Writing stories that make us bigger on the inside
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The following article was published in the magazine Glad Tidings (March/April 2018). The accompanying art is by Ann Sheng, from Read, Wonder, Listen: Stories from the Bible for Young Readers, words by Laura Alary, pictures by Ann Sheng (Wood Lake Books, 2018).
During Holy Week a few years ago, a mischievous word processing glitch, combined with some sketchy proof-reading of the bulletin for Easter Sunday, transformed all the exclamation points into question marks. Needless to say, this changed the tone of the Call to Worship:
The tomb is empty?
Christ is risen?
The Lord is risen indeed?
I will never forget the baffled expressions that crept across the faces of the congregation as it slowly dawned on them that something was not quite right. I laughed until I cried. But after I mopped up the tears and caught my breath, it occurred to me that our bewildered liturgy had probably captured the tone of the first Easter more fully than our usual confident declarations.
Picture Mary Magdalene, stumbling through the pre-dawn darkness outside the tomb, her vision blurred with tears. When she meets the Risen Jesus, questions tumble from her lips: Who are you? Where is my Lord? Where have you taken him? Where have you put his body? In Luke’s version of the story, the women gasp out their mind-boggling news to men who do not believe them, “because their words seemed to them like an idle tale.” It takes the confirmation of Peter—a man—to convince others that there is any substance to this extraordinary report. Small wonder the women in Mark’s gospel say nothing to anyone “because they were afraid.” Afraid of what? Not being believed? Being dismissed as hysterical or weak-minded? Jesus is alive? What do you mean? How can that be? Do you take us for fools? Is this some kind of joke?
Question marks abound in the biblical resurrection narratives. And so they should. People do not normally rise from the dead, so the claim that someone has done so ought to provoke shock, astonishment, wariness, and yes, skepticism.
I’ve always considered Thomas a kind of personal patron saint. Although he is stuck with the pejorative nickname Doubting Thomas, I’ve always found him to be the embodiment of a robust faith. Thomas thinks for himself. He uses his powers of reason and observation. He asks questions. He will not simply accept what he is told, even when the source is his most trusted friends. Thomas is a man of question marks rather than exclamation points.
Exclamation points are self-assured, confident, assertive, even bossy. They are sure of possessing the truth. They tell. Declare. Insist. Question marks, on the other hand, are humble and open. They do not claim to have all the answers. They listen. Ponder. Ruminate.
So while it may seem odd at first, I think question marks are far better suited to Easter than exclamation points. Why? Because certitude does not allow for change or growth. It is question marks, with their space for wondering, which have power to open the door to all that is fresh and new and astonishing.
Polish poet and Nobel Laureate Wistaw Szymborska once remarked, “Whatever inspiration is, it is born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’” Every creative endeavor, from a work of art to a scientific discovery, arises from this place of humility, the acknowledgment that we do not know something, and are therefore in search of new insights, new solutions, new possibilities. Not knowing is the path to questioning, wondering, imagining, and creating what did not exist before.
If you want an example of this generative power of not knowing, consider the apostle Paul (or Saul, as he was once known). Saul was originally a man of exclamation points.
A true religious zealot, not only did he aggressively persecute followers of Jesus, he firmly believed that by doing so he was fulfilling the will of God.
But then the inexplicable burst into his life. On his way to Damascus to arrest a group of those misguided Christians, Paul was confronted by a presence that identified itself as the Risen Christ. In a matter of minutes, everything Saul thought he knew—his black and white vision of the world—exploded into fragments of grey.
Out of the mess something remarkable emerged. Blind and disoriented, Saul groped his way through a fog of questions: What just happened? Where am I? Who am I? Where am I going? What am I supposed to do? What is true? What does this mean? Without these questions, Saul would likely have continued along the same fixed and certain path. Instead, Saul became Paul. All the vitriol and certitude were gone, their flames quenched in the waters of baptism.
Mind you, the new Paul was in some ways just as blustery and opinionated as the old. But having his certainties shattered changed him in one fundamental way. He was now open to being surprised.
I imagine Paul would have enjoyed—maybe even chuckled at—the peculiar timing of celebrating Easter Sunday on April Fool’s Day. More than any other biblical writer, Paul had an acute sense of the apparent foolishness of the message of the cross. He even calls himself a fool—a fool for Christ.
Some of this language is tongue-in-cheek, of course, a cagey way of heading off opponents who belittle Paul and his preaching as simple-minded. The cities of the first century Graeco-Roman world were full of teachers hawking competing philosophies of how to live a flourishing and meaningful life. Paul has to admit—probably because his critics have already pointed it out—that he is not exactly a walking advertisement for the new life he proclaims. Once a well-educated, respected Jewish religious leader, relatively secure and well-off, he has now sunk to being a poor, itinerant preacher, rejected by his own people, dependent on the work of his hands to support himself, and physically scarred from many misadventures. His catalogue of sufferings is impressive: shipwrecked, flogged, arrested, attacked by mobs, a victim of malicious gossip. As for his message, it is hard to say which is more absurd: Someone rising from the dead? Or worshipping a condemned criminal?
In response, Paul engages in a bit of verbal ju-jitsu, turning these attacks to his own advantage. Yes, he agrees, the message of the cross does sound like foolishness. And yes, he himself appears to be a fool, not someone to be envied or imitated. But—and here is the crucial point—appearances can be deceiving. What you see may not be what is.
What looks like failure and humiliation might reveal itself to be a strange kind of victory. What seems like weakness might actually be strength. Those wounds and scars you see may have brought healing. Death may be the threshold to new life. The ending may be a new beginning. Surprise.
For Paul, the apparently foolish message of the cross is far more than a proclamation of a strange and unusual event. The cross is a pattern, a lens through which we view and find meaning in our own lives. This is why Paul can speak of being crucified with Christ, sharing in his dying and rising. None of this makes sense unless Paul is speaking of an ongoing process in which we all participate. The apparently foolish message of the cross is about more than Jesus. It is also about Paul. And about us.
Twice today I have heard news so sad it brought me to a standstill. First came word that a man I know has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. This husband and father will not be here to see his young children grow up. When the phone rang next it brought news of the sudden death of the daughter of a friend.
Question marks abound. And so they should.
One of my questions is this: What does the story of Easter have to say to people whose lives have broken into pieces? It is not enough to point to some future hope. What is the message of the cross for them here and now?
It is tempting to try to provide an answer, to fill the gaping hole of silence with confident and reassuring words. But I cannot do that with integrity. Because I simply don’t know.
I don’t know what happened inside the stifling darkness of the tomb so long ago. I don’t know exactly who or what Mary and Peter encountered in that dew-drenched garden. I don’t know what took place in that locked room where Thomas sat. I don’t know what phenomenon Saul experienced on the road to Damascus. I don’t know what happens after we die—apart from the obvious biological processes. I don’t know how life will unfold for those grieving families. I don’t know what is in store for me and those I love.
But there is a strange kind of hope here. By confessing I don’t know, I open the door to countless possibilities, a vast field of white space where nothing is yet written.
When I consider my own life, I see so many little deaths: poor choices; missed opportunities; rejection; decisions driven by fear. But when I view my life through the lens of the cross, when I connect my own story with the story of Jesus, dying and rising with him over and over again, I feel a new kind of strength. This is not wishful thinking or hallucination. It is an act of faith, rooted in the testimony of others who have plunged into the fog of unknowing and experienced tendrils of new life springing up out of death.
I’ll trade you an exclamation point for a question mark any day. Especially at Easter. Question marks give me hope. Hope that I may yet be surprised. Astonished. Wonder-struck. Blessed with insight. Stirred by new life. Question marks give me hope that my story is not over yet. And neither is yours.
So call me a fool. An Easter fool.
Christ is risen?
He is risen indeed.
Ever since my oldest child was big enough to stand on a chair and hold a wooden spoon, we have made these hot cross buns on Good Friday. If you are searching for a great recipe so you can start this tradition in your own family, look no further! For the recipe, and some reflections on the benefits of keeping traditions with children, see my guest post on froogalism.com. You can read the post here.
Matt Brough is celebrating the first anniversary of his podcast, Spirituality for Ordinary People, by giving away a bundle of books (24 to be precise)! Included in the prize package is my own children’s book, Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter. Find out more here.
While you’re at at it, check out my conversation with Matt on the topic of spirituality and children, travelling through the circle of the Church Year, observing Advent, and my book, Look! A Child’s Guide to Advent and Christmas. Listen to the interview here.
Sometimes when I am asked to write short posts about my books, I feel like I am repeating myself. But when Traci Smith sent me some questions to consider for a guest post on her blog, I knew that our conversation was going to head into some interesting territory. Read the interview here and while you’re at it, spend some time browsing Traci’s blog.
“This book honors a child’s ability to be a young theologian…”
Sybil MacBeth’s books–especially Praying in Color–have shaped and nourished my practice of prayer for many years. So I am particularly grateful to her for including Look! A Child’s Guide to Advent and Christmas on her latest blog post. Read it here.