Sunday, April 5, 2009

Why Good Friday Matters

Paula Peters
Luke 9:24 “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

Yesterday I was at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants. The speaker was Paula Peters (pictured here), the Marketing Director of Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum here in Plymouth that depicts the lives of the Plymouth colonists and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe after the landing of the Mayflower. Paula is a member of the Wampanoag Tribal Council.

Paula’s speech was notable because she is the first Wampanoag speaker in the Society’s history. There was actually one other time when a member of the tribe was invited. It was in 1970 that the Society invited Wamsutta Frank James as part of the celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower's arrival.

His speech (which had to be submitted ahead of time) was so severely censored, however, that he refused to come and deliver the non-descript pabulum that was left over. You can read his intended speech here. So it took some time before the groups got together again--thirty-nine years to be exact. Paula’s speech was not censored nor asked for ahead of time, nor did she pull any punches in describing what white people remember on Thanksgiving as a day of mourning for her people.

While Paula was clear about the experience of Native peoples after the arrival of the Mayflower, she was also clear that she was not there to bring us guilt. She was bringing us the responsibility of creating a more hopeful future, a hope that was acted upon, in a small but important way, yesterday. She received a standing ovation from the 150 people there—people who have long resisted seeing their Mayflower ancestors as anything but saintly icons who stood for religious freedom and democracy. Paula’s husband, also a tribal member, wiped a tear from his eye.

On the drive home, I thought about what I had just experienced in light of Holy Week and the way I have experienced church across 50 years of Holy Weeks. What I have seen is that, at least in American Protestantism, we want all the glory and celebration of Palm Sunday and Easter. A lesser but still significant number want to do some reflection on Maundy Thursday. But the number of people who want to climb the hill of Calvary to a bloody execution drops off a cliff. Many communities do Good Friday services together ecumenically so that the small numbers are masked by bringing many churches together.

My interpretation of that phenomenon is that we are not fond of the message that in order to experience resurrection, we have to die first. Jesus set the stage in this passage in Luke (and others like it in the other gospels). We have to die in order to live. He’s not calling for martyrdom or saying that the way to salvation is through a literal suicide. I think he means things like what happened at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants. In order to move into a more hopeful future, we have to kill off some of the cherished fictions of the past. As long as we held onto those whitewashed notions of our ancestors, we could not be reborn into a bright and truth-filled future.

And of course it’s not just the Mayflower descendants or the idealized notion of the first Thanksgiving. Each of us travels across the span of our lives collecting beliefs and assumptions that inform how we see the world. Some of them are accurate and good. But many turn out to be cherished fictions, designed to keep us from having to face certain unpleasant truths about ourselves and therefore do something about them. We cling to bad habits. In conflict we are righteous and those who oppose us are evil or, in cases of abuse, we believe that we are evil (or at least inept), and that our abuser is good. We all do it—and apparently they did it in Jesus’ day as well.

The message of Jesus, both in his teaching and in his example this week, describes a different way. There is no resurrection without death. If we are willing to kill off those bad habits and those cherished fictions, then and only then will we rise up to new life in Christ.

It is not just Easter; it is Holy Week. All of it. Whether in the public rituals of church or in the privacy of your spiritual prayer closet, follow the footsteps of Jesus this week. The steps up to the Place of the Skull are heavy, and it’s common to fall several times under the weight of such a cross. But keep going. The death of those old ways is necessary and ordained by God. Easter awaits—a life out from the shadows and into the truth. If the Mayflower descendants can do it, you can too!

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Special Calling

Exodus 13:19 “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’”

Christian theology is incarnational, which means that it is very tightly tied to physical bodies and what happens in and through them. Our faith is built around a God who decided to come to earth in the flesh (in carne, is Latin for “in the flesh”) and unlike gnostic sects who see the body as a prison to be escaped, we see the body as the place where God is made manifest. While the Jewish faith does not share our conviction of the nature of Jesus, it too has a heavy emphasis on the body. For both Jews and Christians, bodies and what happens to them matter.

From that belief in the importance of bodies springs a heavy emphasis on justice and compassion for those who are hurting in this bodily life. It also creates a reverence for the physical body even after God’s life-giving spirit has left it. That is why Joseph wanted his bones brought back to his homeland one day, and that is why, four hundred years after Joseph’s death, Moses and the Israelites picked up those bones as they fled Egypt and did just that. It is also why I want to tell you about Linda Abrams.

I met Linda yesterday, as she was the featured speaker for the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants. She is a forensic genealogist. Since 1988, in fact, Linda Abrams has been THE forensic genealogist for the United States military. When human remains of soldiers are found, anywhere in the world, from any United States conflict, the Pentagon calls Linda with a guess at who the remains might be, based on where they were found, the list of those missing, etc. It is Linda’s job to find the next of kin so that the remains can be identified through DNA and interred. If the next of kin is a spouse or another person who does not share the DNA of the deceased, Linda must also find a relative of the deceased who can provide a positive identification of the remains through a DNA test.

Linda has provided positive identification for over a thousand soldiers. There has not been a single case she did not solve. For the first 12 years she did the work as a volunteer, even when she racked up over $800 per month in phone bills, cold calling every Carter in Nebraska to find the right family. Now she is paid hourly up to 30 hours, even though she works as much as 200 hours to solve a case. From the Civil War to Vietnam, she searches, navigating the minefields of adoptive parents with states who will not reveal the name of the birth mother and scant or non-existent records for African American soldiers in World War II. She drives from her home in Massachusetts to Indiana and flies to Bermuda or Europe to look at records. She soothes the high emotions of mothers who always hoped that their sons were still alive somewhere, families who are overwhelmed by a loved one’s remains being put to rest at last, skepticism about a strange woman calling out of the blue and wanting your DNA to match your great-grandmother’s sister’s grandson, who you’ve never heard of. She coaxes family members who are embarrassed about unwanted pregnancies to reveal those family skeletons so that the real skeletons can be identified and laid to rest.

On the one hand it doesn’t sound like religious work, although Linda is a Christian. Linda is obviously good at what she does, but it is equally obvious that for Linda this is more than a job. It is her calling. She can hardly tell the stories of her work in a public talk without being overcome with the emotion of bringing a soldier home. It is clear that she will not rest until they do. She is the foster mother cradling every son until he can again be reunited with his family. She is the pastor who stays with every body until it is lowered into its proper grave and who comforts grieving families. She is the advocate who fights state governments for the rights of the dead and their families.

We often think of God’s calling as only being religious work—a calling to the ministry or to church music or to the mission field. I lift up Linda Abrams as an example of the myriad other ways that God calls us, using our own gifts and passions to serve not just the souls, but also the bodies of God’s children. Like Linda Abrams, each of us has such a calling. What is yours?

Help us, God, to honor the bodies you have given us and to find the calling you have for our lives. Amen.

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