The Growing Season

branches against sky3rd Sunday of Easter (B)

It is April. Thank the Lord. But it has taken an inordinately long time to feel like it. I loathe winter. Well, that’s not entirely true; snow is pretty, particularly between Christmas and New Year’s Day. But in all seriousness, it is the darkness that accompanies winter that is so depressing to me. I need sunlight.

With each lost second of daylight in the fall months I move a little slower and my world becomes a little bit bluer. And with the end of daylight savings time, I want to put my jammies on at 5pm. Plants exhibit a phenomenon in their daily cycles, called circadian rhythms; my circadian rhythm tells me that when it is dark it is time to shut it down and go to bed. I know I’m not alone in this.

Of course, what I and so many others experience in the winter has a name: Seasonal Affective Disorder, but for me, it is so much more than SAD. It is a period of neutrality and dormancy that yawns on for months. Yes, winter is a long, dark and colorless season. Trunks and limbs stand gray and forlorn against a slate sky; formerly exuberant prairie grasses, shorn of all but a few desperate stragglers, flop against ice tipped mulch; rhododendrons and azaleas, the glory of the summer garden, dehydrated and emaciated, shield their nakedness with curled leaves. For native plants, this is a protective state; if they did not go dormant in the winter, they would die. I am not a plant, but if I were, I wouldn’t make it. I’d be toast. prairie in winter

Clearly, complaining about the weather is a first world problem, and it is tiresome. Seasonal affective disorder, however, has the power to sap one’s energy, undermine creativity, and on some days, affect the ability to move forward. Like those suffering a great disappointment and perceived loss of purpose, I need reminding that this season will pass. I know it will, but I pace. Oh, my God, how much longer?

After Jesus’ crucifixion, his disciples (those who had not deserted and run away) went into hiding. They were in darkness both literally and emotionally. They were deeply troubled and experienced doubts about the past and the future. Luke tells us the disciples had heard the claims of Jesus’ resurrection from the women who visited the tomb “but their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.” [Luke 24:11]. Peter took it upon himself to run and see that Jesus’ tomb was empty. The text does not say if Peter shared what he saw with the others, but later that day two of the deserters returned to the group and spoke of their own amazing experience of seeing the risen Lord, and “while they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” [Luke 18:36].

The disciples became aware that Jesus was with them and they experienced his peace. I like to imagine that at this moment a beam of warm, life-giving sunlight flooded the room and forced the windows to fly open. Suddenly the disciples heard Jesus reminding them of what he had said about the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. Jesus was alive! They understood that from that day forward the proclamation and witness of all that Jesus had said and done would begin with them, starting in Jerusalem. With great clarity, each understood what Jesus commanded of them. They knew their mission. If not for this, the story might have stopped here. But it did not end. It never ends.

omg, tulips And then, like the end a long and difficult labor, the earth stirs, it thaws and heaves, and the dawn arrives bearing gifts of loamy, fragrant soil, of snow drops and crocuses, of the excited chatter of birds, and earthworms on the sidewalk, and it recalls an interior life once known and seen that now brightens limbs and bark and causes buds to swell and open. Every spring the miracle of its return, and the confidence with which trees and plants, birds and animals take up their duties stuns me. They just know what to do. I do too.

Stop the Violence!

2nd Sunday of Lent (B)

To say the story of Abraham and Isaac is difficult is a grave understatement. Abraham was a man whose longstanding personal relationship with Yahweh had developed over time through a series of tests and trials [see Genesis 12-22] and included a promise that he would father a great nation. Abraham had learned that Yahweh was trustworthy and kept promises; therefore he had no reason to doubt. But then he was asked to offer up his firstborn son to prove his worthiness. If a great nation was to come from this one man, his total commitment must be guaranteed. What better test  than to ask for what was most precious to him? Recall that in Abraham’s day human sacrifice was not uncommon. Also, recall that Abraham was prevented at the last minute from carrying out the sacrifice. He had passed the final test and became the father of the Hebrew nation.

Still, that happy ending does not change the fact the entire story line is unsettling and gruesome.  What kind of loving god would ask such a thing as a test of one’s faith? What if Abraham had objected? Maybe he did, but followed through nonetheless. We don’t know because the scripture does not tell us. Verses 3-8 which are omitted from today’s reading render an unemotional narrative of Abraham going through the motions: cutting the wood he would use, locating the place where the sacrifice would take place, arranging for there to be no witnesses, and carrying the fire and the knife that he would use to slaughter his son. Each step of the way the tension mounts, and Isaac’s innocent question about the animal they would sacrifice slowly reveals the horror of what is about to take place. The reader asks, “Is this really going to happen, is this what God wants?

Abraham’s anguish over what he thought he was being asked to do was not as important as his absolute knowledge that God is trustworthy. Surely he was confused and likely devastated by God’s request, but had personal knowledge of God’s love and faithfulness. This is the paradox of faith: the willingness to surrender what is most precious ultimately reveals the  bounty of what has been promised.

What does God expect from us? The the story is telling. At the very last minute Yahweh sends a messenger to stop Abraham, saying, “Do not lay your hand on that boy, do not do the least thing to him.” The message can be understood two ways. First, although we can’t fully understand God’s plan we need to trust that God truly has our best interests in mind. Our faith tells us this is true. Our commitment comes from our willingness to listen and  say “Yes, Lord” especially in times of extreme difficulty. Second, acts of violence are entirely in opposition to God’s plan for creation. God’s message is “Stop the violence!”  Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Synagogue explains: “In reading this story we recognize the critical lesson is that God does not want the death of human beings as a sign of faith and a sign of doing God’s will. Therefore the lesson for this time has got to be, we all have to come together to end war and stop the violence and stop the sacrifice and stop the killing.”

As an evangelizing people our witness to the Good News must reflect both of these points with a trusting commitment to God and an active commitment to peace.

ART: Section from Rembrandt’s The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God. 1635