April 12, 2009

Darkness at the time called Easter

The other day I learned something new about the whole Easter thing. I learned that on Good Friday, in many Christian denominations, a Tenebrae service is held. Through Facebook, of all places, I learned just what that means and from what context it arises.

Something's been working on me ever since.

For one thing, since I was not raised in the Christian tradition and nearly all of my peers and childhood friends have been, I lack that experience. I cannot connect around the rituals and traditions that surround the time called Easter.

It puzzles me that as members of a faith tradition that purportedly strips away what is not God, we as Friends often organize Easter egg hunts for the kids and celebrate with chocolate. But do we tell one another about how we sometimes feel God has left us, God is dead to us, and about how at other times we rejoice when we feel God's presence resurrected within us...?

I guess we do, but maybe it's more often talked about in our homes and not so much in our meetings. Instead, at this time of year, a number of Friends offer ministry or afterthoughts about their experiences at church, and I just can't connect. I don't feel a part of the corporate body at the time called Easter. I have to work on remembering God's Love for me is still present...

And then last night, I was talking with a good friend of mine who is a long-time attender among Friends. I told her about my discovery of what a Tenebrae service was, and she in turn opened up to me about how much she enjoys Easter morning and the trumpets during the church service and the singing Hallelujah He is Risen!

I was pleased to see my friend's joy and excitement for the coming day, and I can sense the power of the stories and of the Good Friday and Easter worship services. Friends spoke of them during Meeting for Worship this morning and a couple of people even broke out in song at the rise of meeting.

I won't deny anyone their joy. But neither can I deny my grief.

Over and over again, I grieve the connections I will never have. I mourn the experiences that are not my own and, as a result, tell me I'm different.

Is this truly the right faith tradition for me if I cannot relate to the Christian narrative that undergirds it?

I have to work on remembering God's Love for me is still present; God's Love will arise again in me...

But will I be with others to recognize that and to sing Hallelujah..?

So it is that at a time of jubilation and celebration for many--He is Risen--I find myself in my own darkness, my own Good Friday, on First Day.



Alice Y. said...

I don't have much to say but I wanted to post here to say I am thinking of you and wishing you all good things.

I think the Quaker "no times and seasons" thing can sometimes become an excuse not to experience the Good Friday feeling at all.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

This might be a good time to recall the words of one of the greatest Quaker essays ever written. It is well worth our time to read the whole of its argument dealing with this issue:

“...The apostle warns believers, to take heed of drawing one another on too fast, or of judging one another in such things as some of them might have light in, others not. He that eateth, not to judge him that did not eat; and he that did not eat, not to judge him that did eat. Yea, in matters of worship, he that observed a day, and kept a sabbath, not to judge him that observed not a day, or kept not a sabbath; for the Jews, which were truly converted, were yet hard to be drawn off from the observation of their sabbath, and could hardly bear with the believing Gentiles, who were never taught to keep their sabbath with them, but were taught to esteem every day, and sanctify it to the Lord. Rom. 14:5. And those who esteemed every day, and dedicated it to the Lord (ceasing from sin, and resting to him: for under the gospel we are not to set up a new type, but to enter by faith into the true rest, which is the substance of what the other signified) could hardly bear with them who observed a day.

“Even in the apostles’ days, Christians were too apt to strive after a wrong unity and uniformity in outward practices and observations, and to judge one another unrighteously in those things; and mark, it is not the different practice from one another that breaks the peace and unity, but the judging of one another because of different practices. He that keeps not a day, may unite in the same Spirit, in the same life, in the same love, with him that keeps a day; and he who keeps a day, may unite in heart and soul with the same Spirit and life in him who keeps not a day; but he that judgeth the other because of either of these, errs from the Spirit, from the love, from the life, and so breaks the bond of unity.

“And he that draws another to any practice, before the life in his own particular lead him, doth as much as in him lies, destroy the soul of that person. ver. 15. This was the apostle’s rule, for every one to perform singly to the Lord what he did, and not for one to meddle with the light of conscience of another (undervaluing his brother, or judging him because his light and practices differed from his, chap. 14:10.) But every one to keep close to their own measure of light, even to that proportion of faith and knowledge, which God of his mercy hath bestowed on them.

“And here is the true unity, in the Spirit, in the inward life, and not in an outward uniformity. That was not necessary in the apostles’ days, nor is it necessary now; and that eye which so dotes on it, overlooks the one thing which is necessary. Men keeping close to God, the Lord will lead them on fast enough, and give them light fast enough; for He taketh care of such, and knoweth what light and what practices are most proper for them....

“And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye, to see several sorts of believers, several forms of Christians in the school of Christ, every one learning their own lesson, performing their own peculiar service, and knowing, owning, and loving one another in their several places and different performances to their Master, to whom they are to give an account, and not to quarrel with one another about their different practices! Rom 14:4. For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me, than if he walked just in that rank wherein I walk: nay, so far as I am spiritual I cannot so much as desire that he should do so, until he be particularly led thereto, by the same Spirit which led me. ...

“The great error of the ages of the apostacy hath been, to set up an outward order and uniformity, and to make men’s consciences bend thereto, either by arguments of wisdom, or by force; but the property of the true church government is, to leave the conscience to its full liberty in the Lord, to preserve it single and entire for the Lord to exercise, and to seek unity in the light and in the Spirit, walking sweetly and harmoniously together in the midst of different practices. ...

“Oh! how sweet and lovely is it to see brethren dwell together in unity, to see the true image of God raised in persons, and they knowing and loving one another in that image, and bearing with one another through love, and helping one another under their temptations and distresses of spirit, which every one must expect to meet with.

“If thou art a Christian indeed and in truth, preserve thy conscience pure and tender towards God; do not defile it with such religious practices, duties, ordinances, &c., as thou dost not feel the Spirit leading thee into; for all such are idols, and exceedingly pollute thee. And be tender also of thy brother’s conscience, and be not an instrument to draw him into any thing which the Lord leads him not into; but rejoice if thou find him in simplicity of heart startling at any thing; for if he abide here faithful, his guide will in due season appear to him, and clear up his way before him; but if he be too hasty, he may follow a wrong guide, and that guide will never lead him aright towards the kingdom, but entangle him further and further from it.”

— Isaac Penington, An Examination of the Grounds or Causes which are said to induce the Court of Boston, in New England, to make that order or law of banishment upon pain of death against the Quakers (1659 or 1660)

Martin Kelley said...

It sounds like the grief and desolation you felt at being left out is exactly the feeling that Good Friday is supposed to be about. We're Friends--it's not the day or the ritual but the lived experience that we're about. Is it the Christian narrative that you struggle with or the Christian culture that overlays and sometimes obscures it? Faith, loss and redemption is different from Good Friday, Easter, and Methodist hymns.

Hystery said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Martin's point that the experience and not the expression is the point. Indeed, the story of loss and redemption, death and new life is so important, that humans in all times and places have found ways to share it.

These stories follow us throughout history. We find them in the Eleusinian mysteries, in the story of Yule, in the the story of the Flood, of the Inanna and Tammuz, in the Osiris and Isis. Again and again, the temple is destroyed and yet the people live on. The body dies and yet the soul ascends. The oil runs low but the flames burn bright. The Christ story is a wonderful story but I believe that the story is powerful not because it happened once but because it is always happening, even now.

All human beings know what it is like to strive with all we are and all we have- only to fail. We know the darkness of grief. To be human is to be subject to devastation and loss, to mourning and hopelessness. But is is also a part of the human experience that sometimes, even in the darkest moments, inexplicably, incredibly, we are reborn. Death begets life. Darkness is the mother of light and out of our sorrows, we are reborn.

Tom Smith said...

I was led to speak yesterday morning on the question "What are you doing here?" The parallel between Elijah's retreat to the mountain after his powerful "victory" over the sham religion of Baal. The "politicians" got involved and he fled for his life. When the still small voice came it asked "What are you doing here?" (paraphrase of what followed the question) Do you not know that God is alive and well and working among his people. Go and join them.

Centuries later a young man entered Jerusalem in a "victory" and overthrew the sham religion of the moneychangers. However, the politicians got involved and sought to do away with the young man. He did not hide but paid the highest price. His followers are the ones who ran and hid. However, on first day one of his followers came to the tomb and was asked a similar question, What are you doing here? Do you not know that the Spirit of Christ is alive and well and working among people, go and join them.

These stories have me asking myself, "What am I doing here? and I can only respond the Spirit is alive and well and working among people, go and join them.

Where do I go and what I do under the leading of the Spirit are of much more importance than where I came from and what was done before.

May you find joy in living in the here and now and seeking the way to proceed.

Rik Panganiban said...

Thank you for sharing your emotions and experiences around traditional Christian holidays.

I have the same curious feeling around the time of the Jewish Passover, the Indian festival of Diwali, and the Muslim celebrations of Ramadan.

It's a feeling of both envy, vicarious pleasure, and joy that I don't have to wait for a particular day or week to embrace that closeness of my God or my faith community, but that it can arise in my heart at any time I want it to.

Bill Samuel said...

I just attended a Tenebrae service for the first time this past Friday, and it was a moving experience.

If you feel drawn to such experiences, by all means find a place to have them.

Penington says, “The great error of the ages of the apostasy hath been, to set up an outward order and uniformity. . ." It seems to me that this is an error unprogrammed Friends have tended to fall into.

I began to feel the unity in diversity when I attended a charismatic church for awhile. There you might find people silently sitting, ecstatically dancing, lying prostrate on the floor, kneeling, standing, etc. all at the same time. This was matched with a glorious ethnic and cultural diversity with people from dozens of nations and every color. And the feeling of unity in Christ was palpable.

In the church where I am now, the last part of the service is introduced by suggesting a number of possible ways people might worship and pray as moved - the bread and the cup (itself offered in more than one way), lighting candles, seeing a prayer minister, writing prayers anonymously, writing prayers publicly on a large sheet of paper, kneeling at the cross, praying over a financial gift, sitting silently, giving someone a hug, etc. Which of these to do is left to each person to discern, with no pressure to do any. There is this respect for the different ways people connect with God, and a true unity amidst the diversity of expression.

I would like to see more expression of the diversity of ways to connect among Friends - and, indeed, I see evidence of that in many places in different branches of the society. But often there are still barriers to some of the ways Christians have traditionally connected with Christ.

David Myers said...


I like the part in the link about the service which says Easter can be like walking in on a movie where everyone is hugging at the end and you have no idea why and it looks unremarkable and could even make you feel left you.

I too am a Friend of the basically post-Jewish kind and I identify with what you wrote.

Essentially, what I see is that we're called upon as a community, everyday, not just Easter, to be working to recreate the Pentecost. To have that feeling of what it was like right after Jesus died and the group is picking up the pieces and trying to figure out What Now? and What the Heck Just Happened Here? And that's very hard to do- to give palpability and purpose to such calling even for one individual, but for a community to Arrive, without some feeling like they've been left in the dust. Hence evolution of Tenebrae services.

Now, in my own head, at least, I've redefined the term 'gathered meeting' and 'covered meeting' to distinguish precisely the kind of case you highlight. Certainly, there are gathered meetings when the Spirit is definitely there, and there is a solid community sense. And we can argue about whether this is appropriate or not if some people have entered the movie at the very end during the victory dance, scratching their heads and thinking, I Don't Get It. I'll go out on a limb and say there's a such a thing as a gathered meeting that is not fully covered, in the sense that there is indeed unity with the spirit, a natural unfolding, and a common purpose, but yet a failure to reach the full potential of that moment where all in attendance feel that entire force of their own apostleship (i.e., Pentecost).

Mary Elizabeth Bullock-Rest said...

I am glad you shared your feelings of sadness and alienation about Easter, Liz, though the experience of reading it made me sad and a bit scared too. For goodness sakes, I'd hate to lose a wonderful Quaker like you over something essentially cultural like this. There's a lot of theological "notions" tied up with Good Friday and Easter that don't need to shroud the beauty of the Inner Light and love and acceptance among Friends.

My husband is Jewish; I grew up Methodist. Both of us, over some 33 years, have had to step into religious and cultural worlds where we were not truly included. We decided long ago that our love for each other could transcend this difference; but still it can feel sad to be outside of a religious/cultural circle when you feel so "in" with the group in other ways, especially ways of the Spirit.

One thing to note is that not all of us who grew up in the Christian tradition have purely positive, "triumphant" associations with the Easter holiday. When I was a child I focused on the Easter Bunny, coloring eggs, and chocolate, because I did not accept, nor was I allowed to express my skepticism about, the literal resurrection of Jesus. Atonement theory ("He died for your sins.") never felt reassuring to me either. It did, however, induce massive, unwarranted feelings of guilt that took years of therapy from a psychologist who was also a Methodist minister, no less, to undo.

Ali Reid said...

Dear Liz Opp, I SO MUCH appreciate your 'Easter' piece - I want to say "Thank God" for it (can I allow myself to say that phrase?) - because it seems to me to express exactly the very mixed, even very troubling feelings I was experiencing in the days before Easter. I have this infuriating voice inside me that says that I have to accept the WHOLE 'Christian packet', if I acknowledge that something important is going on. This is the most spiritually nourishing blog I've ever read. Thanks to all of you.

Michael said...


I just found this on QuakerQuaker and haven't yet read through all the previous comments.

However, your question resonates with my own concerns, even though I'm a "birthright" Christian.

The life of Jesus works for me. The Christian doctrines about it no longer do.

On the other hand, the stories themselves do still move me, as sacred stories should.

Till I can read through and perhaps add more here, may I invite you to look at my post, "The Empty Day"?

Blessèd Be,

Liz Opp said...

Thank you all for taking the time to comment on this post. I am humbled by the depth and breadth of the replies, the encouragement and the empathy.

It will take me a few posts to respond to everyone, so thanks for your patience.

Alice -

How nice to see you here... and for the record, I'm not "against" feeling despair or experiencing the dry/dark periods. I'm more "for" the corporate experience of companioning one another, being mirrors for each other.

Marshall -

Thanks for this extended excerpt. What pleases me so about it is that I quoted the same piece for the meeting's newsletter and its monthly query.

I did so because of the continued discussion and threshing we're having about the variety of belief and what binds us together, and I continue to reflect on "outward uniformity" and "true unity in the inward life"...

Ultimately, the post is another example of how I come to terms with my own and others' humanness as we live into our Quakerism.

Martin -

I have thought of this many times: the grief I felt on First Day was likely similar to what many "churched" Friends felt (feel?) on Good Friday.

I would say that what I wrestle with has to do with the calendar that parts of the Christian narrative seem to rely on for its power.

Hystery -

You write in part: "I believe that [the Christ story] is powerful not because it happened once but because it is always happening, even now."Yes, I understand this and I have indeed experienced loss/redemption; death/rebirth...

And yet.

My experience on First Day, as I alluded to above, tells me that [the Christ story] is powerful not because it happened once but because it is something that 'churched' Friends can reconnect with each year at this time and get in touch with those cumulative emotions and spiritual experiences, at the detriment of others who don't have that cumulative experience.

For Quakers in the unprogrammed tradition, the whole year is "programmed" around the Christ story. It rubs me the wrong way, mostly because I can't connect viscerally and because I came into First Day with little awareness about it being Easter.

In the meantime, I am emerging in my own time out of the depths of despair...

Tom -

Thanks for your own comment. As a person who feels her feelings very intensely, I have learned to "ride them out" before shifting gears and only afterwards is it time to "figure out what to do next."

More later, everyone.


Michael said...

Dear Liz,

I've now reread your post and read through all the comments thus far. I feel as if I am sitting in a very deep meeting for worship.

The great blessings in that depth are, first, that you gave us an opening by offering the "spoken ministry" of your pain, and, second, that I find myself responding to the comments: "All these Friends speak my mind."

From the Pennington quotation: "For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him...." [emphasis added]

Blessèd Be,

Paul L said...

Hystery writes: "The Christ story is a wonderful story but I believe that the story is powerful not because it happened once but because it is always happening, even now."

To me, the story is powerful and is always happening because it happened once. The same is true of Passover.

The form of retelling -- and thereby re-living -- the story seasonally has a lot of psychological wisdom behind it; those who came up with it understand how people think.

What Friends say about every day being holy is clearly true, but the line between every day being holy and no day being holy (i.e., every day is profane) is a very thin one. (Alice makes this point in her comment, too.)

But the Quakers' point is that you don't have to err on either side: Because Christ is alive and present you do not need the psychological boost of liturgical remembrances. And, because Christ is alive and present you do not have to condemn others who practice the liturgy in order to remember together. This is the essence of gospel liberty. As Penington says (thanks Marshall): "He that keeps not a day, may unite in the same Spirit, in the same life, in the same love, with him that keeps a day; and he who keeps a day, may unite in heart and soul with the same Spirit and life in him who keeps not a day; but he that judgeth the other because of either of these, errs from the Spirit, from the love, from the life, and so breaks the bond of unity."

I can't tell, Liz, whether your discomfort is with the liturgical-seasonal remembrance of the resurrection, or with the reality of the resurrection itself.

Liz Opp said...

Finally, I have some breathing space to continue with my responses to your own thoughtful comments!

Rik Panganiban -

It's nice to learn that I'm not the only one who has these "curious feelings." And yes, envy is among the feelings I sometimes experience around traditional Christian holidays. Thanks for stopping by.

Bill -

I appreciate the reminder that George Fox cautioned folks about empty outward rituals. I sometimes find myself speaking to or reflecting on this point as well.

Certainly there are Friends in my own worship community who find Life and Power in certain "outward forms" and this helps keep my heart open a bit.

But when Friends lift up the power of these forms above the Living Presence, the focus shifts from a unity in the Spirit to a separation based on the traditions of one's childhood.

I think my inward pain has to do with a rift between what I understand unprogrammed Quaker worship to be--a shared experience of expectant waiting on God--and what it sometimes turns into--an hour of individual worshipers, talking from the silence about their own memories of the occasion.

David -

Thanks for your comment. I am reminded that at times, in our own cherishing of the gathered meeting, there are still those worshipers--visitors especially--who may not know what just "happened."

On the rare occasion that I close worship after a time when we have felt gathered, I do my best to articulate that sense of deep and wordless connection. I think the worship community is helped when we "name" the experiences that are peculiar to our tradition.

Mary Elizabeth -

Thanks for sharing a bit of your own (trying) experience of growing up in a Christian household. For sure, growing up in a Jewish one had its own challenges!

I doubt I'll be leaving Quakers anytime soon. It's just that when the pain of spiritual separation from my faith community hits me, it hits hard.

As you put it so eloquently, "it can feel sad to be outside of a religious/cultural circle when you feel so 'in' with the group in other ways..."These times, then, often serve as a reminder that I need to wrestle with the Christian history and narrative that informs Quakerism.

Thankfully, such wrestling has brought me new Light. And I'm still here, aren't I?

Ali Reid -

If I have shared something of myself that "speaks to your condition," I'm pleased to know it.

What I have come to understand, as I've alluded to in my previous comment, is that there is a real gift in wrestling with our own faith tradition, rather than just rejecting it completely or swallowing it whole. But as kids, as young adults, and as long-time worshipers, I don't know that we're given adequate support or modeling to know what it means to "wrestle" and how to go about it...

Michael -

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I am very far behind on my blog-reading (as well as replying to comments!), so I'll keep your own blog post in mind when I have the time to catch up on reading.In addition, I see you later added another thought. I agree that the conversation here seems to be rich, varied, and grounded in a Living Presence.

I suppose that's much of why I wanted to find a way to get back to replying to what others had written.

Paul L -

You reiterate things that ring true for me:

There is a power to certain repeated stories because they are repeated ONCE.

There is a line between every day being holy and no day being holy.

Because the Presence is a Living one, we can access the Spirit at any time, and the Spirit can also break through at any moment, speaking directly to us and to our condition.

My discomfort, best as I can tell, comes from my own grief at not being able to have compassion or empathy for my fellow worshippers: I could not fully enter into their feelings and experiences, and I allowed that to keep me separate at a time when so many were feeling connected.

Thanks for asking the question.