The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples
Easter Sunday | April 9, 2023 by Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton
So long as you recognize that no event of your life, whatever its character, can imprison you, you will not scale down your aspirations to the level of the facts of your present situation. You will let what rides on the horizon constantly inform the event with which you are wrestling, until at last the event itself begins to open up, to yield, to break down, to disintegrate, under the relentless pressure of some force, which transcends the event and tutors and informs it. This is what the Resurrection is all about. Not even death is capable of telling us what it is that God has to say about life.
The opening quote is by Dr. Howard Thurman in his book, The Growing Edge. I was drawn to this quote today because of the great emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus, echoed by the hymn Were You There. The story of Jesus’ life is full of events…events that have taken on a special and symbolic meaning that for Christians marks Holy Week and Easter Sunday. Thurman is saying that these events should not imprison us…should not scale down our aspirations…we should not get stuck there in the crucifixion. We must constantly be aware of what “rides on the horizon” so that this hope…this growing edge of life can inform this event…can “open up”, can “break it down” in order to transcend the event. This is what Jesus says is the Resurrection. It is the overcoming of death in the hope of rebirth and continued life. Thurman continues:
Therefore, I will hang on to my event. I will not accept it as the final and ultimate conclusion. I will hold it against all odds until, at last, it disintegrates in my hand because of a quality that is inherent in the very vitality of existence, inherent in the very life of God. I shall not despair. I shall not allow the events of my life to make me their prisoner. I shall believe that life has much more to it than experience disclosed to me. I shall continually believe that God is not through, not merely with life, but with me. I shall co-operate with God until through my life there begins to pulse something much vaster and greater than anything I have ever known before. When I die, I will go down to the grave with a shout, because life is not through even in death. Life has an infinite creative possibility. This is what Jesus discloses in his trumpet call, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me will never die.” This is the growing edge.
Thurman reminds us that Life has an infinite creative possibility! He reminds us that life is not through even in death! This is the growing edge…the basis of hope in moments of despair.
I have been reminded of these moments when I meet with a woman who is 99 years old. She is struggling with her fate of being in a nursing home at the end of her life. When I first met with her she was in the grip of despair. Like Jesus on the cross, she felt like she had been forsaken. She often said that she didn’t understand why she was left alone to suffer. She said that it would be better if she could just die right now. Little by little I was able to witness her struggle…her wrestling with her reality. At one point, she turned to prayer. She asked God to take away her grief, her fear, her impatience. I was reminded of the words of Thich Nhat Hanh:
Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.
But it seems that even this realization was not enough to transform her suffering. She continued to believe that she had been abandoned by her family and left to suffer…not in body, but in mind. She complained bitterly that no one cared about her. Now I wasn’t sure about this woman’s spiritual belief system. She is Asian and I suspected that her culture was closer to Buddhism than to Christianity, but every time I mentioned that there was no evidence of recognition. Little by little, though, I noticed a change in her outlook. One day I came to see her, and she was talking about what her next life would be like.
And then last week I visited her again. Instead of complaining about her plight or praying about it or even discussing the next life, she was clearly in a different state of mind. She looked very peaceful; her eyes were focused on some distant reality…one that I couldn’t see. I waited in silence for a moment. And then she started to speak. She said that life and death were part of the same thing. She made a sweeping motion with her hands. She said that it was like a river that was passing by…no beginning and no end…no life and no death. She kept saying, “It is all the same thing. There is no difference.” It reminded me of these words from Thich Nhat Hanh:
Birth is okay and death is okay, if we know that they are only concepts in our mind. Reality transcends both birth and death.
This was a precious moment…a moment in which she was able to break out of the prison of her situation. She was able to access a spiritual center that was meaningful to her…that spoke to her soul. I realized in that moment that she didn’t need the label of Buddhism or Christianity in order to connect with the all-pervading presence. She certainly didn’t need me and my feeble suggestions. She had become part of the struggle that Thurman was talking about…part of the search for meaning and truth…part of the flow of life that recognizes our relationship to the earth and its processes…the river that constantly renews itself…like the river that the Buddha crossed, protected by the ferryman. Siddhartha came to that river later in his journey and made this observation of the river:
He saw that the water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new. Who could understand this? He did not understand it; he was only aware of a dim suspicion, a faint memory, divine voices.
I think this is what my patient was experiencing. She was taking in the water, flowing and flowing…with no beginning and no end…a timeless experience…one that transcended her current situation. Now I don’t know if her state of mind will stay this way or if it is still evolving…still developing, but I was drawn into her experience, recognizing the shift that had occurred in her thinking. It is much like Thurman discusses in this clip:
In listening to Thurman describe the universality of the experience of the divine, I am reminded of what Matthew Fox calls the One River…the One River that undergirds the many wells…the many religions and forms of worship. He writes:
It is clear that once we return to the depth or core of religion, we find much more than dogmas, concepts, institutions, commands. We find a striving for experience of the Divine, however, that can be spoken of, we find both form and formlessness, male and female, experience, and practice. We also find that in their core and depth we do not encounter many different religions so much as one experience that is expressed variously and with great diversity and color flowing in the name of different traditions and cultures.
Yes! This is what I was experiencing in my quest to help this woman experience her own sense of peace regarding her situation. I was trying to help her move toward her own meaning…move toward the depth and core of her spirit. Perhaps there was at work the sense of contagion that Thurman spoke of. Perhaps my ability to give her the space she needed and the gift of listening, unconditionally, was enough to guide her to herself…to her own sense of knowing that led to a sense of peace.
I think this was my Easter lesson…the one that Thurman spoke of…the one that says that God is not through with us yet...we are part of the growing edge of existence. We must, as Thurman says, look to the horizon…always look to the horizon to inform our current situation…our current event. Even when others think that it is futile…even when others mock us. Thurman observed:
I saw a woman pursuing the horizon.
Round and round she sped.
I was disturbed at this so I accosted the woman.
I said, "It is futile, you can never."
"You lie", she cried and ran on.
Continuing to follow the horizon may seem futile, but what we will find, I think, is that this is the way of life…the way of the seed reaching for the surface…drinking in the sun with its leaves and the nourishment from its roots…this, knowing that it will die someday and go back to the soil in order to nourish new life, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Be it death or resurrection…be it joy or despair, may we know that all is part of the great circle of existence…a circle that is timeless…existing only in the current moment.
Now, on this Easter Sunday, may we remember that this green blade rises…despite moments of despair…despite the weariness…despite the suffering and pain…despite the death of a loved one…despite the crucifixion of Jesus and the many crucifixions humanity unleashes upon itself and upon our precious Earth.
May we rejoice today in this growing edge of life…in its ability to transform our current reality…in its ability to remind us to look to the horizon and to life’s growing edge!