Thursday, April 21, 2011
Giving God a Good Name
Please wish me luck!
I am the only churchgoer in my family. My midlife conversion -- I was baptized at the age of thirty-nine -- created both astonishment and alarm in the secular humanists who love me. They couldn’t figure out why someone they had always considered intelligent now believed in impossible fairy tales like resurrection. They were embarrassed that I took communion, which they saw as a superstitious ritual. They viewed my faith as a symptom of a possible brain disorder.
My father, a furiously lapsed Catholic since early adolescence, started calling me whenever a tragedy, massacre, or natural disaster showed up on the news. “Where’s your God now, Susan? What kind of loving God would allow this to happen?”
After a while, I worked out an answer. “Dad, God’s where the love is. Look for the people who are helping. Look for the relief efforts, the humanitarian aid, the compassion. That’s where you’ll find God.” I never convinced him. He believed devoutly that people should help each other in crisis, but to him, that kind of help was purely human, not divine.
One Holy Week, only a few years after I started going to church, I flew to Philadelphia for an academic conference. I was staying with my family, and I wanted to attend Holy Week services. My family had planned dinners and outings for my visit, though, and church services did not fit into the schedule. The only service I might be able to get to was Maundy Thursday.
“Why do you want to do this?” asked my mother. “It’s Thursday. Who goes to church on a Thursday?”
“It’s Holy Week, Mom. This is the night we wash each other’s feet and remember Jesus’ instructions about the eucharist.”
“You wash each other’s feet?” My mother stared at me while my older sister snickered in the background. “Honey, you took a shower this morning. Your feet are fine.”
My beloved secular humanists decided that we should all go to the theater that evening instead. Ironically, we wound up seeing a community-theater production of Jesus Christ, Superstar, which worked just fine. My family enjoyed the music and I got my Holy Week story, although I didn’t get my feet washed that year.
Every Maundy Thursday since then, I’ve remembered this incident. This year, it struck me that had I been able to drag my family to church that night -- not that I would have tried, since I respect their freedom of irreligion -- they might have discovered that Maundy Thursday actually offered nothing to offend or alarm them.
This evening’s liturgy highlights three instructions, three legacies Jesus leaves his disciples. He tells them to let him wash their feet: indeed, he insists on doing so. He commands them to love one another as he has loved them -- by washing each other’s feet, among other things -- and he asks them to honor his memory with a special meal.
Accepting help from others, performing loving service, and remembering those we love when we break bread need not be faith-based activities. Even secular humanists can wrap their heads around these ideas.
Of course, the symbolic elements of the Eucharist -- the “this is my body, this is my blood” part -- can make people squirm even if they love Jesus. Earlier in the Gospel of John, we learn that some of Jesus’ disciples literally couldn’t swallow this “hard saying,” and left. But when you think about it, the Eucharist is really the act of taking something that has been broken, something we cherish that has seemingly been destroyed, and turning it into a gift.
I believe that this desire to redeem tragedy is universal. It’s why people become organ donors. It’s why bereaved families establish scholarship funds and ask for donations to favorite charities. It’s why survivors of crime and cancer and catastrophe start support groups for others going through the same thing. All of us, Christian or not, try to answer the question, “How can I make my pain mean something? How can I turn my tragedy into something good for someone else?”
As Christians, we believe that the ultimate answer to that question is the Resurrection. God turned the agony of His Son, the wrenching grief of Jesus’ disciples and friends and family, into the ultimate joy: the miracle and glory of the Risen Christ, the assurance that death has no dominion, the promise that the grave is not the end of Jesus’ story, or ours.
But that’s Easter. Today’s Maundy Thursday. Tomorrow’s Good Friday, the most painful day in the Christian calendar, the day when the disciples surely must have demanded, of themselves and each other, “How could a loving God let this happen? Where is our loving God now?” The Resurrection hasn’t happened yet. Jesus has told them it will happen, but I’m not sure any of them could have actually believed that until they saw it: until they saw him, risen.
And I think Jesus knew that. I think that’s why, on Maundy Thursday, he gave them instructions they could keep even when they were in pain. He doesn’t say, “You must have perfect faith that I will rise from the grave.” He doesn’t command them to banish doubt or fear. Instead, he gives them work they can do even in the middle of doubt and fear. Accept loving service. Give loving service. Find ways to transform brokenness into blessing.
Tomorrow is Good Friday, but all of us live through Good Fridays noted on no church calendar. We live through the deaths of those we love, through the loss of jobs and homes and parishes, through the agonies of illness both chronic and acute. We watch as our world is shattered by war, earthquake, and economic collapse. Every day, our newspapers and televisions bring us precious little Good News, and unending sagas of violence and atrocity.
We know the end of the story. We believe in Easter. But sometimes Easter’s a long time coming, and we find ourselves in darkness, in the kind of doubt and fear the disciples must have felt during that first Good Friday. What are we supposed to do now? How can we salvage anything good from all this horror? What kind of loving God would have let this happen?
At these times, Maundy Thursday reminds us that it’s okay to doubt, okay to question, okay to have moments when we don’t even believe. Unwavering, unshakeable faith is not what our loving God demands of us. What our loving God demands of us is the kind of loving service that even secular humanists can believe in.
For several years at St. Stephen’s, I helped out with Family Promise, the housing ministry for homeless families. I believe many people here at St. Paul’s have been involved with Family Promise, too. Although my parents didn’t share or understand my religious beliefs, they thoroughly approved of this project. To my amazement, I once heard my father tell some friends, “I never thought I’d say this, but Susan’s church gives God a good name.”
In our darkest hours, our personal Good Fridays, let us try to remember that Easter always comes, and to have faith. But if we find that impossible, let us be content with the tasks Jesus gave us before his resurrection. Let us love each other as Christ loved us: caring for our neighbors, God’s beloved children, in ways that give God a good name.