all the horrendous things I’ve done and do on a regular basis. Terrible, toe-curlingly uncharitable thoughts and deeds. Callous antipathy, more often than not, for the rest of the human race.

The lowlights of my life.

It’s the day I’m sure it’s all my fault. That I am a failure. That I’ve sinned and fallen short of the glory, if you will. That I must repent my evil ways.

Other religions have similar days or times set apart for serious reflection on the condition of our souls. For the Jewish people, it is Yom Kippur, a day of atonement for the sins committed in the previous year. For Muslims, it is Ramadan, 40 days of fasting, abstinence and prayer observed each year to commemorate the time their holy book, the Quran, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

In the Christian tradition, there’s Lent, culminating in Good Friday, the day the Bible says Jesus atoned for the sins of the world by dying on the cross. (See the Gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John for more details, or “The Passion of the Christ” for a synopsis.)

In theory, all of Lent is supposed to lend itself to deep spiritual reflection. But Good Friday is the day my audit report arrives from the Eternal Revenue Service.

And it’s not pretty.

Most distressing is the realization of just how unforgiving I can be, how ungracious and unloving. Toward the people I love, and especially toward a few folks I don’t. (That “love your enemies” bit trips me up every time.)

As far as I can tell, I’m not alone in this annual exercise of lamenting the human condition in general, and my own in particular.

Cover of "Traveling Mercies: Some Thought...
Cover via Amazon

There are liturgies and, some might say, even entire religious traditions built around it. Books and music have been written about it, and art made to reflect its anguish.

A lot of people ask me what I turn to for guidance and inspiration this time of the year. (I’m no spiritual savante, so perhaps they ask me because I go to churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, etc. for a living. Who knows?)

I tell them that since 1999, when it was first published, I’ve read and reread Anne Lamott’s book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith just about every Lent. In ways big and small, her thoughts on faith transformed the way I see myself, my spirit, the world. And God.

Over the years, I’ve bought at least a half-dozen copies of Traveling Mercies, but they always seem to walk off in someone else’s hands. It’s that kind of book.

If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. Lamott, a recovering everything, is inspiring with her stunning feats of boundless humanity and reckless leaps of faith. She’s my hero.

Last week, Lamott, who described herself as “a big ole lefty and a big ole Christian,” was in town for a reading and lecture at Chicago’s North Park University, a Christian college associated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, where Traveling Mercies is required reading for every student as part of the core curriculum.

At the college, Lamott spoke, variously, about faith, forgiveness, parenting, hiking regime change, Jesus and George Bush.

Everybody has those somebodies in their life that just make it difficult to do the right thing and nearly impossible to do the loving thing. The Difficult Ones.

For Lamott, it’s George W. Bush and his administration.

She has a hard time loving the president, she said, especially because Bush and many of his cronies are Christians. Just like her.

“I’m doing whatever I can that I think would not horrify Jesus,” she told the North Park crowd, referring to her opposition of all things Bush. “I just want to be one of the people who’s not a right-wing fundamentalist who totally loves Jesus.

“I think that there’s nothing that can separate us from God’s love and there’s nothing that is so awful and heinous and barbaric and evil that would have Jesus just go, ‘Oh, forget it,’ and stomp off,” she said.

Not even right-wing conservative Christians who have “stolen the Bible” or the architects of a war based on a lie that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of soldiers, she said.

Earlier this week, as I picked up Traveling Mercies again, I had a conversation with Lamott (via e-mail because we’re both better with a computer keyboard than with a phone) about what was on her mind as she stared down Good Friday.

“On Good Friday, I have to think doubly hard about the resurrection, because if it is not true, then we are all going tourist class, and it is all truly hopeless,” Lamott was telling me.

“I do believe in the resurrection, and I have had my own resurrection story, and know many, many people who have, too — the end of the light, the end of all sanity and good ideas, and hope. And then grace steps in — and for some of us, this came as Jesus, and for other people, it came in other direct experiences of Divine Love — and salvation and redemption are jiggled out of the dark, brutal, hungry world.

“I thank God that Jesus seems to have such low standards that people like me are welcomed into the kingdom, and entrusted with his love, to share with others, as others have so freely shared with us.

“I try to keep things really shallow; I understand about as much as is in the songs we sing with our kids on Sunday: Jesus died, and rose from the dead, for me, and for Donald Rumsfeld and Karen Hughes. Go figure.”

She and Bush and everyone else in the world are suffering from the same “sickness in us that is fatal and progressive and disgusting,” Lamott said. Humanness.

“Inside, I’m just as capable of any madness or egotism that Bush has displayed,” she said, explaining that she feels sorry for him and empathizes to a certain extent. “But mostly I hate George Bush.”

“I am a bad Christian,” Lamott continued, echoing my own thoughts. “And Jesus is so sweet and kind. I think he watches me, and knows the inside of my heart and loves me anyway, and I guess — urrrr — he feels the same way about Bush and Cheney.”

So it seems.

Maybe on this bad day called Good, we’ll both find the courage to love The Difficult Ones in time for Easter, and pick up some traveling mercies for the coming year.