My journey with Easter has come in three stages:
Stage One: We don’t celebrate Easter. I was raised in a tradition that (barely) tolerated bunnies, eggs, and jelly beans. But not the rest of Easter. The reason? “Because the Bible doesn’t mention Easter. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus every week.” The first sentence now strikes me—as one who sees Easter at the very center of the Bible’s story (even if it isn’t called that until later)—as funny. The Bible doesn’t mention Easter in the same way that the Chronicles of Narnia don’t mention Aslan. But honestly, I still have a deep appreciation for the second reason, for we are, indeed, the people of the resurrection. (Those who grew up in this tradition can appreciate the humor of someone’s “Hitler Easter video.”)
Stage Two: It’s ok to celebrate Easter. Yes, it was ok. Freeing, even. But just “ok.” Because as a person who often dwells in mystery and puzzlement, I found this to often be the church at its most “full solar spirituality” (to borrow from Barbara Brown Taylor). Extra assemblies! Bring in the visitors! Banish death! Promise healing, health, and forgiveness! Easter has a way of bringing out the kind of triumphalism that made the Apostle Paul queazy.
Stage Three: I can’t live without Easter.
This is my twentieth Easter since Megan died. For the first fifteen years, we held a small gathering of family and friends at her grave at sunrise on Easter morning. We read 1 Corinthians 15, listened to a song or two, exchanged Megan stories, and prayed. Marana Tha. For the last several years, I haven’t been in town on Easter Sunday, but different rituals continue. This morning, my three-year-old granddaughter and I visited the grave of the aunt she never knew, leaving Easter lilies and enjoying the beauty surrounding us.
Through the years, I’ve spoken and written a lot about Megan. I hope it hasn’t been just to work through my own grief. I’ve always had others in mind: those who have buried loved ones, those who live in fear, those who have failed big time, those who are suffering, those who don’t yet feel “strong at the broken places” (Hemingway). So “Megan” stories have been about an actual, loving, mentally-disabled child who died when she was ten. But they’ve also been metaphors for a larger human experience of brokenness and loss.
Does time help? Oh, yes. But it doesn’t remove all the pain. I’ve written before about a buddy of mine, a physician, who saw an 84-year-old patient and asked how she was doing. “I’m a bit sad today,” she said. “It’s the anniversary of my daughter’s death.” He immediately imagined what it must have been like for her to lose her adult daughter. He wondered if this daughter had her own children and perhaps grandchildren.
“I’m so sorry. How long ago did she pass away?”
“Sixty-two years ago,” the woman replied.
We grievers are so thankful for time, for friends, for memories, and for unpredicted joys.
But the real key is hope. And that’s what Easter is all about. It declares that God’s glorious future has broken into this world through the resurrection of Jesus. It announces the invasion of God’s kingdom of love and justice. While it doesn’t promise that all illnesses will be cured or that all depressions will be removed, it does offer a vision of the future that is secure. God will wipe away all tears.
“The resurrection of Christ is terribly relevant for those who’ve been victims of injustice. For those who’ve been gutted by rejection or betrayal. For those who’ve faced every day with pain—of whatever sort. Or for those who’ve stood on a wind-kissed hill to pay final respects to a spouse, a child, or a friend.
“‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ said Jesus. Either he is or he isn’t. It depends on what happened that weekend in Palestine. For those like me who believe that he was raised by his Father, there is wild hope. Suffering and death do not have the final word. A day is coming when pain, failed relationships, bitterness, depression, and death will be put behind us. Jurgen Moltmann had it right: ‘God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with him.’ That’s the outrageous joy called Easter!
“‘It makes a big difference whether we think someone is dead or alive,’ Luke Timothy Johnson puts it baldly. ‘The most important question concerning Jesus, then, is simply this: Do we think he is dead or alive?’
“What we believe about that question makes all the difference in the world.”
We’re down to about a month before the 71st Pepperdine Bible Lectures. As we focus on the meaning of baptism and communion (and as they guide us in understanding gospel, discipleship, community, mission, and eschatology), we want to experience them.
So instead of just talking about baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we will participate!
Some will perhaps want to be baptized during the week (April 29 – May 2). In addition to the Pepperdine pool which is just outside Firestone Fieldhouse, leaders of the University Church will be on hand to assist anyone who wants to be immersed in the Pacific Ocean. (We don’t want to lose anyone!)
Then on Friday night after the evening session, tables will be set up outside the fieldhouse and around the upper part of campus where the late night sessions are held. Everyone will be invited to participate in communion. It will be an amazing experience of unity and commitment to the mission of Jesus.
It’s not too late. Come on! “Enter the Water, Come to the Table.”
She lies, drug-induced and feverish, in bed, awaiting gall bladder surgery.
He sits in his wheelchair.
It’s sometimes difficult to recognize him:
this state boxing champion, this five-time runner of the Boston marathon, now weakened by the ravaging blows of Parkinson’s;
this expressive man whose face has now lost so much of its bandwidth of emotion, flattened out by the disease;
this steady man who now shakes with tremors.
Then I watch in amazement:
As if dancing, they both lean toward each other. She—this amazing woman!—rolls and stretches her hand, moving around the IV in her arm; he presses with limited flexibility as far as he possibly can, leaning forward in his wheelchair toward her. And they touch. They hold hands. If a picture is worth a thousands words, this scene is worth a million. They don’t speak. They just . . . touch.
Through it all,
Please don’t assume it’s been a perfect marriage. To be honest, perfect marriages don’t interest me. They seem plastic and unattainable.
A poem by my maternal grandmother about her own marriage seems to fit:
Ours is not the meeting of two meadow streams,
The quiet fusion of slow and placid waters,
That start from gentle springs
And meander softly to each other’s arms.
Ours is the whirlpool union of two rivers,
That issue from the crags, close to the skies,
And leap the rocks, and spill tempestuously
To canyons far below,
Where, with steam and vapors rising,
Fired by earthbound mutterings,
And in a maelstrom we mate, and run our course,
Parallel, but never merging,
downstream to the sea.
Go ahead: tell me about your signs and tongues and miracles. I’ve learned not to frown, winter Christian though I am.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in miracles. Back in the same little hospital, in the same little town, with the same two people—after 57 years that passed in a flash—I witness a wonder, a marvel that stirs my soul.
Ask an old person . . . how to download the PBL app:
. . . how to tweet a request for the hymn sing:
“God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.” – Christian Wiman
Here’s the question I’ve been asked several times since yesterday’s post: Why didn’t I include that story in my book about Megan?
The answer is simple: I wasn’t prepared to tell it. In fact, I never imagined telling it.
But this Wednesday, I led an evening on the theme of “hands” in scripture (the hands of Jesus . . . the hands of God . . . human hands). And after agonizing prayer and hours of conversations with Diane, I decided to write it.
But then the question was, do I make that public to a broader audience? After all, it’s a bit embarrassing. Most of us want to hear stories of how people held up under pressure—not of how they buckled. That’s why we often tell the stories of how hymns got written while omitting some of the later stories.
I’ve recently mentioned that my favorite hymn is “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” We love to give the background of the young convert who wrote the stirring words; seldom do we go on to point out, however, that the writer who penned the profound words “prone to wander” did, indeed, wander from the faith later in life. (There are different strains of tradition about whether or not he returned.)
Even Wednesday night, we pulled out an old gospel pop song: “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” I didn’t bother to mention that the author of those words later ended his own life in despair.
But, again, Diane and I decided to go ahead and publish the piece on behalf of others who feel flooded by a dam that has burst in their lives. For me, the flood was an immersion in depression, doubt, and grief. But it could be many other things.
If that’s you, perhaps you’re wondering: When do I get my “you-will-be-ok-Daddy” experience?
You may not. I’m 56, and I’ve had one in my life.
But, and here was the real point of the piece, there are hands all around you that can hold you and guide you back to life.
Be careful, of course. There are many judging hands, shame-inflicting hands, retaliatory hands. Don’t go there.
But there are also plenty of gentle hands, compassionate hands, safe hands. They might be the hands of those whom you already know and trust; but they might also be found in unexpected places.
Do not suffer alone. Life isn’t over. There can be glory days ahead. Years after I thought my life might never recover, I’m living in the best part of my story.
God goes belonging to every riven thing, my friends. God’s story involves the sorrow of bearing pain and sorrow: “From his riven side which flowed,” as a wonderful old hymn reminds us.
But there’s one thing you have to do: open your hands. Admit that they’re empty. Trust that God will give you a new future and that he’ll do that, at least in part, through the hands of others.
I’ve experienced one miracle in my life. Maybe. Sometimes, I even think probably. Of course, it’s possible that I’ve witnessed many others but missed them because of my own doubt or blindness. But there’s one I’m pretty sure about. And ironically, this miracle involved the hands of a deceased mentally disabled child.
Our daughter, Megan, was a tactile child. Her vision was impaired; and there is evidence that her taste buds were off. But she loved to touch. And that touching was done with hands that were lightning fast.
I still wince as I remember the time one of our elder’s wives came up to us in the foyer where I was holding Megan. She said, “She is just the most precious girl in the world.” I can almost see it happening in slow motion, though at the time it was anything but slow. Like a mongoose with a cobra, Megan snatched the glasses off her face and tossed them across the foyer. It was the last time this wonderful woman got so close to us.
There wasn’t an evil bone in Megan; she just liked to grab and touch. She loved to snatch glasses and jewelry; she could snag flowers and have them in her mouth before you could say, “She loves me, she loves me not.” And she liked to grab hair. The longer and thicker, the better.
As Diane and I looked back through our Megan albums, we got tickled noticing how often one or both of us was holding her hands. Either that or we had something in her hands. As long as her hands were busy, she was fine.
We laugh as we remember how much she loved presents for Christmas—but not what was inside the packages; rather, she loved the wrapping. You had to coax her to go ahead and open the box to see what was inside. She’d quickly lay it aside and go back to the real treasure: the wrapping.
And we giggle nervously as we remember the time we said a prayer before lunch at a pizza place. One of us forgot to hold on, and before we knew it, she’d stripped the part of the pizza she liked—the layer of cheese on top—and tossed the rest, which landed tomato paste side down on the white blouse of a young woman.
One of my favorite memories of Megan is around our table. She loved to hold my hand while she was eating. I panicked this week as I tried to remember just how our hands fit. She didn’t go for interlocked fingers; and it wasn’t exactly like a normal hand-holding. But with a crooked twist that I learned to mirror, she made it work.
Megan’s hands were often dirty but always pure; they were strong, yet gentle; and, of course, they were fast and busy.
As she took her last breaths one November morning in a pediatric ICU, we were on either side of her bed, holding those precious hands. As she quit breathing, I remember thinking about Jesus’ final words: “Into THY hands, I commit my spirit.”
Having gone the ten years of her life with very little sleep, we tried to catch up. But the rest wasn’t deep, for it was filled with darkness and grief—which kept coming in waves. Five years later, we were inundated again when my 15 year old nephew died suddenly, having to watch the searing pain of my brother and sister-in-law and of my parents as they buried a second grandchild; and then another five years later we got hit again when our younger son nearly died in a rollover wreck on I-20 that claimed the life of his friend sitting next to him.
And it’s sometime after that third tidal wave that the dam broke—the dam holding back all my depression, doubt, and grief. It came flooding in, mixed with toxic streams of anger and shame.
It’s a time that I refer to in my prayer journal as TGD . . . The Great Darkness. I was riven, broken, shattered. I found myself in Jonah’s predicament:
The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
And on top of all that, a dark, crusty melanoma popped up on my bald crown as if to mark a broken man.
I’ve reflected many times on the question: how did that happen? Was it lack of spiritual disciplines? Perhaps, but all through my years of ministry I prayed, journaled, and lived in scripture. Was it isolation? Sin? Self-pity? Probably yes, yes, and yes.
But even without a definitive answer for HOW it happened, this is what I know for sure: the dam broke and I was close to drowning from the depression, the doubt, and the grief.
Fast forward many years to today. “These are the good old days” — in family, in friendships, in purpose, and, especially, in marriage. (Our younger son just said to me, “You two are like teenagers.” As a 20-year-old, he probably didn’t mean that as a compliment!) These last several years have been full of joy.
So how did that healing occur? Some of the answers you might expect: therapists, friends, shepherds, prayer, etc.
But I mark the healing from—what?—a vision? a dream? Dare I say, a miracle? This is outside my experience as a winter Christian. I don’t hear directly from God or get special instructions or enjoy a miracle a minute.
If this was a miracle, it’s the only one I’ve experienced that I know of. I put it in the “maybe” category. Somedays even in the “probably” column.
It crept up on me in my sleep. It was a light, fitful, restless sleep, however, as I wondered if I’d ever live again. And then, in my dream—I call it a dream though it was more real than most of my waking hours!—Megan sat down by me. It wasn’t a quick dream that flashes by. It seemed to last the full night. She kept patting me with her hands saying, “You will be ok, Daddy.” When I woke up, I had to think long and hard about whether it had really occurred or not.
I’m still not entirely sure.
The truth is, she didn’t even have to speak those words. Her familiar hands said it all.
Later I heard a story of John Westerhoff that resonated with me. He was with a man who was desperately sick, whose daughter reached over and hugged him hard. He said to her, “You’re going to hug me to death!” She responded, “No, daddy, I’m hugging you back to life.”
. . . Which is why many of you have such clear memories of the hands of your mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers—even those long gone from this earth.
For those hands are much more than appendages to operate a fork or a pen. They are extensions of the grace of God. They bless, encourage, welcome, and remind us that no matter how broken we may feel, we will be well.
They remind us that one day God will take his own hands and wipe all tears from our eyes. And all will, indeed, be ok.
Max Lucado’s Pre-Conference Message
Rich Little (Revelation 1-3)
Fate Hagood (Revelation 4)
Dave Clayton (Revelation 5)
Don McLaughlin (Revelation 6-11)
Randy Harris (Revelation 12-13)
Mike Cope (Revelation 14-20)
Rick Atchley (Revelation 21-22)
Here’s the little blurb I wrote after reading Josh Ross’s excellent new book called Scarred Faith:
“If faith always works the way it should for you, if your prayers are always answered, if you’re always living in the delight of a spiritual summer, this book may just puzzle you. But if you have battled doubt, if you have agonized over God’s apparent silence, if you’ve felt gusts of winter chilling your spiritual journey—well, this is your book. Ross writes with raw honesty about life’s disappointments but also with bold hope about God’s future. I look forward to putting it in the hands of many people who are struggling to believe among life’s disappointments.”
Here are a few questions for Josh as the book is released:
Josh, because of my own life experiences with pain and grief, I identify with images and metaphors such as limping through life, wrestling with God, and living with scars. How did you settle on “scars” as the driving image of your book?
This book began as a commitment to journal for forty days because I needed healing. I had hit a wall in my faith journey a few years ago. I wasn’t at the point I was thinking about giving up on God, but I was definitely considering going through life (and ministry) with low expectations of what God can do in the here and now. At least if I lived with low expectations, I could save myself from ever feeling like God let me down.
As I began to write, it became clear that I was both wounded and scarred. A scar is a healed wound, and I had a number of them. But I also had open wounds that weren’t even close to becoming scars yet. The original title of the book was Scarred with God, because I was given assurance as I began writing that God dips into our pain to walk along with us, and at the time, I didn’t so much need a God who could deliver me from the pit, but a God who would get down in the pit with me.
You tap into something Philip Yancey, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Anne Lamott have taught many of us, which is suffering can be stewarded. How has this played itself out in your life?
You had this line in your book Megan’s Secrets about grief being a gift, because it’s part of the healing process. Having witnessed you grieve and hang onto faith through your own pain taught me that suffering can be redeemed. Grief is never forgotten, but it can be embedded in the story of the resurrection.
Ian Morgan Cron was gracious to write the foreword, and it’s probably the best part of the book. He wrote this, “Joshua compassionately but firmly challenges us to move beyond asking “Why am I suffering?” and live into the question “What does my pain make possible?” I like that. A lot.
When Jenny got sick, we had just made a decision to relocate into the heart of Memphis. After she died, many people thought we would back out of our decision to move into a blighted community because of grief. However, in a way that’s hard to explain, Jenny’s death gave us even more energy to engage Memphis with intentionality. It still does. One day, Jenny might just be dancing in the redeemed streets of Memphis with many of the children who have lost their lives here because of malnutrition and abuse. I want to partner with God to usher in that day.
You conclude your book with three chapters that challenge the local church to embrace scarred-stories as if our lives depended on it. Why did you feel compelled to end your book this way?
I feel like the church hasn’t followed the life of Jesus when it comes to giving voice to brokenness and pain. At times, we’ve told people to keep quiet about their grief and suffering instead of learning to tell a more redeeming story of how Jesus can enter into grief and suffering. Maybe it’s the pastor in me, but I felt like I wanted to conclude this book with a charge to the church to embrace scarred-stories, to celebrate the beauty of confession, and to live as if we really believe the resurrection is the best news for the world.
As your mentor, is it true that I will receive 15% of the proceeds of this book?
Remember, I’m Josh Ross; not Max Lucado. I’ll be glad to buy tableside guacamole next time we’re at a Mexican food restaurant. Deal?