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?

Taps or Reveille?

I don’t think that it ever hit me until this week how our country went from triumph to tragedy so quickly 150 years ago. On Palm Sunday 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse to Ulysses S. Grant of the Union Army, effectively ending the American Civil War. Five days later, on Good Friday 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot and died the next day. A horrible war with brother against brother, state against state was capped by another horror. From triumph to tragedy in just a few days.

I am looking out my study window right now and can see the graves of 26 Union soldiers who died 5 weeks before the Civil War ended. How awful to be so close to the end of the carnage and yet die. Historical accounts of the Battle of Aiken, SC on February 11, 1865 list 53 Union soldiers killed, 270 wounded and 172 captured for a total of 495 casualties for the North. On the Confederate side there were 31 killed, 160 wounded, and 60 captured for a total of 251 casualties. I cannot imagine the awful grief that gripped the families of these young men who died so close to the war’s end.

Jesus had his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday and five days later was killed on Good Friday, too. Both Jesus and Lincoln were killed, but Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois is occupied, and Jesus’ is empty. Nevertheless, I am struck to the core by the juxtaposition of life and faith. We live in a world of bad news, and yet we believe in Good News. We believe in a God who can go with us from the peak and valley of triumph to tragedy and still redeem it all for good. Today is Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

I just met with a mother whose child is in that in-between crucible of surgery and prognosis. So many of us have been on that roller-coaster ride between the peak of “We got it all,” and the valley of “There’s something suspicious.” Right now, two very special people, Revs. Chris and Elise Barrett, are on this roller-coaster and are facing it with a brave Easter faith that doesn’t gloss over the very real sense of mortality that so many seek to deny or avoid. Chris’ lymphoma has come back with a vengeance and he and Elise are doing the very best that they can to fill a bucket list of memories.

We all know people all over the world who are experiencing Good Friday crucifixions but try to live Sunday’s Easter faith. They are inspirations. For all who live in this tension between a won war and the tragedy of after-action casualties, we need to celebrate Easter all the more. Jesus rose from the dead with scars – pierced hands, feet, and side, to remind us that the reality of pain isn’t touched up by the makeup and brush of a mortician’s hand. Jesus continues to carry the marks of what life dealt him, but he is very much alive.

Therefore, we can all get on with our bucket lists and dare life to deal us its worst blows because God is the conqueror of death. Sure, we all would rather not have the pain of Good Friday, and would rather go peak to peak from Palm Sunday to Easter, but that’s not reality. The deaths that we die are not the way God wants it for God loves us so much that he would never cause us harm. Bad things are never God’s will (James 1:17), but what God does best is that through Jesus Christ he walks the solemn path with us, and defeats every foe. This is our life as Christians: triumph to tragedy to triumph, over and over again, but through Jesus the last scene will always be one of triumph, not the sounding of “Taps,” but “Reveille.”

Easter Is Personal!

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. Some deaths gut punch us in a very personal way. Every death diminshes humankind and the ripple effect pains us all in personal ways. Some hurt more than others though.

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 Gudger, Dale Owen, Wayne Threatte, Holly Alford, Mr. Godwin, Mrs. Godwin, Suzanne Godwin, Karl Alexander, Bob Newsom, Etah Fields, Carlee McClendon, Mama, Daddy, 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, through faith in Him. When we believe Jesus died for our sins that means we also believe He rose for our 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! The victory is won! Just as death is personal, so is Easter. I’m ready for a fresh experience of Easter! How about you?

Holy Week and Defining Moments

Some things just aren’t forgotten. Certain events, situations, or circumstances have such an impact on us that they are cosmic in scope. They become defining moments for us as individuals and as societies. These events are HUGE! These events become defining moments precisely because they hit each of us in personal visceral way. They may have affected everybody, but we know exactly where we were when they happened. Some of these events would have to include: Black Tuesday when the stock market crashed and started the Great Depression; the attack on Pearl Harbor that awakened the US to WWII; the bombing of Nagasaki that ended WWII but started nuclear anxiety; the assassination of JFK; the Shuttle explosions; Columbine; and, of course, 9/11.

Personal reaction is certainly a factor in measuring the scope of a disaster, but what makes the difference between a national crisis and something that isn’t is in the way the crisis transcends ethnicity and personal agendas. Crimes against humanity affect everyone. It should bother us all that the Holocaust happened and that racism still hounds people of color. Shouldn’t MLK’s death be included in the list of defining moments? Sensitivity to an event’s ripple effect makes one painfully aware that some things have not been taken as seriously as others.

For instance, Columbus Day celebrations for Italians mean something quite different to Native Americans. Defining moments for Native peoples might include the Trail of Tears, Chief Joseph’s capture, The Battle of the Little Big Horn, and the massacres at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 and February 28, 1973. The most infamous atrocity against Native Americans for United Methodists is the Sand Creek Massacre led by former Methodist minister, Col. John Chivington, on November 29, 1864.

So how do defining moments for Native Americans and others take on a larger cosmic dimension? There are some things that seem to affect only a few people but nonetheless are a crime against all of us. Is this awareness what separates a mere tragedy from a national or world tragedy? What makes for a defining moment is wrapped up in the extent of the event’s shock waves. In other words, if enough people feel the pain, we all feel it to a certain degree. Everybody, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, feels gut-punched when something like this happens. The broad emotional scope of certain events typically cuts across societal boundaries.

You may have seen the videotape done by the two brothers from France as the World Trade Center attack was unfolding. As the camera was moving down the street toward the tower complex did you notice the kaleidoscope of humanity? Different languages, different races, and different nationalities were united in fear and confusion. The war on terrorism reminds me of the movie, “Independence Day,” a patriotic sci-fi flick about all humanity, led, of course, by the USA, to seek common survival against extraterrestrial foes. It is chock full of the personal and cosmic dimensions of both pain and heroism.

True defining moments are both personal and cosmic. They dictate a personal and a common response. If individuals shirked their duty there would be no national or international resolve. Defining moments begin with individuals before they become group-think. If there were no brave individuals like Clarke Bynum fighting off a would-be hijacker, New York firefighters, or Flight 93 heroes willing to say, “Let’s roll!” then the world wouldn’t be as galvanized as it is against terrorism. Individuals cement common resolve that hopefully will expand last year’s Arab Spring to Syria, etc.

Palm Sunday was a solemn defining moment for fickle crowds that erupted into terrible cosmic consequences and the second most cosmic-impacting event happened on Good Friday, a day that was good for everyone but Jesus. The foremost defining moment, of course, is Easter! The disciples had to individually believe that Jesus was alive before Christianity had a chance to become a cosmos changing movement. Each of their individual defining moments snowballed into a salvific plan for the universe. My hope for Holy Week is that we will be so changed personally by Christ that the cosmos will yet feel its powerful impact. May this week be the defining moment for one and all!