A Craggy-faced Christ

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          A craggy-faced Christ.  Not exactly the image of Christ with which I grew up.  The Christ of my Sunday School pictures and church wall hangings had quite a different face, a gentle face, a kindly face.  Granted that face was very much a handsome Caucasian face, and not a first-century Jewish face, but there was a certain sweetness, a certain tenderness about that Christ. 

          This craggy-faced Christ is so very different.  This Christ stepped right out of Isaiah 53:3.  He is truly a Christ “despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (KJV).  He knows about life.  About its hardships.  About its pain. 

          This Christ is part of a beautiful wood-carving of the Last Supper that our daughter gave to us, a gift from her trip to Croatia a few years ago.

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          In this carving, this very craggy-faced Christ sits in the midst of his disciples.  And as this Christ holds out his two burly arms, his hands are clenched around two chunks of bread.  “My body,” he says, knowing full well that his body was soon to be broken for them.   

          And for us.  There’s certainly a place for a smiling, gentle Christ on the picture-walls of our minds.  I like to imagine such a Christ laughing and playfully joining with us in all the fun adventures of our lives.  Like to imagine him dancing through our joyful days.  Like to imagine him sipping a cup of tea with me from time to time. 

          But there are times, many times, when I need and when I can relate more easily to this craggy-faced Christ from the Croatian wood-carving.  This is a Christ who speaks the language of loneliness.  A Christ who knows my deepest sorrows.  Who knows the sorrows of our broken world.  Who knows the pain and fear of refugees.  A Christ who weeps for the chaos and loss when guns tear lives apart in our country and in countries around the world.  Who aches with children and women and men whose lives are curtailed by illness, by hunger, by poverty, by war, by discrimination. 

          This craggy-faced Christ will never offer trite platitudes to ease the pain that so often intrudes into our lives and into our world.  Instead, this Christ offers us the bread of his body broken for us.  Broken on what seemed at the time a God-forsaken cross.  Broken in his descent to hell before God raised him to new life from the darkness of the tomb. 

          This bread is a precious gift.  It’s bread that offers us a measure of peace.  Bread that gives us hope.  Bread that strengthens us.  Bread that keeps us ever in God’s grace.

 

Requiem for Two Oak Trees

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stumps of two oak trees beside our yard

 

Earth to earth and dust to dust; I bless them for

their carpeting of summer skies; bless them for their solemn

sighing through our lives; bless them for their quiet

presence, gentle strength.

*

Ancient of years, rings circling round

and round, whispered tales of winter’s

ice, of lonely hearts that sometimes leaned

against their strength; rock-hard solid,

tough and sure, even as terror, wars and hi-tech

revolutions rocked our world, churning

and spinning our lives this way and that;

the oaks ever unmoved.  Unmoved until

a growing weakness in the agѐd marrow

of their bones; until the trumpeting of stormy

winds threatened a fall like that of Jericho;

so branch, alas, by leafy branch, saws

whirring in the summer heat, they now

are shriveled to mere stumps.

Farewell, dear friends.

*

Life will move on, I know, new circles rise,

as acorns burrow deep to rough it out beneath

the stars, the sleet, the wind; life renewing,

life insistent, life relentlessly determined

always to begin again; but you forever gone;

your stumps a portrait of the mystery of life.

 

Shadowy Faith

Nicodemus

Jesus and Nicodemus by Crijn Hendricksz, 1616–1645

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  (John 3:1-2)

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  (John 7:50-51)

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.  Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. (John 19:38-40)

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          He was an upstanding citizen, this Nicodemus.  A member of the religious Council of the Jewish people.  Respected.  Probably envied by many for his position among the leaders of his time. 

          But he was very much his own person.  A quiet man, it would seem.  Not one to make a big brouhaha about his position or about his faith.  Yes, he was part of the religious Council, and he probably kept all the laws and rules that were on the books.  But he had his questions, too.  And he wasn’t afraid of those questions.  A bit afraid, perhaps, of letting his fellow Council members know that he had questions, but not so afraid that he didn’t take himself to Jesus for that midnight conversation which is so well known and has been celebrated in numerous sermons and works of art down through the centuries.

          He doesn’t seem to have had all his questions answered in that conversation, however.  He did not become an open follower of Jesus.  He rather remained a member of the Council that was always suspiciously watching Jesus’ every move, always plotting to find a way to get rid of this Upstart who was undermining their dignity and their authority.  “Why didn’t you arrest him?” they asked the Temple Police after Jesus had stood in the Temple one day, inviting any who were thirsty to come to him and experience living waters flowing through their lives. 

          “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  Nicodemus speaking, in response to the Council’s chiding of the Temple Police.  He wasn’t exactly proclaiming his faith in this Jesus, but he was certainly defending Jesus, even though it meant putting his own reputation at considerable risk. 

          Then came the cross.  We don’t know where Nicodemus was when Jesus was hanging on that cross, but my guess is that he was standing somewhere on the fringes of the gathered crowd, sifting through his conflicting emotions about this death.  Had the other Council members maybe been right?  Had this Jesus been merely a hoax and not really a teacher come from God as he had once believed—or at least wanted to believe?  Would God have allowed one of his prophets to die in such a cruel manner?

          Whatever his thoughts.  Whatever his questions.  Whatever his disappointment and grief, John tells us that Nicodemus teamed up with Joseph of Arimathea to help in the burial of the body of Jesus.  Made sure that this Jesus, whoever and whatever he might have been, was given a dignified burial.

          An interesting man, Nicodemus.  A man with a shadowy kind of hopeful faith in Jesus, but a faith filled with a myriad of questions.  A man with a deep longing for something more than what the Council and its religious observances and explanations offered.  A man who stood up for justice.  A man with profound human compassion.  A man who deserves our deep attention and respect.

          I have some dear friends whose middle names might well be Nicodemus.  They long for God and for a close and meaningfully deep relationship with this enigmatic Jesus of the gospels.  But they have so many questions.  So many deep questions.  So many profound questions.  So many questions, in fact, that sometimes their faith feels blown away by all the riddles that life presents.  Yet, like Nicodemus, they spend a good bit of time searching for Jesus, sometimes in the darkest nights of their lives.  Like Nicodemus too, they usually stand by and stand up for those who are being unfairly treated by others. And also like Nicodemus, they will often be found caring for the needs of others—visiting those in distress, serving at soup kitchens, loving a very difficult adult child, passing along gift cards to strangers, sitting with a dying neighbor.

          I don’t know if Nicodemus ever became an “open” believer.  I don’t know what happened to him after the night of the burial of Jesus’ corpse.  I don’t know if he ever learned about the resurrection.  I don’t need to know.  What I do know is that I wish there was more of Nicodemus in all of our lives.  More of his questing.  More of his courage and integrity in standing up for the just treatment of others.  More of his compassion. 

          In an age when so many seem so sure they have The Truth, Nicodemus and his questing spirit are so welcome.  In an age when defending The Truth seems more important than caring about justice and tending to the needs of others, Nicodemus’ words and actions point to a more humane way, a more Christ-like way, of being and believing in our oh-so-needy world.

          Jesus honored Nicodemus in that long night conversation.  John honored him in his stories of his later life.  I think we would do well to honor him as well in the way we live out our lives, in the way we live out our faith. 

Yellow Leaf: in memory of those massacred in Orlando

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Yellow leaf in late June,

set apart from

all the rest, but taken in,

surrounded by the common

greens; folded into family

of tree; a oneness,

an embrace, a clapping

of their rainbow hands

as summer winds meander

random through the branches;

as raindrops gentle tap

each leaf—the green, the yellow,

the whatever shape or color

it might be.

churr-churr

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churr-churr!  he calls to me as I pick up

my morning paper; again he sings to me

in the afternoon as I begin my daily walk;

a twitter of friendship, kinship in this greening

world of spring;

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or maybe not—perhaps a simple warning

to keep my distance from the nest he and his lady  

friend have crafted for their soon-to-be

red-bellied young;

 

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or perhaps he doesn’t notice me at all,

just churr-churrs his two-word poem

for the simple joy of being alive, the brilliance

of his red head shining his delight,

inviting me to sing, churr-churr

with him the sparkling of a world drowned

in a sea of colors spinning out the springtime

hope we share;

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hope for tiny feathered souls;

hope for secret nestlings brooding midst the darker

secrets of our hearts; hope for children tented

in crowded camps, tweeting needs and fears against

the noise that shrouds the colors of their world,

colors that yet push out through cracks

in concrete walls, push up through all the carnage

of our wars, colors churr-churring hope that springs

insistent, firm, across our sordid, wearied world.