On Easter Sunday when I was 17, one thought appeared unbidden and would not be chased away: Maybe I’ll pray this morning. I attended church only by parental decree. I wore knee-high Doc Martens and crimson hair in protest and sat through the pastor’s prayers with my eyes boldly open, head unbowed. I did not pray. But:
Maybe I’ll pray this morning.
There is nothing dramatic in my story—no brutal addiction, no “rock bottom,” no conversion in the backseat of a police cruiser—unless you consider the fact that the Creator of the universe unlocked some hidden chamber in the heart of a hurting girl and sowed there one thought, Maybe I’ll pray this morning, and from that seed sprung the sapling that buckled the sidewalk, shattered the concrete, and is still growing.
There was an altar call at the strip mall church that morning, and at the front of the sanctuary I knelt, with damp mascara and a half dozen others, and I prayed: God forgive me. The Lord lifted the glass dome off what I thought was the world and in rushed the dizzying winds of heaven. In rushed a new thought: God exists and he is not cruel or indifferent, but he loves me. I held that thought tenderly, the way one might hold a bird.
I did not understand all of what I embraced that day, nor do I understand it all now, for though the Christian faith has prescribed borders to it (borders that enclose a space broader than most suppose), God himself is limitless. There is no knowing the end of him.
Jesus, I heard, was God’s Son. That first Easter I may have imagined that relationship as something like those the Greek gods had with their offspring: tempestuous, with flaws in both parent and child. But no: this Son is perfect, and in perfect accord with his Father. Together they spoke a world into being; together they laid out a plan to restore that world. One of the most radical but crucial parts of that plan called for the Son, the limitless Son, to take on borders—to become a human baby and grow to manhood among a people he and his Father had created, and to die for them.
That Son was not the gentle, if somewhat moody, religious leader I knew from thrift store paintings, forever suffering little children to come unto him or dying gruesomely on the Cross. He was a storyteller, a teacher who had an uncanny way of peering into the hearts of his hearers, answering questions they hadn’t asked, responding to motives they hadn’t voiced (not even to themselves).
He spoke, and like a sword his words cut his listeners free from their distorted beliefs about who they were and what the world was. He spoke, and his words cut loose their misconceptions about who God is and what he wants from them. When those who heard him faced the truth he left behind, they either broke into song or they clung to the shards of those broken beliefs and glared at him in outrage. Either they left all they had to follow him, or they swore to destroy him.
For three days, those who swore to destroy him succeeded.
In what must have been a heart-breaking turn for his disciples, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a path strewn with palm branches and lined with hopeful subjects crying, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 21:9) and staggered out later that week beneath the Cross. On a hill outside the city he was killed.
We know the end of that story now. We know that his body was placed in the tomb, and for three days it lay lifeless until Jesus—who had commanded Lazarus to rise from the dead and called a young girl back from death with the gentle summons, “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mark 5:41)—walked out of the tomb and met Mary in the garden, where she in her grief mistook him for the gardener. He said her name, smiling, and death was undone.
But for the disciples, those three days must have been dark, as though a lid once lifted had clamped down on them again, and the air once fresh turned stale around them. In Scripture we find them tending the body, fishing, talking amongst themselves of the terrible “things that have happened here in these days” (Luke 24:18). We find them hiding.
Yet into their midst Jesus walked, resurrected. He let them touch him, he ate fish, he explained the Scriptures to them. And he sent them out to bear witness to the fact that he was who he said he was: the Son of God who “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).
Jesus met death willingly, not as a suicide but as a sacrifice for those he loved, so that we may meet God clothed in his white righteousness and know what it is to be a child of God, beloved.
That Sunday when I was 17, I knew the Easter story, and I thought I understood it. But what changed when that stubborn thought, Maybe I’ll pray this morning, took root was this: I believed for the first time that the God I had declared dead was in fact alive and well, waiting to dine with me and hear my questions and let me touch his hands and feet. He said to me gently, Little girl, arise, and I did: what I had believed about the world, about my place in it, about him, he cut away, and all I had left was the truth that God made me and he loved me.
But I had hidden from him. I had hated him.
And when that realization seemed too much to bear, Jesus lifted my chin; he took my hand. He said my name, Théa, and all was well.
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