Before I tell you what I see in the Easter Maybe Crowd, I should tell you about my perch. I am minister at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square. Judson is a post denominational, post Christian, doubt friendly, arts friendly, queer friendly, congregation of 200 people whose heart is a little bit to the left. It’s a place with a big past, a medium sized present, and a great future, especially if you are somewhat allergic to what most people think is religion.
On Wednesday nights, congregants gather to make bleach kits to help reduce the harm of drug use. What’s wrong with Judson is related to what is right with Judson: we can be arrogant. We also sometimes look down on the religions of our births, particularly those of us from Southern or Midwestern fundamentalism. Reactivity joins arrogance from time to time to make Judson a less than Christ like place.
My personal perch is somewhat unusual as well. I am ordained 34 years as a United Church of Christ Minister (think Congregationalists landing on the Mayflower rock.) I am married to a man who is Jewish and have raised three children both ways. One has just married a rabbi-to-be and is living in Israel. We spent Christmas Day this year in Bethlehem, Palestine; he wore a T-shirt that says “Real Men Marry Rabbis.” Suffice it to say that I am a monotheist who doesn’t think anybody has the real take on God. I have a small perch, am a theological miniaturist, and represent progressive Christianity at its most immodest. Like Judson itself, I immodestly make modest claims about God’s identity.
Judson people often think I am too conservative. I remind myself frequently ever so much of the two-framed letters I once kept on my wall. One was from Tikkun magazine, rejecting a piece I had sent, saying that my writing was too Christian; the other from Christian Century saying that my writing was too Jewish. I often think of the great Christian writer Madeline L’Engle, who just died. Editors told her when she first tried to sell her best selling book, A Wrinkle In Time, that it was too juvenile for adults and too adult for juveniles. I like these kinds of cracks in the literary and theological pavement. I live in one of them.
Thus, when Judson and I come to Easter, you will not find triumphalism. You will hear us sing the big hymns, “The Strife is o’er, the Battle won, Our Victory Over Death is Done” but we sing them the way we sing blood hymns, with more irony than sincerity. We are not so washed in the blood of the Lamb.
I used to call the sort of Christians who come to services on only the highest of holidays, get the best music, wear their best clothes, see the best flowers, take up the best seats in the crowded sanctuary, only to abandon the rest of us to pick up the heat bills, custodial service and high comic drama of church administration, the “Easter Only Crowd.” These are people who “skim” the spiritual.
From this perch I watch Easter Sunday come every year and smile, appreciatively. Very few people (and I don’t just mean the Judson abnormals and myself) really believe the Easter story. It is just too preposterous. Death done? Life begun? Immortality? There is neither much evidence nor is the scriptural evidence itself more than a couple of threads. For a long time I knew that most people didn’t believe, but I thought I did.
I was pontificating about my superiority once at a retreat. Mercifully, my spiritual coach bloodied me. She expressed concern that I had become holier-than-thou on the matter of Easter belief and much more. Ouch.
I don’t like skimmers. I like people who are more passionate, even if they are only passionate in their reactivity or arrogance. Pale people worry me. Intense people interest me. My coach changed me. She made room in my pale judgmental regularity for seeker irregularity, in me and in “them.” I made room also for the rookie, the amateur, and the partially connected and committed in the inner me. I was self-righteous: in a “Me Tarzan, you Jane” modality with regards to religious ritual. My “expertise” did not warm easily to “their” ignorance. I fashioned myself a veteran; they were novices. At least I knew what I did and did not believe, I said to myself; these people were tentatively testing their ignorance. Did we really have to sing the Messiah again when the literature also had Buxtehude for Easter? Don’t we get enough of Handel’s major chords on Christmas in the Messiah? Can’t we have a few minor chords too?
As it develops, these “sophistications” were elaborate self-protections. The question that turned and changed me was not about sophistication of ritual; it was about the “maybe” of my own belief.
On this retreat, I discovered lots about my own faith. It was a bit moldy. It required six years of graduate study to understand. It was youth averse. It was risk averse. It was full of pretensions to faith and not to belief itself. It required an enormous number of stage props. And it took too long to explain. No body had time for the three biblical passages on the Resurrection and how they differed in the four gospels. No one cared if the Emmaus passage was my favorite.
For that matter, no one really understood how much it scared me spiritually that the biggest story of my faith was based on so very, very little testimony. Why Emmaus? Because breakfast meetings I can understand. The story of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples at breakfast and their being strangely “warmed” made sense to me. It was the right size claim that people felt a presence while cooking a fish at dawn beside a lake.
I still had no way to explain the “resurrection of the body” at all. Neither Nicene nor Apostle’s creed explained it for me so how could I explain it to others? When the organ pumped out “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and blasted away at the consecutive Hallelujahs, I mostly liked the organ and the ascending hallelujahs. They raise me. It wasn’t just the majesty. The fact that Handel composed this big hymn in the 16th century matters to me. I still want to tell you that I am singing with people who have been singing for hundreds of years. If we also do the Palestrina, we can go back even further. Its paced Alleluia assures me that the strife is over, the battle won. The Passover of gladness has arrived. I still want to tell you how linked Easter is to Passover and Maundy Thursday Eucharist to Seder meal, I want to go on and on about the density and layers of the long weekend. I want to tell you more about the density than death, more about the desire for life than life. I don’t want to tell you how little I truly believe about the song that I truly sing.
Now with more respect I call the “Easter Only Crowd” the “Easter Maybe Crowd.”
We belt out the news that death has lost its sting and we support our song with flowers and the like to help ourselves believe what is clearly either not true or only mysteriously so. We imagine that we are going to be brought safe through Jordan, and in imagination possibility rises.
Am I really a stranger to the Easter Maybe Crowd? No, with apologies to the foul Falwellians who are now assured I am damned to hell. Damnation confirms me in my doubt and hateful certainty disgusts me. And what about my co-regulars? Are we really strangers to the Easter Maybe crowd? I think just the opposite. We are all toe dippers in a mystery as large as the sting of death, and as grand. I have learned that the true outsider on Easter morn is me. I stand at the stoned-close grave and knock. I stand there with all the others who hope it is true. And in our hoping, we make it true.
ContributorRev. Dr. Donna Schaper
The Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is Pastor at the Orient Congregational Church and the author of 37 books, most recently IheartFrances: Love letters from an unlikely Admirer.