Easter begins with a tomb
The plain-spoken, crusty Baptist preacher, Carlyle Marney, once addressed a student audience at Duke University during religious emphasis week, and in the course of the Q and A afterward, a student asked him, “Dr. Marney, would you please speak a bit about the resurrection of the dead?” And Carlyle Marney replied bluntly, “No. I don’t talk about that with people like you.”
“Why not?” the student asked.
“I don’t discuss such matters with anyone under 30,” Marney said.
“Why?” the student asked.
“Look at you,” Marney said, “prime of life, potent, never have you known honest-to-God failure, heartburn, impotency, solid defeat, brick walls, mortality. So what in God’s name can you know of a dark world, which only makes sense if Christ is raised?”
I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but I get Marney’s point. I look at my own life and see the proof of what he was saying. What in God’s name was I doing preaching about Easter before I had even turned 30? Today, I am just grateful that the churches where I preached in my youth, full of people who had known deep, existential pain, loss, and failure, were tolerant and gracious.
We have a number of men’s groups in my parish, mostly older guys, many of them retired. The agenda for these groups is simple. Mostly, they just enjoy being with each other. But they also want to discuss those things that they’ve found to be most important in their lives. They come to support each other, and they have learned how to listen deeply to each other. Between meetings, they promise to pray for each other. Some of them don’t go to church much, because their weekly meetings are church for them.
These men have lived long enough to know from experience the sting of regret, shame, and failure. When they get together, it becomes clear right away that superficial talk, ego posturing, opinion swapping, and debates about politics or religion aren’t allowed. The point is to speak only about what they know from personal experience, and in the process, to be truthful about their doubts, struggles, and insecurities. If you are too proud or too well defended and can’t be vulnerable around other guys, you’re not going to fit in.
These groups are lifelines for those who attend; they wouldn’t miss it. Many of them have come to believe that the worst thing that ever happened to them, the reason for their brokenness, often turns out to be the most important and life-giving thing that ever happened to them. Such is the divine alchemy of their weekly gatherings.
Sometimes these older guys tell me how worried they are about their hard-driving, younger sons. They so want younger men to join them and know how healing and life-giving such a prayerful and genuinely supportive group can be. But the young men are too busy. They don’t have the time, or they just don’t see the need.
Once in a while, though, a thoroughly broken and defeated younger man will join them – a guy who has gone off the rails with alcohol, for example, or who has lost his job, cheated on his spouse, had a mental breakdown, lost a child, or gone to jail. A candidate for resurrection.
This younger man learns, just from hanging around the older ones, that it’s possible to be truthful about shameful, difficult and unspeakable things, as long as the people in the room know something about failure, grief, and loss from their own lives, and have outgrown being judgmental. The older guys tell me that all they do is “love him back to life.” They show the younger one that there is life after death, and that it’s almost always better than the life they had before. They learn how to breathe deeply again, how to unclench, and how to love the life they have. They learn, in other words, what it means to live truly free.
Easter begins with a tomb. I’m not surprised it’s just a rite of spring for some people, and the crux of everything that matters for others.