Were You There? Metaphoric Imagery and Jesus’ Passion

I have often used metaphoric imagery in marriage counseling, especially premarital counseling. I ask the couple to close their eyes and picture themselves as a person, animal, place, or thing. They are asked to see themselves in as much detail as possible. What colors do they see? What are they doing? When they finish picturing themselves, I ask them to picture their spouse, or spouse-to-be. What are they – a person, animal, place, or thing? What are they doing in as much detail as possible? Then, lastly, I ask them to put the two pictures together, the image of themselves and the image of their partner, and picture what kind of interaction is taking place, again with as much detail as possible.

It amazes me what people say. Frankly, the couple usually remembers this exercise much more clearly than any other thing I use in counseling. This is what they end up talking about week after week. It truly is a metaphoric image of who they are separately and who they are together. It sparks great conversation. The use of metaphoric imagery has been on my mind a lot this week as I have pondered Jesus’ last days before the resurrection. Where would have been in the crowd? What person do I most resemble in the cast of characters? Would I be a sobbing Mary, a grieving John, a jeering priest, a penitent or impenitent thief, a soldier doing my gruesome duty? Would I dare to say that I feel like Jesus?

So, using metaphoric imagery and a sanctified imagination, make yourself think about the question: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? That’s the name of an important Lenten hymn for this Holy Week. I want us to imagine what it must have been like to be present on Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, when Jesus was crucified. Too often I jump from Palm Sunday’s loud Hosanna’s to Easter’s Alleluia’s without really plumbing the depths of Jesus’ suffering, and it shortchanges the whole point of it all: Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. He died for yours and mine. It begs the question: What does that mean?

So, all the more, I want to visualize and feel what Jesus went through for us, for me. If I could make you, I would ask that you close your eyes during this whole exercise, but you can wait until I prompt you at the end. Use your five senses of smell, hearing, touch, taste, and sight to make the events of Jesus’ last hours real. What smells would you smell if you were there that fateful day? Some scholars have said that Golgotha was the city’s trash dump as it was located outside Jerusalem’s city gates. Do you smell the refuse and debris, the garbage, and the stench? Some have said that there are times that you can smell death in the air. Some have experienced this casually during a drive in a car. Others of us have smelled it with the passing of family members, or in other life-threatening perilous situations. Do you smell death on this executioner’s hill? Of course, you do. Others say that you can also smell fear. Can you smell Jesus’ fear, the criminals’ fear beside him, Mary’s? I smell it even now. Pure unadulterated fear. What do you smell? Ponder it. Smell it. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you hear? What sounds come to mind? Do you hear the hammers clanging on the nails driven into multiple hands and feet? Do you hear the screams of those who were tortured? Can you hear the awful sound of the soldiers breaking the legs of the two men hanging beside Jesus? Do you hear Jesus’ 7 last sentences: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” (My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?) and hear the weight of feeling utterly abandoned; Jesus saying from the cross to his disciple John, “Behold your mother,” taking care of his dear mother Mary, along with his saying to Mary, “Behold your son,” giving her a new son-like relationship in the person of this beloved disciple?

Do you hear Jesus saying “I thirst,” and sense the dryness of his voice; do you hear his words of assurance to the penitent thief beside him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” even in the midst of the two thieves’ harsh banter; can you listen to Jesus say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” to the crowd looking on. Can you imagine his strength to be able to ask forgiveness for his executioners? Can you hear the love and grace in his voice? Do you hear his last words, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and “It is finished.” Do you hear the release and resignation that these sentences convey?

Do you hear the soldiers mocking him, the priests jeering, and the crowd daring him to call down heaven’s host to set him free? Do you hear the clink and rattle of dice as the soldiers gambled for his garments? Do you hear the thunder and storm, and the centurion’s declaration as he saw the heaven’s weep, “Truly, this man was the Son of God?” What do you hear? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you feel? What textures come to mind? The wood of the cross is coarse so be careful of splinters. The ropes that were used to raise the cross and set it in place were also rough. Ropes also bound his limbs to the cross as the nails were driven in. Do you feel the cold metal of the nails as they pierced his skin? Do you feel the texture of the cloth of Jesus’ outer garments as the soldiers divided them? Do you feel the textures of the myriad people, flesh and clothes of all kinds, from Simon of Cyrene to me and you, pressing in from all sides? Do you feel the ridges of the blood stains as they settled upon his flayed skin from tip to toe, a thorn-crowned forehead all the way down to his pierced feet? What textures do you feel? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you taste? Do you taste Jesus’ parched lips and their cracked dryness? Do you taste the perspiration? And if someone can smell death, they can also taste desperation. Do you feel how thick the desperation is in the air, and in the people’s hearts? Can you taste the blood? We all have been socked in the mouth at some point, or have bitten our lip, drawing blood. Can you taste the iron-like warmth and its bitterness as the blood flowed that day? What do you taste? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you see? Close your eyes now for sure. What colors do you see? Red, brown, white, blue, or the deepest darkest gray? Look over the crowd. Who stands out? Surely you see the three crosses and the men upon them. You see the sign over Jesus’ head and the INRI, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Can you see the priests, the women, Mary, and John? What do you see? Who do you see? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

With eyes still closed, where are you on Golgotha?

Easter Needed Early: Marian Dyer

Yesterday made me shrink before the mystery of death. I attended the funeral of one our pastors, Marian Woodle Dyer, age 53, who fought a courageous battle against cancer. She was always so positive and full of faith. I preached a revival for her last fall and sensed an overwhelming expression of how much she was loved by the congregation at Mt. Pleasant. We celebrated her life yesterday and we rejoiced in Christ. The pain of loss is real and I especially grieve for her husband Mike and teenage daughter Adrianne. I know today is Maundy Thursday but I need Easter before Sunday comes. I need the mystery of death defeated and unraveled by the deeper mystery of Easter

Someone once said that God’s incarnation in Jesus was just as the Apostle John phrased it in his Gospel, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” and theologians have been trying to explain it away ever since.” If Christmas is beyond the ability of human language to adequately explain, then the mystery of Easter is totally out of reach. As a matter of fact, our attempts to explain the unexplainable may even detract from the miraculous news of Jesus’ resurrection.

In this vein, St. Francis once said, “Listen, my child, each year at Easter I used to watch Christ’s resurrection. All the faithful would gather around His tomb and weep, weep inconsolably, beating on the ground to make it open. And behold! In the midst of our lamentations the tombstone crumbled to pieces and Christ sprang from the earth and ascended to heaven, smiling at us and waving a white banner. There was only one year I did not see Him resurrected. That year a theologian of consequence, a graduate of the University of Bologna, came to us. He mounted the pulpit in church and began to elucidate the Resurrection for hours on end. He explained and explained until our heads began to swim; and that year the tombstone did not crumble, and, I swear to you, no one saw the Resurrection.”

Therefore, let’s leave Easter as it is: the most marvelous mystery imaginable. It is beyond our comprehension that death can be conquered, that evil can be overcome, that justice can roll down like a river, and that peace will someday reign in God’s kingdom. But, we believe in spite of our grief, our frustration, our lack of empirical evidence, and the gnawing fear in our gut that faith is but a sham.

Jim Harnish, a pastor friend from the Florida Annual Conference, told the story of a little boy who was, “not exactly happy about going to church on Easter Sunday morning. His new shoes were too tight, his tie pinched his neck and the weather was just too beautiful to be cooped up inside … As he sulked in the back seat, his parents heard him mutter: ‘I don’t know why we have to go to church on Easter, anyway; they keep telling the same old story and it always comes out the same in the end.’”

This attitude reminds me of a book I read several years ago about the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a revisionist history of the battle by Newt Gingrich, of all people and this is no political advertisement. Author Harry Turtledove has other revisionist histories of the Civil War that are also interesting, but what made Gingrich’s Gettysburg so fascinating is that General Robert E. Lee acts decisively and wins. That’s a switch for any Southerner who has visited this site of such abject defeat. I have a love-hate relationship with visiting Gettysburg. I had ancestors who fought there, and I know they left defeated and broken. No matter how many times I visit I know the outcome. There are a lot more Yankee monuments than Southern ones because the winners usually have more reason and more money to do such things. Nevertheless, even though I know how Gettysburg always comes out, the trek is worth it. Its pivotal role in American history is without precedent.

Similarly, I keep coming back to church for more of the same at Easter. The message, though always the same, is one that I need to hear, some years more so than others, and this is one of those years. Easter is the penultimate hinge in history, cosmically and personally. Thank God it always ends the same. That’s a sameness that I can bank on year after year, day after day, and minute after minute, and I’m glad! Today I’m especially glad for all of us who will miss Marian Dyer.

Advent Signs

One of the signs of hope for me personally this Advent is that the South Carolina Delegation has endorsed me to be their Episcopal Nominee. Today is the day that their website for me, www.timmcclendon.org, is being launched. I am grateful for all of their hard work in doing this. This is a great reminder of Christ’s never-ending work in our lives, and one of the best Christmas gifts ever for me. Thank you to all!

This reminds me of a very significant Thanksgiving that we observed 3 years ago. We were at Cindy’s mother’s house and we feasted and reminisced about former days. As I was walking around in the yard before we left I noticed the stump of the old oak tree that had stood for centuries beside the house. After Hugo ripped up another of the ancient giants and ice storms decimated the rest, it seemed a good idea to cut down this hazard that was located precariously close to the house. All that had been left for several years was a huge stump.

I’m sure the transformation took place gradually, but that Saturday it was undeniably apparent. The old stump that had once looked weather beaten and forlorn was alive. It was sprouting new shoots, live branches of hope into the gray sky. They were at least four feet tall and climbing. The serendipity of the find gave me pause to think about life and its changes. We go through lifeless seasons of scarring and barrenness, and then Jesus’ power causes us to sprout again. Even when it seems like life is over, Jesus can resurrect us. There is no damage that Jesus can’t undo!

Another serendipitous occasion over that Thanksgiving holiday was the arrival at my mother-in-law’s of a cute little beagle. Mrs. Godwin had enjoyed her two cats, but she had sorely missed the Boykin spaniel that she and Mr. Godwin mutually adored. Bud was the dog that they loved so much. Bud enjoyed riding in the pickup with Mr. Godwin and lying down at Mrs. Godwin’s feet. He was so old he started to edge closer and closer to death’s door, but, because he was so much a reminder of Mr. Godwin’s life, Mrs. Godwin spared no expense in vet bills to keep Bud going, especially after Mr. Godwin’s untimely death. However, one day he just disappeared, either stolen or instinctually or purposely wandering off to die in order to spare Mrs. Godwin another grief.

Other dogs had come and gone before Bud: Brio, and Britt, to name a few. You probably noticed that all their names started with the letter “B.” So one’s imagination wouldn’t have to work overtime to figure out what new name this foundling beagle was granted: Barney. Mrs. Godwin, living by herself, had said repeatedly that she wanted another dog but she didn’t have the desire or physical stamina to train one for the house. Well, God does work in mysterious ways. Barney was already house-broken, had quite a menacing bark for a dog with his diminutive size, and quickly learned to use the “dog door” that Mr. Godwin installed some time before his death. Once again, when we least expected it, just like the old tree stump’s new shoots, new life enters our pain and gives us hope.

Advent season can be a similar experience for us frail time-bound human creatures. Last year our family didn’t even put up a Christmas tree because we were too overwhelmed by personal concerns in the aftermath of Mrs. Godwin’s sudden death and Narcie’s brain tumor. This year, determined to open our hearts to Jesus’ power to bring new life, we have put up our decorations weeks earlier than usual. Instead of retreating into worry, which is more my problem and not Cindy’s, Advent dares us to advance toward God’s in-breaking kingdom, whether it comes in the form of new shoots out of a seemingly dead stump, a new puppy, or a new website. May this Advent bring you inspired hope. Join me in looking for the signs!

Heaven: Here, There, and Everywhere

I was on the phone yesterday with an old friend who is battling cancer. Most of you also know the prolonged anxiety we feel with Narcie’s brain tumor, and a year ago last week my brother died on his birthday. Two years ago next week, Cindy’s Mom died suddenly. In the throes of thinking about mortality and eternal life I once again have been struck with the vestiges of my recent trip to Nicaragua.

In the midst of abject poverty and high mortality rates, they were some of the most hopeful people I’ve ever met. I know some people think about the afterlife too much, so much so that they are described as being so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good. Our faith is for the here and now, and eternal life starts with our first breath. It gives us hope and the wherewithal to make a difference in the present while giving us an anchor in God’s future.           

Karl Marx thought that religion was the “opium for the masses,” a panacea to help the common human being escape reality. He thought that real help should come from an energized proletariat, not religious dreamers. Well, communism is dead and religion thrives. Marx’s assessment of faith didn’t do it justice. Faith provides more than a temporary fix. It is eternal!

However, many people, obsessed with the here and now, attempt to find fulfillment solely in earthly ways. Things of the Spirit and visions of eternity are foreign to them. To them it is this world that matters most so why be concerned with something for which we have no evidence? They say that eternal life is “pie-in-the-sky,” a human creation only accepted because it’s been endorsed by so many people.

On the other hand, there are those who do indeed believe that there’s a heaven, a better place, and that it’s better than we dare imagine. I’ve seen these people die and have watched their faces exhibit a special grace that makes it appear that they’re already seeing things that we can’t see on this side of eternity. To die at peace is a great solace. I sincerely think that the hope of heaven contributes to this sense of ease. This is the difference that Christ inaugurates; our faith is a foretaste of final victory.

It is as Kenneth L. Woodward wrote in a 1999 Newsweek article entitled, “2000 Years of Jesus,” “To a world ruled by fate and the whims of capricious gods, Christianity brought the promise of everlasting life. At the core of the Christian faith was the assertion that the crucified Jesus was resurrected by God and present in the church as ‘the body of Christ.’ The message was clear: By submitting to death, Jesus had destroyed its power, thereby making eternal life available to everyone. This Christian affirmation radically changed the relationship between the living and the dead as Greeks and Romans understood it. For them, only the gods were immortal – that’s what made them gods. Philosophers might achieve immortality of the soul, as Plato taught, but the view from the street was that human consciousness survived in the dim and affectless underworld of Hades. ‘The Resurrection is an enormous answer to the problem of death,’ says Notre Dame theologian John Dunne. ‘The idea is that the Christian goes with Christ through death to everlasting life. Death becomes an event, like birth, that is lived through.’”          

This eternal perspective certainly changes our here-and-now outlook, too. C.S. Lewis had it right when he said: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men and women of the church who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one. Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you will get neither.”


Ganny & Gandaddy

My mother-in-law, Dixie Godwin, died Sunday and was buried yesterday. My two children, Narcie and Josh, who are both United Methodist Ministers did the service. My youngest, Caleb, was a pall-bearer. Ganny, as Narcie named her years ago would have been so proud. The service was perfect! Ganny has been at Agape Rehab 3 miles from Cindy’s school since the first of February. They were marvelous to her and I cannot thank them enough.

Ganny was a wonderful mother to Cindy and Guyeth, and mother-in-law to Rob and me. There could not have been a better grandmother to Narcie, Josh, Caleb, Lindsay, Doug and her great-grandchildren, Enoch and Evy. She lived her faith and enjoyed life. She had so many friends and a colony of “lost boys” to whom she was a surrogate mother. She was extraordinary in so many ways. As much as we will miss her, her decline reminds us how blessed we were that she was still “with it” until she died suddenly on Sunday. They had told her Friday that she had some form of leukemia and were preparing her for treatments. We wouln’t have wanted her to suffer any more, but she lived life to the full until the end. She made friends out of every nurse and adapted to life’s changes with a God-given grace that was amazing.
Two weeks ago tomorrow we took her to see the movie “Julie & Julia.” She loved it! She was a story-teller and librarian. She and Gandaddy were truly educators. They both taught us how to live and die. They’re together again as they should be. They have left a legacy for all of us, and we’re thankful.

Good Friday to Easter!

>Death bothers me. Some deaths take an even greater toll than usual, as if there’s anything usual about death. I guess that I have seen somewhere around 600 people take their last breath, including my mother and father. Some people die easier than others. Thank God for Hospice. Nevertheless, a few deaths have bewildered me and turned time on its head. Some I saw die and with others I was there for the aftermath.

I think of Brittany Anne Gudger who I watched die in her mother’s arms at eighteen months. Dale Owen comes to mind who died in junior high when his four-wheeler hit a guy-wire connected to a telephone pole. He was one of the best left-handed pitchers I ever saw. His mom buried him with his pager so that she could call his number every day just to soothe her sorrow. I think about Wayne Threatte, a friend and former parishioner, who died too young as a 45 year-old. His last words to me were, “I’m going to be alright.” Well, I wasn’t even if Wayne was. Holly Alford’s death was a shock, too. She was 12 when she drowned in a freak accident when she and her mom hydroplaned into a ditch during a downpour. She was an only child. The list could go on and on. Death and grief care are perhaps a pastor’s heaviest burden. Parishioners rightfully become your family.

My only solace is the same solace that I offer to others: JESUS. Easter’s proclamation is the most profound news of all time. Jesus lives! Because He lives so do Brittany Anne, Dale, Wayne, Holly, Chuck, Mr. Godwin, Bill, Lois, Jean, Bob, Etah, and all the rest who have died in Christ. There’s not one soul in Christ left in the grave. How do I know this? Here’s the answer via a story that some claim is true: A man was standing in line at the bank when there was a commotion at the counter. A woman was distressed, exclaiming, “Where will I put my money?! I have all my money and my mortgage here!! What will happen to my mortgage?!” It turned out that she had misunderstood a small sign on the counter. The sign read, WE WILL BE CLOSED FOR GOOD FRIDAY. I guess Easter was not uppermost in her thoughts, because she thought that the bank was going to close “for good” that coming Friday.

Death’s depository of despair was closed on Good Friday. That day Christ took upon Himself all of the pain, sadness, heartache, and sin of the entire world. He endured crucifixion to conquer death. Death came into the world as a result of sin, “The wages of sin is death.” Jesus closed death’s bank on Good Friday because He had never sinned. Since He didn’t sin, death couldn’t hold Him. His resurrection on Easter is proof of His triumph and it is the proof that we can triumph, too. When we ask for forgiveness and believe that Jesus died for our sins that means we believe that just as much as He died for our sins He also rose for lives. No wonder worship for the first believers quickly changed from Saturday/Sabbath to Sunday. Since Jesus rose on a Sunday, the first day of the week would forever be a reenactment of Easter. This Sunday is the biggest reenactment of the year. If your faith needs a boost, your grief some solace, and your sins a white flag, then Easter is your day!