Two Sundays ago I spotted a small lizard on the chancel steps at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in the middle of the 11:00 a.m. liturgy (so the little critter prefers incense, I suppose). This past Sunday, in the afternoon, I saw a slightly larger lizard — pictured below — in the backyard of the Rectory. I think they’re kinda pretty.
Last fall I wrote about seeing Marvin the Martian at Space Center Houston as part of an exhibit about Mars and NASA’s exploration of the Red Planet. I was thinking about that today and remembering how much, as a child, I loved reruns of Looney Tunes, including Marvin the Martian, on Saturday mornings. These short stories about Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, the Road Runner, and so many others were classics from the golden age of American animation.
So let’s write haiku this week about cartoons. Your short verse of poetry only needs five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the the third line. It’s easy to do and can be shared in the comments. Here’s mine:
Marvin the Martian
often asked, “Where’s the kaboom?”
This time he did not!
Earlier this month, I got to bless these golfers in a tournament at the Hermann Park Golf Course in the City of Houston to raise money for feeding the homeless and for helping teenagers with addictions. For me, it was wonderful to see this and also to know that I didn’t have to hit a golf ball. That would not have been a pretty sight.
So the biggest news in pop culture this week has to be the release of the second trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This will be the seventh film in a series that began in the summer of 1977. I was seven years old when the world was first introduced to Darth Vader, R2-D2, and the rest of the characters on both sides of “the Force.” I’m a little older now, of course; but I’m still excited about all of this.
At some point over the last several months, our household — or at least our boys — went all Star Wars, all the time. Interestingly, our oldest is seven years old. He loves all this stuff. His younger brother, who is four years old, loves it too. What’s great about that is the fact that they have a common language for the adventures they share together. Here’s photographic evidence (note the blaster perched above the books and the fact that this was right before going to church on Easter morning):
So let’s write haiku about things that happened “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .” That includes light sabers, rebel pilots, storm troopers, droids, the Jedi Temple, the Old Republic, the Galactic Empire, and an exploding Death Star. Even young padawans can describe these things in a single verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. As an example, take a look at my short poem below. And may the Force be with you!
Yoda teaches the young one
how to use the Force.
The Rt. Rev. Jeff W. Fisher, Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, recently pointed me to a video of an Easter anthem by 18th-century American composer William Billings (1746-1800) being sung in the Sacred Harp tradition. The Sacred Harp was a tunebook that was first published in 1844. That tradition, also known as “shaped-note singing,” originated in New England but was practiced primarily in the South. So the 2003 film Cold Mountain, set in Western North Carolina during the Civil War, appropriately featured the singing of a couple of shaped-note hymns. Billings’ anthem “The Lord is ris’n indeed” sounds like this:
I find this tradition of singing to be hauntingly beautiful and other-worldly. It momentarily transports me to another time and place, as though being lifted up into God’s presence. That’s how some people describe sacraments. While this old-fashioned singing might not be transcendent for you, I’ll bet there’s something you’ve seen or heard or experienced that has been — something of haunting beauty that stays with you and feeds your soul. That’s our haiku theme this week.
So write one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. That’s all you need to do. Here’s mine:
Don’t know how they work —
the shaped notes. “Alleluia” —
Today is the anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution in 1945 at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Nazi Germany and of his words that were intended as a final message to George Bell, his dear friend and a bishop in the Church of England:
This is the end — for me the beginning of life.
Here is Bonhoeffer’s poem “Who am I?” that was written from prison in 1944 (the translation in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8, by Fortress Press):
Who am I? They often tell me
I step out from my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.
Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like accustomed to victory.
Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?
Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
Fleeing in disarray from victory already won?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter Day, April 5, 2015
“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified . . . he is not here . . . he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” Mark 16:6-7
On Good Friday, at the Jefferson County Jail in the state of Alabama, an official there with the sheriff’s office unlocked a cell door. And through that door walked a 58-year-old African-American man named Anthony Ray Hinton.
At the age of 29, Hinton was convicted of the 1985 murders of two Birmingham restaurant workers. Because Hinton was indigent, a lawyer was appointed to represent him. The lawyer mistakenly believed that he had only $1,000 to hire an expert witness for the proceedings. The witness he hired wasn’t much of an expert. As for eye-witnesses to the two separate murders, there were none. As for fingerprints linking Hinton to the crime scenes, there were none. The only physical evidence was a questionable link between a set of bullets and a gun found in the home that Hinton shared with his mother.
The jury deliberated for less than two hours before finding him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He was sentenced to death row and spent most of the next 30 years locked in a 5-by-8-foot cell in solitary confinement. As he would later state to the public as a free man, “All they had to do was test the gun.” When that finally happened, the case unraveled completely, and Hinton was set free. According to the New York Times, he said this about his time alone with his thoughts:
I witnessed other inmates’ time run out, and I’d be lying if I said you don’t ask yourself, “Wow, is that going to happen to me?”
I’m guessing Hinton probably thought about death every day in that 5-by-8 foot cell. Most of us, by contrast, go to great lengths not to think about death at all. A lot of us even try to pretend we might never come face to face with it. Well, I have some bad news to share with you today: That’s not true! Of course there will be times for each one of us when death comes into sharp focus, like it did over and over again for Anthony Ray Hinton as he lay on his bunk and stared at the ceiling.
That’s how three women — Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome — come to the tomb of Jesus early on the first day of the week. With hearts broken by grief over the death he died, they come to complete his funeral by anointing his body. And what do they find? They find that the stone has already been rolled away from the entrance and that his body isn’t inside. Then they hear the words of a messenger from God:
You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified . . . he is not here
. . . he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.
Yet the women are frightened and distraught by the emptiness of the tomb. Make no mistake about it, we would be frightened too. Like them, we would be filled with Easter terror instead of Easter joy. Most biblical scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark originally ended with verse eight of chapter sixteen:
They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
It leaves us in a state of suspense, wanting to know what happened to them, wanting to know the rest of the story. Some of the most ancient manuscripts end this way. Other copies of the text make the conclusion nice and tidy in the same way that we might try to do in our own minds. After all, in spite of the many different kinds of expectations we bring into the church on this day, who comes desiring to run out of these doors afterwards filled with terror instead of joy?
But Mark’s Gospel is pointing us in the right direction – the direction in which Easter joy awaits us. The fact that the tomb was empty doesn’t tell us a thing about its meaning. What happened to our Lord Jesus Christ between the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Day no one saw.
There were no eyewitnesses to his resurrection, when God spoke a thunderous, “Yes,” in the face of humanity’s cruel, “No,” to Jesus. There wasn’t a reporter on the scene from the New York Times to describe the very moment when death — the enemy of life — was defeated by the power of God. The empty tomb points to the resurrection but doesn’t prove it. That’s why the women who came face to face with that emptiness are unsettled and shaken and fearful.
So where is Easter joy to be found? The messenger from God tells the women at the empty tomb that Jesus has been raised and that he is going ahead of the disciples to Galilee. That is where the risen Christ will gather his sheep who were scattered in the darkness of the crucifixion. That is where Easter joy awaits them. That is where the empty tomb finds its meaning.
Easter joy awaits us too. It breaks into our ordinary routines, disrupting ordinary expectations through small, concrete acts of love that make us less and less fearful as we come to know, more and more, that God will always have the last word — a word of life that has destroyed sin and death.
When Anthony Ray Hinton stood outside the front doors of Alabama’s Jefferson County Jail on Good Friday, this is part of the statement that he made to the press:
Good morning. The sun [does] shine. . . . I want you to know there is a God. He [sits] high but he looks low. . . . And I just want to thank him.
And Hinton also acknowledged that this miscarriage of justice had affected not only him but also the families of the two victims who had been murdered in 1985. So he wanted to say publicly to them,
I will continue to pray for you as I have for 30 years.
I can’t imagine how Hinton is feeling on this day — the Day of Resurrection. I do know that he headed to a cemetery after he left the jail. He went there to put flowers on the grave of his mother, who died in 2002. I also know that, quite astonishingly and in some tension with a few of the other things he said outside the jail, Hinton has been thinking, perhaps with more than a little difficulty, about mercy.
That’s not to say there won’t be some kind of reckoning, some kind of compensation, for what happened to him. Surely there should be. Nevertheless, he said:
I’ve got to forgive. I’ve lived in hell for 30 years.
Hinton seems to realize that it would be all too easy for him to continue living in hell has a free man — to choose to sit in the prison of bitterness and resentment and anger. But he wants to begin a new life. And when you get right down to it, isn’t that what we all want both for ourselves and for those whom we love — to walk out of those harsh prisons of our own making and to be truly free, bearing forgiveness because we have first found forgiveness here in the embrace of the Crucified One?
Many of you have probably seen the movie version of Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile. It’s a powerful story about the triumph of sacrificial love. But the movie version leaves out an important scene from Stephen King’s bestseller. The character narrating this story presides over executions in a Depression-era prison. After one of these executions goes badly, he has trouble going to sleep and begins to think about the churches of his youth. And this is what he remembers:
. . . the concept of atonement came up as regularly as the toll of the bell which called the faithful to worship. Only God could forgive sins, could and did, washing them away in the agonal blood of His crucified Son, but that did not change the responsibility of His children to atone for those sins (and even their simple errors of judgement) whenever possible. Atonement was powerful; it was the lock on the door you closed against the past.
I like that as a description of Good Friday — the lock on the door you close against the past — and I think it gives us a good way to understand our celebration of the resurrection this morning. If Good Friday locks the door to the past, then Easter Day unlocks the door to the future. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann has written:
When the fear of death disappears the fear of life disappears too . . . Hope for the resurrection of the body is not merely a hope for the hour of death; it is a hope for all the hours of life from the first to the last.
Easter isn’t merely about a new life that begins after death. It’s also about a new life that begins right now. And that’s good news not only for Anthony Ray Hinton but also for you . . . today.
2 BACK TO POST Abby Phillip, “Alabama inmate free after three decades on death row. How the case against him unraveled,” The Washington Post, April 3, 2015.
3 BACK TO POST Phillip.
4 BACK TO POST Blinder.
5 BACK TO POST Mark 16:6-7.
6 BACK TO POST Mark 16:8.
7 BACK TO POST Melanie Posey, “Anthony Ray Hinton released after nearly 30 years on death row,” WBRC, Birmingham, Alabama, April 3, 2015.
8 BACK TO POST Posey.
9 BACK TO POST Phillip.
10 BACK TO POST Blinder.
11 BACK TO POST Stephen King, The Green Mile (New York: Scribner, 2000) 243.
12 BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltman, The Way of Jesus Christ (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 266-267.
This was my view of the inside of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, before the 9:00 a.m. liturgy on Easter Day. It was a joyous celebration of the Lord’s resurrection and the new creation that it heralds. On a lesser note, not only did the “alleluias” and flowers return but also seersucker suits and white bucks.
The Exsultet, from the liturgy for the Great Vigil of Easter, sung after the kindling of the new fire and the lighting of the Paschal Candle:
Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels,
and let your trumpets shout Salvation
for the victory of our mighty King.
Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.
Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church,
and let your holy courts, in radiant light,
resound with the praises of your people.
All you who stand near this marvelous and holy flame,
pray with me to God the Almighty
for the grace to sing the worthy praise of this great light;
through Jesus Christ his Son our Lord,
who lives and reigns with him,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give him thanks and praise.
It is truly right and good, always and everywhere,
with our whole heart and mind and voice, to praise you,
the invisible, almighty, and eternal God,
and your only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord;
for he is the true Paschal Lamb, who at the feast of the Passover
paid for us the debt of Adam’s sin,
and by his blood delivered your faithful people.
This is the night, when you brought our fathers,
the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt,
and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.
This is the night, when all who believe in Christ
are delivered from the gloom of sin,
and are restored to grace and holiness of life.
This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell,
and rose victorious from the grave.
How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God,
is your mercy and loving-kindness to us,
that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.
How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight,
and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen,
and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred,
and brings peace and concord.
How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined
and man is reconciled to God.
Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice,
the offering of this candle in your honor.
May it shine continually to drive away all darkness.
May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting,
find it ever burning — he who gives his light to all creation,
and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
The Collect for Holy Saturday from the Book of Common Prayer:
O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the cruciﬁed body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence, and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captive Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
Yet, there was one large omission that set all other truth dangerously at risk: the omission of holy rest. The refusal to be silent. The obsessive avoidance of emptiness. The denial of any experience and any people in the least bit suggestive of godforsakenness.
It was far more than an annual ignorance on Holy Saturday; it was religiously fueled, weekly arrogance. . . . God was background to our business. Every gospel truth was maintained intact and all the human energy was wholly admirable, but the rhythms were all wrong, the proportions wildly skewed. Desolation – and with it companionship with the desolate, from first-century Semites to twentieth-century Indians – was all but wiped from consciousness.
But there came a point at which I was convinced that it was critically important to pay more attention to what God does than what I do; to find daily, weekly, yearly rhythms that would get that awareness into my bones. Holy Saturday for a start. And then, times to visit people in despair, and learn their names, and wait for resurrection.