God Above, Through, and In All

A Sermon by Don Erickson
Delivered at Metcalf Chapel, Warwick, MA


Our favorite place to play in the summer was the acres of land behind John L. Edwards Elementary school in Hudson, New York. We would walk down the grassy hill beside the school and then another hill. Both hills in the winter were perfect for sledding but in the summer were merely steep. We would pass an acre of woods, and in that acre of woods stood a tree with a sturdy, secure, hanging vine which we used to play Tarzan, swinging from the tree into the open sky and back again. The mini-forest also included a cherry tree that provided us free fruit in the summer. 

The two grassy hills led to a large field of flat grass big enough to fit its two baseball fields now no longer there. We boys in the neighborhood used regularly those fields in the summer and into fall. Our favorite of the two fields was the one whose right field ended in a running stream. The stream separated the field from more acres of woods. The rare homerun would see the ball landing in the woods. I am sure there are some still there.

When we weren’t playing ball we were trudging through the woods. There was a legend  of sorts that if we walked through those  woods on the other side of the baseball field and up one of its hills we’d come to a house of a recluse who protected his homestead by yelling and screaming obscenities at trespassers. One day, my friend Brian Myers and I feigned courage and began walking into those woods and up that hill, but we got afraid of images of a screaming recluse in our minds and decided we’d walk back the other way. 

Anyway, we’d spend whole summer days outside, alternating between playing baseball in that field, hiking through woods, just sitting in the grass and joking around And yes, we’d go home to eat lunch somewhere in there.

Thinking about these memories, I wonder how rare our experience is today. We were allowed to spend hours and hours outdoors away from the purview of our parents. It was the norm, in fact. Times have changed, as they say. Such seems to be a remnant of yesteryear now, a thing of generations past. 

Sad but true, parental concern about safety has combined with young people’s love of video games, resulting in a rather significant cultural problem. Children don’t enjoy the outdoors as they once did, instead many remain content to stay inside. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv describes it in depth and terms it Nature-Deficit Disorder. Just the term to me is tragic.

Imagine John Muir, the father of the environmentalist movement, staying inside and not being able to write the following:

When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything that was wild, and all my life, I've been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures. 

Fortunately around my native town of Dunbar, by the stormy North Sea, there was no lack of wildness, though most of the land lay in smooth cultivation.

With red-blooded playmates, wild as myself, I loved to wander in the fields to hear the birds sing, and along the seashore to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools among the rocks when the tide was low; and best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of the old Dunbar Castle when the sea and the sky, the waves and the clouds, were mingled together as one… the natural inherited wildness in our blood ran true on its glorious course as invincible and unstoppable as stars.

This childhood experience was the foundation of all that John Muir would grow to be and do. These early experiences set him on a tra-jec-tory that would lead him to be the great environmentalist and human being he became. The same is true of people like Rachel Carson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Al Gore. Their early memories along a river or in front of a mountain or at an ocean shore were the first steps into a life of seeking to protect the land.

Without this kind of foundation, there will either be fewer environmentalists or environmentalists void of heart and soul and thus void of lasting effectiveness.


A similar result of our nature deficit applies to spirituality. Without experiencing nature, we miss out on comprehending the spirit of creativity that moves creation. We miss out on comprehending the God above, through, and in land, water, and sky. We miss out on slowing down our pace and our thoughts and simply being present and listening to the still, small voice of God. 

Mother Theresa once said, 

We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence... We need silence to be able to touch souls.  

Behind her powerful words is a traditional Christian teaching I’ve always found interesting. It is called the doctrine of general revelation. The idea goes that God is revealed in nature, and even if a person never hears the word or person or history of Jesus Christ, one can look at the colorful landscapes and skies and waters and see that there is something intangible behind it all, some gift of beauty pervading our senses, some mysterious movement wondrous, inspiriting, and inspiring. The internalization of this revelation can save us. The Psalmist puts it like this:

Where could I go to escape your spirit?
Where could I flee from your presence?
If I climb the heavens, you are there,
there too, if I lie in a the darkest valley,
If I flew to the point of sunrise, or westward across the sea
your hand would still be guiding me, your right hand holding me.


As for me, I first experienced the reality of God in nature, looking at the night sky and hearing stillness after a snowstorm, after the making of snow angels had ceased. 

The night’s clouds were whitened by an almost full moon behind it. The white of the snowy earth and the white of the clouds made it seem almost like day. I stared at the sky, hearing the silence of the moon, the clouds, the wind and the insulating snow. It was a stillness that was clear and moving, as if God was speaking to me with visceral silence. I breathed in the childhood scent of the snowy night, noticing my breath and the air moving in unison. Like all else, I was quiet, intent to take in the miracle of quiet, to remain there content. The snow angels I had made seemed silent too. The entire universe rested in the calm of the snow and in the resolution new in my mind. All was okay.

That one pivotal experience transformed something inside me, informing the rest of my spiritual life and my understanding of my relationship to the natural world.

Not to preach against video games or the internet, but can we experience such things playing a video game? Can we experience such gifts of God while posting on Facebook our thoughts on last night’s party?


There is a book I often read to my five year-old Corey. And here it is. It is a lovely little book. As you can see, it is titled God is Everywhere. It was published in 1968 and was my wife Holly’s book, presented to her by the Bible Memory Association in the mid-1970s. 

The book nicely applies the last verse in our reading in Ephesians, which says that God is not only above all, but through all and in all.  

If you don’t mind, I’d like to read some of it:

As the darkness comes with night, as the sun comes bringing light, there is nowhere I can be that God is not right here with me… when I see the lightning come across the sky, and when I hear the thunder rumbling, tumbling by, God is there, God’s everywhere. .. God is here, God is there, Above, before, behind me. Be it high, or be it low, there’s no place that I could go that God could never find me.

The book simply describes the omnipresence of God. God is not just out there somewhere. God is here, now, through all and in all. In fact, God is and can only be truly experienced right here, right now. Not in the past or in the future, but here, now. What a transformative truth this is! And as the children’s book points out, and as ages of Christian witness points out, there is nothing as powerful in reminding us of the here and the now and of God’s residence therein as nature.

This is the faith that has moved ages and ages of mystics who see in Creation the Creator, who see “the world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower,” who “hold infinity in the palm of their hand, and eternity in an hour.” 

The Eastern Orthodox tradition, especially, has offered a theology of nature for centuries. It is interesting to me that of all the mainline denominations it is only the Eastern Orthodox tradition that is growing, not only because of the influx of immigrants but because of new converts. The holistic vision of the tradition might explain why. Such a vision is seen in this wonderful quote from one of its patriarchs, Bartholomew the First.

Everything that lives and breathes is sacred and beautiful in the eyes of God. The whole world is a sacrament. The entire created cosmos is a burning bush of God’s uncreated energies. And humankind stands as a priest before the altar of creation, as microcosm and mediator. Such is the true nature of things; or, as an Orthodox hymn describes it, “the truth of things,” if only we have the eyes of faith to see it.


Back to the children’s book I introduced. God is Everywhere goes on to poignantly offer a spiritual practice. It is easy to miss in the book as it is in life. But it offers a profound path. The book reads: “And if I’m very still, and sit, and watch and wait a bit, and listen to God’s raindrops drop, I will hear the thunder stop.” Good advice for all of us.

So may we stop and be still and sit and watch and wait and listen. May we realize that as Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “the miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.” And may we be thankful we live in such a beautiful, wild place in the world. 

This is the practice of active prayer. This practice of active prayer is powerful and can be a transformative tool in our disconnected age. And the rural church, residing in and relying on nature for its way of being, can help us as a society rediscover the wonder of nature and the wonder of God whose creativity marks all wonder. The rural church can help us experience the miracle of walking on the green earth. 


So let us preach the gospel of God breathing through and in nature. Let us preach the gospel of fresh air and clean waters which crucial to our survival. Let us embrace our identity and role of being a religious community amid the glory of God’s creativity and spread its virtues.

In offering these things to the community, we build religious community and an environmentalist spirit at the same time. 


Before we go, meet Wendell Berry. Maybe you know him. Wendell Berry to me is a great help in such a venture. He is a farmer, poet, essayist, novelist, cultural critic, environmentalist, as well as Kentuckian Baptist. And he is one of my heroes. He has written over 50 books across his various genres. His central claim is that the economy that rules the day is a behemoth too often built on the exploitation, the controlling and the confining of Creation. To counteract this, Berry calls for us to sit with and in nature, to work with and in nature, and to deeply notice its way of being, its divinely providence way of giving to us life and sustenance and to see the creativity of God in the trees, the fields, the rivers, the sea. The result of our examination of nature’s way of being will be a natural impetus to honor and protect what gives so freely but at such cost to herself, and we will proceed accordingly.

He believes that there is grace to be found away from the madness and sadness of our society seemingly moving at warp speed. And as we consider Earth Day and as we gather on the Sunday after Arbor Day, may we be mindful of this. I close with Wendell Berry’s rather renowned poem, "The Peace of Wild Things," offering it as a prayer.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Amen.


 

Baptist-UCC-UU Convergences

The Baptist story commenced as a dissent to the existing hierarchies and hierarchical beliefs, either the Catholic papacy or the Lutheran elite, either the Anglican church, the Royal crown, or Puritan theocracy. In America, it begins with Roger Williams, the original American Baptist, who resisted the theocracy established by the Puritans and called for religious freedom and for a democracy that separated matters of church and state.

According to Baptist scholar Walter Shurden, the Baptist tradition throughout its diverse and vast history has focused on "four fragile freedoms": 1.) Bible Freedom - the freedom to read and interpret the Bible based on one's conscience and one's spiritual understanding; 2.) Soul Freedom - the soul's freedom from imposition of clergy, creed, or civil government; 3.) Church Freedom - the local church is free to govern the way they see fit without hierarchical restraint; and 4.) Religious Freedom - individuals and the church are both ordained with freedom of religion, freedom for religion, and freedom from religion.

With that said, Baptist history shows convergences, confluences, connections, and shared histories with two other free church, congregational polity-based traditions, the UCC and UUA.

Together in Dissent

The Baptist tradition, the UCC, and the UUA all have their historic roots in the English Separatist movement. The Puritans, though beginning as a tradition desiring the purification of the Anglican Church, eventually realized that purification was beyond reach. So in England and especially in the American colonies an ardent separatist spirit took hold. Both the Congregational church (which gave way to both the UCC and UUA) and the Baptist church arose out of this dissent known as the Separatist Movement.

The Congregational and Baptist churches also shared a focus on some sort of testimony to Christian faith being a prerequisite for church membership, with the Baptist church adding adult baptism as a mandated outward sign of internal faith.

But what truly differentiated the Baptist tradition from its Congregationalist cousin is the Baptist tradition's radical call for religious freedom, namely for a "wall between church and state." In fact, Roger Williams was first excommunicated from the Massachusetts church and then exiled to Rhode Island because of, among other things, his persistent demand that church and state be separate.

That both the UU and UCC have become and remain strong proponents of the separation of church and state points to a Baptist-UU-UCC confluence some 200 years after the exile of Roger Williams. I am sure Roger Williams is proud!

Rejection of Calvinism

After the separation of church and state became a constitutional mandate, the Congregational and Baptist churches became in many ways more similar than different in the first half of the 19th century. Both the Congregational and Baptist church were under the throes of the Calvinist claims of total depravity of human nature and the doctrine of unconditional election, which claimed that only an elect few drew God's favor and being part of the elect was evidenced by one's life of good works, deep devotion, strong work ethic, and resulting economic reward. The pervading Calvinism of the day served the role of papal rule. It was inevitable that new movements of dissent would arise against this new religious ruler, often called the paper papacy.

Let me mention four new movements that rejected Calvinism.

1.) General and Free Will Baptists: General and Free Will Baptists were Arminian proponents (Arminian being synonymous with the notion of free will and general atonement) and rejected the Calvinist claim that God's will predestines some to heaven and others to hell making free will on the human's part is not operative in the case of salvation. General and Free Will Baptists and their ilk also rejected the Calvinist belief that atonement was limited to the elect, holding to the notion that Christ's atonement is offered to all, making it general and unlimited in its offering.

2.) Christians: Known as simply the Christian Church (or the Christian Connexion), it developed out of the rejection of Calvinist Baptists and Methodists on the frontier. Seeing the rigid Calvinism of the day in both the Baptist and Methodist churches and seeing that Calvinism proffer an overly hierarchical and institutional church, the Christian Church called for a decentralized, back to basics, simple Bible church. Like the Free Will Baptists, the Christian Church held to an Arminian view of atonement and free will. The Christian Church grew in New England and in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.

The Christian Church interestingly had a Unitarian slant with many ministers and thinkers by the 1920s writing pamphlets arguing for a rejection of the Trinity in favor or a Unitarian view of God.

In 1931, the Christian Church merged with the Congregational Church to form the Congregational Christian Church (CCC). The CCC would be merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to create the United Church of Christ.

3.) Unitarians: One of the most profound dissents to Calvinism was the Unitarian movement which rejected not only the Trinity (and hence its namesake) but also the central Calvinist teaching on the total depravity of human beings. While both the Free Will Baptists and the Christian Church asserted that depravity was real just not total, the Unitarians asserted that human beings were created with innate goodness.

4.) Universalists: Another profound dissent to Calvinism was the Universalist movment and their rejection of the central Calvinist claim of limited atonement. Not only did Universalists argue that atonement was unlimited but that actual redemption was unlimited. In other words, not only did Jesus die for all, but Jesus' death (and resurrection) in reality saves all.

Baptist-UU-UCC All-Stars

The shared anti-Calvinist sentiment resulted in a confluence of Free Will Baptists, Christians, Unitarian, and Universalists, both here and in England. The names below of Baptists cum Unitarians and/or Universalists and/or proto-UCCers makes this confluence pretty clear:

Abner Jones and Elias Smith: two Baptist preachers, both with connections to Vermont and New Hampshire, who rejected the Calvinism of their Baptist (non-free will) tradition. They were central in creating the Christian Church, planting the first two Christian Church congregations in New England. The Christian Church would be part of the UCC merger in 1957. Elias Smith would become a Universalist.

Elhanan Winchester, father of American Universalism and founder of the Society of Universal Baptists in 1790 which later became the still extant UU Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia.

William Vidler: a Winchester disciple and Baptist Universalist who became a Unitarian preacher and publisher essential in establishing Unitarianism in England. He was also involved in the creation of a religious journal called the Baptist Unitarian Advocate in 1837.

Robert Aspland: a Baptist preacher and father of organized Unitarianism in Great Britain. He was central in 50 General Baptist churches becoming Baptist Unitarian in 1836.

Caleb Rich and Hosea Ballou: two American preachers who were very influential Baptist Universalists in the mid-1800s. The Ballou family all have Baptist roots.

Curtis Reese and Charles Potter, two Baptists preachers integral to Unitarianism’s movement from a solely theist tradition to a more religious humanist one in the 1920s.

Henry Emerson Fosdick: a renowned Baptist minister who helped found Riverside Church, the landmark church in New York City which is an interdenominational UCC/American Baptist Church USA.

James Forbes: renowned 20th-21st century preacher and minister of Riverside, possessing dual standing with the UCC and the American Baptist Churches USA.

Alive & Kicking?

Yet what about present day, living Baptist-UU-UCC traditions? Well, there are a few UU/UCC/Baptist federated churches -- in Sturbridge and Bolton, Massachusetts, for example.

The most impressive discovery in my Baptist-UU-UCC research is the Primitive Baptist Universalists. Howard Dorgan's book In the Hands of a Happy God actually introduced me to UU’s long lost cousin this way:

“That denomination is a uniquely Appalachian institution, the Primitive Baptist Universalists (or PBUs) of Central Appalachia, believers aptly described as ‘pilgrims in the hands of a happy god’…God [is] happy because he found a way – they believe – to redeem his children from the curse of Adamic sin…[PBU’s] expound an inclusive theology of universal atonement, claiming that, at the close of the temporal world, all humankind will be redeemed…restored to that purified state that existed prior to Adam’s fall, and thus prepared for an eternal and joyous communion with God. PBU’s are known in Central Appalachia as the ‘No-Hellers’ – a title which is a misnomer, simply because they view hell as a reality of earthly life.”

Now, the Primitive Baptist Universalists are a present day, living reality. Groups of Baptist Universalists are meeting every Sunday in Central Appalachia. This to me is pretty cool!

Other Honorary UCC-UU Baptists
(The main criteria are Baptists found in either UU's Singing the Living Traditional hymnal or UCC's New Century Hymnal. The above names mentioned are also in this list.)

Walter Rauschenbusch

Henry Emerson Fosdick

Robert Lowry

John Fawcett

Howard Thurman

Martin Luther King Jr.

Wendell Berry

UCC-UU Baptist Prototypes

Before the Baptists, the Christian Connexion, Unitarians or Universalists in America there were a few examples of prototypes, if you will. What amounts to a Baptist-UCC-UU prototype is a figure who holds to adult-believer baptism by immersion (baptist) and either is a unitarian (denies the trinity) or a universalist (holds to universal salvation). Here is a list of such figures:

Michael Servetus

Faustus Socinus

Ferenc David (Francis David)

Hans Denck

Jacob Kautz

Hans Hut

Alexander Mack

Beautiful Day

A Sermon by Don Erickson
delivered at St. Paul's Universalist Church, Little Falls, NY 
Easter Day, March 31, 2013
(transcript below)





A couple months ago, my son joined me in listening to Elvis Presley -- his Sun Sessions recording to be exact. Corey took to liking it. Excited about this, I sort of gave a history lesson on Elvis in a way a 5 year-old could understand. I showed him pictures of Elvis on the web and even showed the young Elvis performing Jailhouse Rock. He asks me a question that he asks whenever talking about someone from the past. It is a question that arose after his grandfather died when he was just 4. Is he in heaven? It’s Corey’s way of asking if someone is dead.

At first, I chuckled a bit, thinking about the cultural joke that Elvis is alive and living on earth somewhere.  Then I got serious. I answered truthfully. Yes, Elvis is in heaven. Corey became upset at this, having taken a liking to Elvis rather quickly. “No, he is not in heaven! No, he is still here, right Daddy?!” I tried to assuage him with the notion that because his music is still with us, he is still with us, and thus he lives in a way. But of course, a five year-old, Corey has some difficulty with the abstractness of this. But I think he got the essence of what I was saying, or at least, he stopped crying and went on to the next thing.

Yet thinking about it, the notion of the innate need for Easter came to mind. We all want to see those we love again. Most cannot fathom that this life is the end. We desire a resurrection so that reunions with those we’ve lost and deeply miss are possible. We want to see loved ones in heaven again. We want to see Elvis again. This would especially be the case if we lost his music.

There is an emotional need behind the story of Jesus coming back after his disciples and friends thought he was gone.  

Easter is a sacred metaphor of, when we need it most, experiencing a way arising out of no way.

The Easter story, the original Easter story, points to the basic paradigm of loving, losing, grieving and somehow finding wholeness in spite of the despair. The relationship between Jesus and his disciples points to this.

That relationship was more than just a teacher-student relationship. Jesus called his disciples friends. They were friends walking the dusty trails of Palestine together, eating together, learning together, serving the community together. The bond was real and profound. 

As for the disciples, they often called him, Lord, or in modern lingo, “my greatest friend and beloved mentor.”

So imagine in the tragic end having to flee your greatest friend and beloved mentor at his darkest moment. This is what the disciples had to do. It would be the equivalent of a soldier leaving his commander, his comrade, alone in the heat of the battle, leaving him to die. The guilt cannot be underestimated.

You may ask, why did the disciples have to flee? My understanding of Jesus’ death is that instead of leading his ragtag band of brothers in militant revolution against the Roman Empire, Jesus chose instead to save his friends lives by giving himself up, an act of peaceful resistance that led to his crucifixion. It is the equivalent of Tibetan monks sacrificing themselves to resist China’s occupation and cultural genocide. Jesus knew the significance and meaning of his self-sacrifice would lead to transformation in his friends and maybe, hopefully, in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people suffering under the weight and power of the Roman government. Jesus was hoping for the ancient Jewish equivalent of the Arab Spring.

And so it was necessary that Jesus’ disciples flee the scene so as not to be gathered, arrested, and possibly executed themselves. Even Peter who swore to himself and to Jesus that he would never leave his teacher’s side, left. Jesus knew this would happen, and needed it to happen for his teaching to be continued after his departure from the scene. Jesus dying without his friends close by was necessary, for the disciples would have been next.
Still, the grief the disciples felt in the aftermath was wrenching. That grief was compounded by the unbearable heaviness of guilt.

If this guilt was not assuaged, who knows what the lives of the disciples would have amounted to.  But Jesus’ spiritual return – yes, I believe it was spiritual not physical – comforted and saved his friends from the turmoil of loss and guilt. This is what we call the resurrection: Jesus’ returning to comfort and salve the hearts of those grieving and guilt-laden. And it was indeed transformative and eventually led to the Pentecost, to the beginning of the church, yes, as it went, even this church.

We should not be surprised by Jesus’ return to the hearts and minds of those who loved him so much. Visions and visits from loved-ones who’ve transmigrated to God’s love and yet who return to us in spirit -- this is a human phenomenon.

A 2008 article in the Scientific American called “Ghost Stories: Visits from the Deceased” discusses the very common occasion of grieving loved-ones receiving visits from the loved-one who has passed. The article cites how in one study, 80% of elderly people experienced visions of their dead partner one month after bereavement.” 80%!

Last month, in a meeting of our Men’s Breakfast Bereavement group, I talked with a man who lost his wife of some 50+ years a few months ago. He is a highly educated, urbane, and intelligent guy, in fact a professor at the local community college. He shared with me in discussing his grief how he senses his wife’s presence with him regularly. Though he qualified it, he said I even talk to her sometimes. It provides him a sense of comfort. Knowing she remains with him in some way softens the powerful gusts of grief. Now, those not in the hospice bu’ness might say this guy is off his rocker. But knowing how normal and common this is, I made clear to him that this is not at all unusual.  We hear stories like this all the time.

Such experiences of spiritual resurrection, if you will, of sensing life despite loss, help us to face the reality of loss. These experiences help us to persevere through the brutal reality that things change, we lose what we love, the comfortable normal changes into the painful abnormal.

And as is true with the grieving process, whether it be grief over losing a loved-one or in losing our comfortable norm, from the fire of loss eventually comes the growth of a new forest. Yes, scars of that fire remain, but the soil is stronger, more resilient, more enduring. SO the fire of loss that is the crucifixion gives way to the seedling of new life in spite of loss -- this is the resurrection. And the resurrection in turn gives way to the new forest that is the Pentecost.

I think again of Elvis. To me, Elvis is at his artistic best when he is singing the Blues that he learned in the Black clubs and dancehalls of Memphis or when he is singing the spiritual music he learned in church, both his own and the Black church he would sometimes visit to hear Black gospel.

As Elvis discovered, the power and joy of the music comes from its life-giving way amid the life-denying realities all around.  In the case of African-Americans, the life-denying realities of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism. Black spirituals and the blues, in other words, are a simile for the Easter story.

James Cone, a former professor of mine at Union Theological Seminary, wrote a great book called The Spirituals and the Blues. In this book he interprets the connection between Black Spiritual music and the Blues, saying Spirituals pointed to eternal hope beyond despair while the Blues pointed to the temporal hope found in being honest about despair.  Both point to the subversive statement that circumstances around us may say no way, but our spirits, fueled into music and fueled by music, says, “yes, way.” In spirituals and the blues we have a representation of being honest about despair and death, yet in the process defying the external reality with an internal reality filled with the hope of life, with new life embodied in the resurrection and continued in the pentecost.

Dr. Cone puts it like this:

“Herein lies the meaning of the resurrection. It means that the cross was not the end of God's drama of salvation. Death does not have the last word. Through Jesus' death, God has conquered death's power over his people…. The resurrection is the divine guarantee that black people's lives are in the hands of the Conqueror of death… They don't have to cry anymore.”

I still recall the broken carillon bells of New York City’s Riverside Church. Riverside Church is right next to Union Theological Seminary and its building of apartments called McGiffert Hall. I’d just moved in to McGiffert and would begin seminary in a few days. My apartment loomed in the shadows of Riverside’s huge, beautiful steeple, something I admired right away.


My first class at Union was to begin on the 11th of that month…  of September. Yes, in 2001. 9/11. Needless to say, the class was canceled.

Two commercial planes hit the two towers and life changed. It reappeared broken.

The huge, beautiful steeple of Riverside, whose carillon bells were silent while being refurbished that year, seemed a little less beautiful and admirable. Reaching to the heavens, it seemed an easy target. So did the Jewish Theological Seminary right across the street from Union. In those first couple weeks after 9/11, I would wake many nights upon the sound of planes overhead. The sound of protection from military planes and the sound of attacking from terrorist planes would sound rather similar and thus hard to differentiate, so I thought.


Through the Fall and Winter, the carillon bells of Riverside Church continued to stand silent. Broken bells cannot sing. And this was fine with me. For months after 9/11, I could not listen to music. Music, which had always been a source of healing and joy, which was such an indelible part of my life -- I could not bear to hear it. Music seemed too easy, too entertaining, too ideal. There seemed to be no note or musical phrase that could make any sense of it all or condone the escape. To listen to music would merely be a na├»ve anesthetic away from reality. That’s the kind of effect 9/11 had.  It was a long, long winter.

But then came Spring. Then came Easter.

The Easter morning of 2002 for me began with quiet. I was not up to the show of Easter at church. I had been skipping church for weeks. Going to an Easter service seemed too easy a penance.

The morning itself would become my Easter service.

The morning ritual of making coffee was the prelude. The gurgling and dripping of the coffee maker served as preparation for sounds to come. The coffee and I ready, I prepared the day's first cup of coffee as if the invocation. Each sip became a little prayer. Each moment in between, a meditation.

Then the re-born bells of Riverside Church sounded. They filled the morning air with an ecstatic flourish. There seemed not rime or reason to the music, just sound sounding and pervading. It scared me at first. But then I simply listened and smiled. The heavenly sound echoed all along Claremont and Broadway and through the whole of Morningside Heights. It pierced my heart. And as the vibrations of sound gave way to vibrations of sound, I cried like a child, completely vulnerable yet completely embraced.


On that same sunny, crisp, church-less Sunday morning, I opened the CD player’s dusty door. Inside, secure and replete with possibilities, was U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. It survived throught the winter and was opened to a new day. I hit play. The first track, “Beautiful Day,” sang. It begins with the words,

“The heart is a bloom
Shoots up through the stony ground…”

Playing on the finale of the Noah and the Ark story, you know, where the dove comes back to mark the end of a nightmare and reveal the promise of grace, represented by a rainbow’s beckoning:

“And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colors came out…
It’s a beautiful day”


It is Easter morning some 11 years later. Easter, as always, represents the process of escaping the mire of our old lives and realizing the light of new life. And it is especially poignant when contemplating the despair of grief, of losing what we once held close. This is the story of the original Easter, and of every one before and since.

A spiritual Elvis loved to sing is actually a new spiritual written by Tommy Dorsey for the famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. It incorporates themes from the 23rd Psalm and is called “Peace in the Valley. ” It speaks to the Easter message of hope rising out of despair, peace found despite the valley of the shadow of death, and a Presence of Light and Love leading us to a new life of green pastures, still waters, right paths.

I will end by offering a lyric from this new spiritual, and let it serve as our Easter prayer.

There the flow'rs will be blooming, the grass will be green
And the skies will be clear and serene
The sun ever shines, giving one endless beam
And the clouds there will never be seen
There the bear will be gentle, the wolf will be tame
And the lion will lay down by the lamb
The beasts from the wild will be led by a Child
I'll be changed from the creature I am