I woke up Easter Sunday in a mood. The previous evening, Stephen and I had attended the late service at Trinity Episcopal Church, and everything had come together for me in an exhilarating way. Witnessing the preparation and lighting of the Paschal candle and the passing of the flame to hand-held candles in the congregation, listening to those old familiar psalms, hymns, and readings from Genesis and Ezekiel, and hearing our competent choir, accomplished organist, and phenomenal preacher, I basked in the lovely ambiance that these elements of worship had created. I have for decades been involved in liturgical service. I recently resigned from altar service, where I have held every lay role, but I continue with my sacristy duty. Being in community with my friends and fellow parishioners as we celebrated the First Eucharist of Easter had resurrected some of my old faith.
But I woke up Easter Sunday in a mood. I mostly kept my silence as Stephen and I shared our Sunday Easter buffet with another resident and his caregiver here in the dining room of our independent living community. Somehow, despite promising beginnings, something had gotten me down. As we made our way out of the dining area, I passed a table where our nearby neighbors in the complex were just beginning their buffet after Easter Sunday church.
“Halleluja, the Lord has risen,” proclaimed Lucy, as I stopped by her chair to greet her.
“Yes, Christ has risen,” I replied.
<<pause>> “And?!” Lucy asked firmly.
Granted I was in a mood, and not entirely tuned in to social requirements, I did, through the murk, grasp what Lucy wanted me to say. It is traditional, it is mandatory for a Christian to reply to such a request, “The Lord has Risen, indeed!” So the first thing to come out of my mouth was not that required phrase, but “Halleluja!” even though I had already proclaimed that sentiment.
Lucy was going to have her validation from me. “And?!” She made the “A” in “And” into a diphthong.
My name was “Thomas” as I finally coughed up the required affirmation: “Oh. The Lord has risen indeed.” Not much of an exclamation point on that, but it did get me past Lucy’s table.
I’ve written a lot about this topic, so I’m cutting to the bare bones of the situation here. My befuddled, hesitant state of mind gives the expression “stuck between a rock and a hard place” new meaning. Because for me, despite decades of sincere seeking, rolling that rock away from the tomb and finding it empty is a hard place for me to be. After years of contemplating the problem, I have come to the realization that I am never going to find Jesus Christ, our Lord, in the past. The historical record is never going to show this to me, rather, it is only possibly going to show me what the early Christians believed, and what they did about it. I’ve read the Gospels; I know the story(ies). I have the picture. I just know too much about scientific inquiry—which I defend and prize—to think that the picture is historically accurate.
My own faith is based on a conversion experience I had 45 years ago. I renounced my parents’ Christianity at age 17 and proclaimed my commitment to scientific thinking. I had a hell of a time coming to grips with my sexual orientation and gender identity, but did finally manage to come out at age 31. It was the early 70s, and I entered the emerging gay and lesbian popular culture, all the while attempting to succeed as an assistant professor. One of my new gay friends dared me to go to the Metropolitan Community Church branch that had started up in St. Louis. I did, and was severly conflicted about my response to an altar call there: I wanted to go up and confess my sins. But I didn’t; instead I brought it up in group therapy that week. My wise counselor said to me, “Put God out there in the chair and talk to Him.” So I had a public dialog with God on the spot. In the end, my counselor suggested that I had nothing to lose by going through with the experience.
That is how I came to be born again. My actual confession and acceptance of Jesus Christ as my savior was not spectacular, but after I had been back in my seat for a few minutes, the most amazing thing happened. I had a vision. There before me was the huge hand of God, reaching down from above and offering itself to me. I climbed onto God’s hand, my legs and feet dangling between God’s fingers, and as I leaned back against the Palm of this Hand, my whole being was suffused with a sense of complete peace. The image evaporated fairly quickly, but I carried that sense of peace and safety around for weeks. Everything had changed; I even saw light in pictures differently.
Now many other things have formed my spiritual understanding. There is my parents’ faithful Christian instruction to me in my early years. There’s my belief in and love of things scientific. There’s my conversion, baptism, and nearly a decade in first the Metropolitan Community Church and then Christ Fellowship of Love. There’s my exploration of New Age culture in the early 80s. There’s my meeting and marriage to Stephen Nichols, a former Jesuit scholar. There’s our 35 years of faithful attendance at Trinity Episcopal Church. There’s my years of reading and studying philosophy, my 40 years of tai chi practice and my 35 years of meditation in the Self-Realization Fellowship.
But of all these many influences and experiences, the one event that has most colored my spiritual understanding is that blessed day when I courageously walked to the front of the theatre in the back of the old Theosophical building at 5108 Waterman that had become the home of Metropolitan Community Church in the early 70s, and confessed that I, like all other human beings, was imperfect, guilty of sin, and I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior. Eventually, the Rev. Roy Birchard baptized me near the Cannon in Forest Park at Easter sunrise service on April 15, 1979, and so this Easter marked the 40th Anniversary of that event.
I still believe that I experienced the peace and blessing of God, God’s grace, through that initial act of confession and repentance. Yet even from that beginning, my vision was of God, not of Jesus Christ—this God that all we humans either recognize or reject at some points in our lives. As a professed Christian, I still hadn’t done the final work of experiencing the Divine nature of the man, Jesus Christ.
Here is my takeaway from this. My life is in God’s hands. I’m not so arrogant as to think I have any idea of whether the life I have lead measures up to some human standard, and by that I include human conceptions of what a good person is. Many people value Christianity because it promises “eternal life.” I frankly do not care about eternal life. I trust that God created me as a part of life on an evolving planet, and I just hope that I will be completely recycled when my breath fails me. I do, however, try to live my life in the shadow of Jesus Christ in some very broad, meaningful ways.
Poor, dear Stephen—who puts up with all my philosophical palaver—had to help me wade out of my mood on Easter Day. On Monday, I was taking him to a chiropractor’s appointment, up I-270 to Olive Blvd. In the midst of this drive I say to him, “So it is a metaphor, right?!”
“What’s a metaphor?” he replies.
I told him the story about Lucy, and her insistence on my confirming the statement, “Christ is risen.” “Surely,” I say, “that is meant as a metaphor.” Stephen mostly listened as I sorted out not what it means to say “Halleluja, Christ is risen, indeed,” but rather, what it means to say that that statement is a metaphor.
First of all, there can be no denying that for some people, the statement is more than a metaphor. It is of course an affirmation of faith, but more than that, for some people, it is an affirmation of the literal truth of the Apostles’ Creed: Christ died, descended to hell, rose on the third day, ascended into Heaven, sits at the right hand of God, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. And for some it is an affirmation that if only we will believe in the truth of this and attempt to adjust our wills to God’s will, we, too, will have eternal life in this same very body that we were born in.
I can’t believe in that. And furthermore, that is not what my spiritual conversion is about. By the way, I could believe in the resurrection of the body. Through science. We are very close to giving people eternal life. Not only have we mapped the human genome, but through crisper editing of genes, we can precisely adjust it. I actually think that eternal life is possible in more than one way. Some day, we may be able to store our minds in the cloud and operate a robotic simulation of our physical body from that mind-cloud. I actually can see that happening. So it’s not because I think resurrection is impossible that I can’t believe the Apostles’ Creed and the Christian doctrine of eternal life in Christ. It’s rather that I think these ancient statements of faith are merely crude approximations of the truth. And this truth can only be understood through metaphor, rather than literally.
So what metaphor can I believe in? I do believe that I am a part of the body of a metaphorical Christ, and the only reason I am, is that I have put my mind to being Christ’s eyes and hands in this world. I quickly add that I say this, but I often fail to follow through. I also attend a church that celebrates Eucharist as a normal part of mass—the remembrance of the Lord’s supper, when Jesus Christ washed the feet of his disciples as an example of how those who would follow him should behave. Each time I do this with my community, I am stating my solidarity with each of them in intending to be Christ’s eyes and hands in this world.
I do believe that this body of Christ exists because more than a billion people put their mind to being Christ’s eyes and hands in this world. Those of us who claim to be Christian, even though our images of Christ are as diverse as the colors of a rainbow, come together insofar as we put our minds to this task. Unfortunately, we often forget that other human beings come together in the name of Buddha or Mohammed or Abraham, and that in so doing, become another part of God’s body in the world.
My metaphorical Christ is famous for washing the feet of his followers, for denouncing the political domain and calling attention to the spiritual domain, for praising the good samaritan, for rejoicing upon the return of the wayward son, for caring for and healing the sick despite religious convention, for lovingly listening to both women and men, for taking time to spend in communion with God, and for kicking the money lenders, who feasted on the poverty of the people, out of the temple. Also, my metaphorical Christ is half Mary, half Jesus. My metaphorical Christ has risen out of the common wills of his once and still living disciples.
Surely to God, this phrase, “Halleluja, Christ is risen,” refers to a metaphorical Christ, that Christ who lives through the actions of those who put their eyes and hands in service to God in the Christian tradition. Halleluja, the Lord is risen in deed.