Last week I spent five days at the Westar Institute Spring Meeting. As I milled around with scholars, clergy, retired people and otherwise interested followers of the Jesus Seminar, I realized that for me these events have become more like an annual homecoming event than a scholarly pursuit. Of course, as always, there was plenty of opportunity to learn something new and to be stimulated by some clear thinking scholars. However, so many of the scholars and other regular attendees have become friends over the decades. I find myself looking more forward to visiting and catching up with friends than I do sitting through another lecture that might likely focus on nuance.
I probably need to make a confession. I was once told by a seminary professor, who I admired, that I did not pay enough attention to detail. He admitted that I understood the material and had unique ideas that seemed to interest others and even stimulated conversation. But he told me, “You do not spend enough time studying the details.” In other words I am more interested that the Book of Thomas was discovered than whether it was written before or after Mark. I just like the book of Thomas.
The professor used a painting on his wall to demonstrate my “faults.” He said before he bought the painting he studied it and other paintings by the same artist until he understood why he was attracted to the artist and to the painting. Only then did he buy it.
“You,” he said, accusingly, “would just look at the painting and decide you like it. Then you would go out and buy it without analyzing it or even knowing why you liked it.” So there you have it. I am short on details and long on big pictures. Perhaps I just know what I like or what makes sense to me. He agreed that I still deserved an A in the class and I agreed not to take any more classes from him.
I share this because some people have found it surprising to hear that I love the Easter holy days. As a progressive clergy person from my first day in the pulpit, thirty years ago, I always felt that everything from Lent to Easter Sunday was the most important and exciting season for Christians. It was another opportunity to teach and even to practice the path of kenosis, to move beyond our familiar boundaries of mind and body by learning to let go and change. What is not exciting about that?
I often felt badly for clergy who found it necessary to stay in an old and outdated paradigm talking, praying and singing about the resuscitation of a body that had been buried in a tomb for three days. I cannot tell you how many times one of them would call me and ask what I was going to do about Easter with a sense of urgency and sometimes of panic. Far too many times they would find themselves trying to make sense out of something they no longer believed.
More importantly I felt badly for the people who missed an opportunity to discover the powerful and life transforming path Jesus left us that is the very foundation of his teachings and his life. It is sadly a path that has been buried in the crust of creeds, camouflaged by power struggles and dogmas and reinterpreted by ego driven personalities.
Ironically the very path of kenosis Jesus offered us is a path intended to free us of the confining and often conflicting mindset that allows our fears, our wants, our hungers, and other ego needs to control and separate us. It is a path of self-emptying love that has been available to us for centuries. And the best part is there is no better time or way to investigate that mindset than during the period of Lent leading up to an Easter celebration.
Of course we all know the Lenten season is often wasted on prideful stunts like giving up sweets, sex, alcoholic drinks or meat. But the true kenotic path is much tougher for most of us. It really refers to emptying of self—of self-interest and even of self-preservation. It is about learning to love dangerously and recklessly without any expectations in return. It is about letting go of judgment and anger. It is about letting go of self-righteousness and becoming a willing servant. It is about letting go of power to control or even to influence for self gain.
I want to be very clear. This path is not about who gives up the most nor is the goal to make some giant, measurable sacrifice. It is not about making the biggest donation to the Easter fund. I am referring here to a path of self-discovery. It is a path to discover who and what we already are but have not had the eyes to see or the ears to hear. It is about losing yourself in order to find yourself.
If we allow the Easter story to be what it was intended to be—an allegory—it makes a lot more sense than a story about a time in history that never did make sense. When we let the Easter story become a lesson instead of a piece of Christian history, we gain something important. We learn that real freedom and new life happens when we are willing to give up our old ways of thinking and being and move toward a new self. It means that as we journey toward an awareness of our true selves and another reality, we must first die to the old. I believe the author of John understood this when he put the words into Jesus’ mouth that we have to die to be born from above or from spirit.
Obviously, we do not have to wait for the Easter season to move toward this revelation. It can be a weekly, even daily practice. For most of us, this is a challenging path but what a wonderful reward to discover who we really are. We are floating in one giant pool of amniotic fluid that flows like a River of Wonder and Life. We come from a long line of slippery, slimy single-celled ancestors who swam in ancient seas. We have evolved from ancestors with fur and funny faces who had no concerns about over-population, global warming or their 401Ks.
We now know that we are all made up from the same stuff as the sun, the moon and the stars. And apparently we are trading that stardust—and a lot of other things that can’t even be measured—with each other as we move through this plane, on this planet, at this moment.
When we identify those things that are separating ourselves from others, we can discover we are indeed part of one connected universe both instant and eternal. When we let go of those things that are ego driven, even without us realizing it, we can find something even more special. We are not only part of the beautiful divine creation but we are indeed divine.
In fact in spite of how we might feel about ourselves sometimes, no matter how isolated, no matter how alone, no matter how broken, no matter how separated, we have always been connected. We are part of a river that has flowed through time and space as vast as the universe itself.
This means there is more to you than you have probably given yourself credit for. This means you are capable of marvelous things you cannot even imagine. Hard as this may be to believe, you have the wisdom of the ages within you, dancing to the music of the Universal angels.
Easter, spring and Jesus’ teachings are all about rebirth, the renewal of spirit, and transformation. They invite and encourage each one of us to dive back into the River of Life, the River of Wonder we sometimes call God and open ourselves to all kinds of new possibilities.
Now that is the big picture and something to celebrate.