Last night at youth group, one of the folks in the Hanover church made a special trip to the parish hall to bring me a book she thought I would like based on my last sermon: Invisible Lines of Connection by Lawrence Kushner. I sat down with it this morning and read this paragraph:
The stories in our lives are like pages of a stamp album. We find ourselves collecting and reassembling ordinary, even trivial pieces of our childhood, trying, through different rearrangements, to comprehend their meaning. Perhaps if I put these on this page and move those to another, then add one from the stock book, the page will look right an finally make sense. That’s what we do. We take memories which are only distilled stories, add new ones, and in so doing, redefine their meaning and the shape of our lives.
One of the pictures that hangs on our wall is of me as a three year old squatting in front of a bucket of painted Easter eggs. I’m in rolled up jeans and a striped t-shirt. The picture ran on the front page of the Bulawayo Chronicle, Monday, March 20, 1960. As my parents tell it, we were in the store and I found my way back behind the counter to where they were painting the eggs and helped myself. The newspaper photographer saw me, took the picture, and then told my folks where I was. I cans ee myself in the picture, but I don’t remember the moment. A forty-six year string of Mondays runs from there to here, piecing together the moments that make up my life. I’m still working with how they fit on the page. I recognize the kid in the picture; some days he feels more familiar than others.
Up in my office I have a picture of me in ninth grade between classes at Nairobi International School. Someone sent me the picture after those of us who went to school there got together a couple of years ago. I remember NIS, and I remember me – but not like I look in that picture. I remember being short and fat. Though I’m not particularly tall, I’m not heavy. Once again, I don’t remember the exact moment the picture was taken, but I do remember what it felt like to be in ninth grade, at least for me. Those were days I wanted to be anyone else but me. I didn’t feel as cool as those around me. I thought they were being kind to let me hang out with them. When we met for our reunion, I saw they remembered it differently and welcomed me warmly.
The picture posted with my profile is my favorite picture of me, even though I look like I’m the winner of the David Wells Look-a-Like Contest. Our friends Charles and Jennifer were visiting (with our godchildren Ally and Samuel) and we went to the Sox game. It was a perfect afternoon. Jennifer had her camera and snapped the picture. I do remember that moment. I was glad to be me with my wife and my friends watching the Red Sox play baseball in Fenway Park.
Across all the years, through all the inches I have grown and clothes I have outgrown, through all the places I have lived, through all the things done and left undone, I’ve been Milton. There is probably not one cell of my body today that is original equipment, but I’m still me trying to figure out what it means to be me. Keeping this journal through Lent is part of they way I keep figuring it out.
As Holy Week begins, it strikes me that the church lives out the same process of moving memories around to redefine their meaning. Every year around Easter we get hit with a bunch of new books and new discoveries related to Christianity. This year, among others, the Gospel of Judas is getting a lot of press. Though the manuscript is not a new discovery, scholars are finally to a place where they can begin to tell us what this ancient text says. Over the past couple of years we’ve also learned of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
I’m as interested in how people have responded to the news of these gospels as I am in what the gospels themselves have to say. It’s like finding a box of old photographs showing family members doing things you never thought they did. Look, here’s your macho grandfather who was always hunting in a community production of “Guys and Dolls.” The aunt you knew only as the one who was always knitting coming home from a skydiving trip. Wait – here’s one of all of us. I don’t remember ever being there.
Not one cell of the church, as it is now gathered, is original material. Two thousand years later, we have stories, memories, and surprises. We have to keep trying different rearrangements, as Kushner says, to understand what our faith means in our particular incarnation of it. The history is important: our faith is built on stories we must continue to tell even as we grow and change and learn new stories as well.
That last paragraph sounds too much like a sermon. Sorry. I’m chasing something with more heart than a teaching moment. The lives of the disciples, as they are described in the New Testament, are about as two-dimensional as the photographs of my childhood. We get some insight into those folks, but not enough to know them. What I have read about Judas’ gospel sounds as though the creators of Jesus Christ Superstar had an advance copy. I saw that musical (in a rock concert form) when I was in sixth grade. It was the first and only concert my dad ever took me to see. Since that night I’ve thought Judas was more complex than he comes across in the gospels. Maybe I want him to be because I want to find meaning and redemption in my own contradictions. If all I am can be captured in one moment – particularly my worst moment – how can Easter matter? What’s the point?
I don’t want to walk through Holy Week as though it were a trip down memory lane, or some kind of historic duty. I’m not looking to only remember resurrection; I need new life. This week matters.