Sunday, April 24, 2011

Blossoms in the Desert

An Easter Sermon in Honor of the Reverend Drew Toler

Gifted Minister, Treasured Friend


Robert Frost, “Peril of Hope”:

It is right in there
Betwixt and between
The orchard bare
And the orchard green,

When the boughs are right
In a flowery burst
Of pink and white,
That we fear the worst.

For there’s not a clime
But at any cost
Will take that time
For a night of frost.

In response to Black Friday and the remembrance of Jesus’ execution, we can share respectfully with others that we are drawn to the Jesus Movement, at least in part, because he lived out love in a world where hatred often tries successfully to snuff it out. Unless you believe that Jesus had to die for your sins to make God happy, which reshapes Jesus’ cruel and unusual execution into a divine necessity and something to celebrate, Black Friday is a sobering day. Without jumping ahead to celebrate Easter, as if the crucifixion didn’t really matter, numerous Christian traditions will gather on Black Friday and force themselves to consider Jesus’ death for the real death, the horribly painful death, that it was.

If you look around enough this season, you will read or hear someone say, “Without crucifixion, there can be no resurrection.” With all due respect to those who believe this: duh! Without crucifixion, there is no NEED FOR resurrection; divine light is undimmed. Our goal in this world, as I see it, is to minimize or eradicate all that loves darkness more than light, all that hates God’s love enough to try to kill it. Until then, there will be the need for resurrections--the rekindling of light and the resuscitation of suffocated love.

The study of the human brain in conjunction with faith experiences has already been established as the newest frontier in the intersection of science and spirituality. The new field established as a result of this arena of hard core data blended with much reflection is neurotheology. The field, which is also known as “spiritual neuroscience,” was at its beginnings, about a decade ago, focused on finding out those parts of or places in the human brain where religious beliefs originate. Now, with dramatically more complex equipment for the study of the brain available, neurotheologians, of which there are very few, dare to study neural activity in the brain during distinctively spiritual activities such as prayer, reading inspirational literature from one’s spiritual tradition, and listening to religious discourse such as a sermon.

One part of neurotheology may be, and not all will agree that it is, the capacity for optimism. Optimism is connected to hope, and most of us, I think, would generally tie hope to faith probabilities or assurances, depending on one’s point of view. Certainly Easter at any level is informed by or bolstered by hope. The writer of the book of Hebrews defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And this is not the only prominent place in Christian scripture where faith and hope are intricately tied together; at the end of Paul’s stirring essay on love, he gets around to saying that when time and the world as we have known them are no more, three realities will still remain: faith, hope, and love. While the greatest of the three is love, faith and hope remain as well. What’s more, the three are strongly related to each other.

The capacity for hope and thus faith, however, can no longer be seen as strictly a “spiritual” matter. So while many of us associate persons of faith with their ability to believe a better day is coming, even against the odds, we now have to recognize that part of their ability to believe whatever they believe is tied to their brain function and/or brain structure. These findings are not entirely unrelated to the discoveries made long ago about how a person’s social experiences along with her or his emotional makeup, influenced to some degree by life events, limit or maximize her or his ability to see God or some faith conviction in a particular way.

So, if “hope springs eternal,” and your favorite song outside Sunday School is from “Annie”: “The sun’ll come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun,” then your neural pathways make that possible. An agnostic, then, may not have a crisis of faith at all, but rather may have a brain structure that prevents certain faith affirmations including matters related to hope.

There actually are brain clusters that are responsible for optimism, and if your brain lacks these clusters then you are not a Dickens’s Scrooge who comes around to be kind and hopeful in the end; you will remain the Ebenezer Scrooge you are because of the structure and function of your brain. Either you were born without the brain clusters that allow people to be optimistic, or they were damaged in some kind of way leaving them nonfunctional.

An optimist may expect to live longer than others in her or his age group. An optimist may expect to be more successful in a chosen profession than her or his peers. An optimist may play down possibilities for divorce in a marriage or a civil union even though they are unmistakably present.

To find out how the brain generates optimism, some New York University research types scanned the brains of 15 volunteers while they imagined possible future life events, both happy and sad. They might be asked to imagine winning an award of some sort; they might also be asked to think about how it would feel if a very important love relationship ended. The scientists discovered that when the volunteers were asked to envision the positive potential future events there was increased productive activity in the same brain clusters that are believed to malfunction in the brain of someone who is suffering from depression.

We don’t want those optimistic brain clusters to kick into high gear, however; if that happens we can become so optimistic that we allow ourselves to believe in bipartisan political achievements and worse. We can become so optimistic that we come to believe in things that are not possible fro us such as believing we can do something physically that we are not capable of doing; we underestimate the risks and attempt to walk on a tightrope anyway--even though we’ve never tried it before. Critics of faith claims that really stretch day to day reality, as most of us experience it, can step in here and offer similar criticisms on the basis of neurotheology. Someone who believes in any kind of resurrection, say the critics, has an overactive brain section that overproduces optimism leading people to believe the impossible.

A moderate level of optimism is consistently linked to physical and mental health. One of the New York researchers said, “A little optimism helps promote actions that lead to good outcomes. Not everything in life will turn out great, but if you thought everything would turn out bad, you'd never do anything.”

One other neuroscientific or neurotheological point to note is that, as one researcher said it, “Optimists, and remember that optimism is produced in the brain, get the last laugh.” There are several reasons for this. One is that optimists generally have better overall physical health than pessimists and those who suffer from advanced levels of chronic depression, and in particular optimists have healthier hearts.

The story of the resurrection of Jesus has long given those who believe in it, at any level, hope; their brains, I guess we would have to say, gave them the capacity to believe that somehow in human experience death is not the final word--or doesn’t have to be. Whether it’s a metaphor or a reflection of practical reality or a profoundly theological insight based on an historic act those who accept resurrection reality at whatever level see more positive possibilities in life than those who do not or cannot.


One of the years I lived and worked in New Orleans was brightened by a young man with a Home Mission Board assignment in the inner city where his theological foundations were challenged. Poverty, violence, the absence of a reason to live he saw all around him, and they drastically challenged his tidy doctrinal instruction to that point in his life. He heard about the liberal preacher over at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church and thought maybe he could get some encouragement or guidance or a blessing from that guy.

Well, I was that guy, and I was often called on to provide such ministry to those with fundamentalist theological leanings that didn’t work for them any longer. I liked that role. This young man and I became coffee buddies and then lunch pals and eventually before he left town good friends. I watched his career develop with amazement. He landed in a ministry position where he was a chaplain to children with cancer, providing pastoral care to their families as well--and not infrequently to the medical teams who cared for the children who died. I couldn’t imagine a more difficult position. He did is masterfully. His marvelous pastoral skills were enhanced by his deep love for his own three sons. Eventually, as almost any of us would expect, he burned out; but he had lasted for years.

From that job, he became manager of an organ transplant team, and he works with the families of organ donors or potential organ donors who have died or who are near death. He has thrown himself into this new ministry with gusto. We keep in touch, but some years ago we fell out of the habit of frequent contact. Not two weeks ago, I opened my email box and saw that I had some e-correspondence from him; I was delighted and began to read it immediately. My heart sank after only a few words, though.

I had a scare last month. Right after my long car trip south, I developed a chronic cough. In February it got worse. My primary doctor was treating me for bronchitis, but nothing was working. In March I made an appointment to see an ENT, and a few days before I was to see him, I started having the worst chest pains. I thought it was pleural effusion (inflammation in the lining of my lungs) from coughing so much. One night I was working a case at a local hospital, and as I was finishing up my part, I could hardly talk or breathe due to severe pain radiating throughout my ribs. I drove myself to another hospital’s ER. They thought I was having a heart attack. After blood tests and a chest CT, I was found to have multiple pulmonary emboli scattered throughout both lungs. A neighbor was the ER doc that night, and when I saw the look on his face as he told me what he saw on my chest CT, I thought I was a dead man.

I was in ICU for about 3 days then on the floor for about 3 days. Multiple blood tests were done, and nothing was showing up in the tests with immediate turn around. I was sent home on an anticoagulant. Now home and back to work.

Last week a genetic test came back indicating that I have a genetic mutation where I produce too much prothrombin (protein that helps the blood clot). I probably developed a leg thrombosis on my road trip. Most likely, from the end of January and through February, that clot was breaking off in micro pieces and going to my lungs causing me to cough so much. The longer I persisted the larger the clots got. The pulmonologist does believe that I'll not notice any difference in breathing capacity once I heal the areas and my body removes the clots.

I am better.

Wanted to let you know.

I sent him an Easter wish this week and referred to his story, the one I’ve just told you, as a resurrection experience. He thought he was a dead man, and he knew a lot about death, enough to know it when he saw it. Now, he’s well, and with attentive medical care the chances are very strong that he’ll stay that way.

The complicated part of talking about a resurrection motif in a story such as my friend’s is that not everybody has one. Some people get sick and don’t get better. He’s forty-something, but the children to whom he ministered for years were often preteens all the way down to toddlers. In a way, it seems cruel to talk about someone who made it through, someone who faced death eyeball to eyeball and lived to tell about it because almost all of us know someone, maybe someone very dear to us, for whom that was not the case; having looked death squarely in the face, death won out and walked away with the one whom we loved with our all.

William Law: “Receive every day as a resurrection from death, as a new enjoyment of life; meet every rising sun with such sentiments of God's goodness, as if you had seen it, and all things, new--created upon your account: and under the sense of so great a blessing.”

Someone’s optimistic brain sections undoubtedly permitted the idea that even if life must be lost in this world, long before its time, there is resurrection at the end of life, and it’s a better resurrection, if you will, because it’s a once and forever kind of thing. Anyone who wins over death in this world will still eventually be defeated by death; there’s no way around it, but the kind of resurrection that Jesus’ followers said that he experienced was a permanent thing. No death, no more. Period. The catch, though, is that such life cannot be maintained in this world of time and space; it is life for another realm. Even if you take Jesus’ resurrection as historical fact--his bodily resurrection, I mean--he still was connected to the world we know for only a matter of days in that state.

Unfortunately, though predictably, the theologians, eventually, had to run in and try to qualify and quantify Jesus’ resurrection experience as well as to try to tell people what they HAD TO believe about it if they wanted a taste of it. Who could have the same kind of experience at the end of this life, and on what basis would that be decided and awarded? It surely couldn’t go to just anybody and everybody. A significant number of theologians and those who rely on their work couldn’t possibly buy into such a “freebie” notion.

Could it be enough to say that death need not be the final word without detailing the life, no pun intended, out of such a faith claim permitted by the brains of a certain number of people in the world? There is no solid proof, so many of us are drawn to metaphors of life in the face of death, life despite the threats of death, “life” being God’s last word just as “life” was the key word in the developing created order from the beginning.

Jeannette Batz: “If poetic metaphor could kill, maybe a resurrection metaphor could save us. In the way that, when we flounder for meaning, an idea can save us, and when we ache with self-hatred, the memory of being loved can save us. Ideas and memories don’t have literal, physical form; you can’t stick your fingers in their sides. So why should we require a biblical resurrection to have more physical verifiability than love itself?”

Victor Hugo: “Nations, like stars, are entitled to eclipse. All is well, provided the light returns and the eclipse does not become endless night. Dawn and resurrection are synonymous. The reappearance of the light is the same as the survival of the soul.”

Arthur Schopenhauer: “Every parting gives a foretaste of death, every reunion a hint of the resurrection.”

Emily Bronte:

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou - Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.


There is no account of Jesus’ resurrection anywhere. Jesus’ didn’t talk about it at all, which seems odd if he came back to life after death and hung out with a bunch of people who’d been his cronies before his execution. What we have are accounts of responses of various people to what is taken to have been Jesus’ resurrection. It’s very, very important that we never forget that. From all indications, the oldest written version of responses to Jesus’ apparent resurrection that has passed down to us is what Paul shared with the Corinthians based on what he’d been taught during his long period of study and reflection between his leaving behind his given birth name, Saul, and taking on a new name based on a life-changing religious experience, Paul; between his rejection of hardcore legalistic Judaism to which he’d been utterly devoted and his embracing of a kind of reconstituted Judaism based on personal relationship with God and not on the keeping of religious rules and laws.

The oldest of the four Gospels, those four documents devoted exclusively to painting Jesus’ from four different perspectives (overlapping in places, but not identical representations of Jesus by any stretch of the imagination), is the Gospel of Mark. Paul wrote all that he wrote and was executed before Mark was written and circulated; Paul completed his writing ministry and was executed by Rome in the early 60’s, several years before Mark began to be circulated in the late 60’s, just before the Roman destruction of the grand Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

While chronology doesn’t always make a huge difference in understanding either a person or an institution or a widely held belief, it’s still usually worth considering; and on the basis of that “usually,” we are considering it on this Easter morning. Therefore, I say again, what Paul wrote in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is the oldest account of responses to Jesus’ apparent resurrection that has passed down to us. Who knows what archaeologists may uncover one of these days, but for now, and for a very long time, this is the way it has been; this is the way it is. Paul’s account, which was based on what someone close to Jesus and his ministry had told Paul, is not only the oldest written account of responses to Jesus’ resurrection we have; ironically, or maybe not, it is also the briefest, no frills attached, written version available to us. Here it is:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

No muss. No fuss. No burial cave. No confusion about who could have moved the huge stone away from the front of the tomb. No discussion of who it was exactly who made it out to the tomb to complete the embalming process with no one or ones in the group of all women who could have moved the heavy stone that sealed the tomb. No mention of one or more divine messengers, angelic or not, chit chatting with the women and giving them encouragement and instruction. All of this, which became so important to so many people and which will be the core of most Easter sermons preached around the world today, was of no concern whatsoever to Paul or, from all indications, to the teacher or teachers who taught him the essentials of Jesus over a multiyear study program.

Paul had some theological affirmations to get across before he got to the few practical details he knew to share. He believed, as did many of Jesus’ early followers, that Jesus’ death was predicted in ancient Hebrew scripture; this could only be affirmed if Jesus were taken to have been the Messiah. Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah or act like the ancients who wrote about the Messiah described messianic actions. Some, plenty of his followers, said he was the Messiah anyway whether he knew it or not; whether he openly admitted it or not. Thus, when Paul refers to Jesus he uses the “Christ” word, which really meant anointed one and nothing more--though it came to be a code word for Messiah.

So Paul buys into the Jesus as Messiah belief, and he buys into the notion that Jesus’ death was predicted by the ancients as was Jesus’ resurrection. Those were the theological issues Paul had been taught and which he felt compelled to pass along to others when he taught lessons about Jesus’ resurrection.

Beyond that, Paul ticked off a list of those to whom Jesus in his transitional body--no longer a biological entity and not yet in a heavenly body if there is such a thing--appeared. The later Gospels will list Mary Magdalene as the first person to whom Jesus appeared in this transitional state, but Paul makes no mention of her. Paul’s teachers had intentionally left Mary off the list, because the group had decided that Peter was to be their key leader in the absence of Jesus in bodily form. I suspect that Paul was only passing along what he’d been taught and that he didn’t intentionally omit Mary. After all, Paul was compulsive and a stickler for details; I think he’d have told everything he knew.

Lots of people, mostly men, are on Paul’s list. Peter is first, and Paul is last; and that’s a stretch. Jesus did not appear to Paul in the way the legends claimed Jesus appeared to others. Paul claimed he had a vision of Jesus and even heard Jesus’ voice when a bolt of lightening struck him, essentially blinding him for the rest of his life but causing him to rethink his priorities and commitments. In that event, Paul came to believe he was on the wrong side of the theological aisle. Instead of persecuting followers of Jesus, he realized he needed to be one. Instead of being a right-wing fundamentalist Pharisee, he needed to be not a libertarian, but more of a theological moderate. Instead of fretting about jots and tittles, he needed to rest himself in the embrace of the God who loved those who kept all the rules and those who did not, those who believed all the right things and those who had no idea what to believe.

The information that Paul passed along about responses to Jesus’ apparent resurrection wasn’t given as something on a required list of beliefs for those who wanted a relationship with God not only in this world, but also in the next--though Paul himself certainly thought those who rejected Jesus’ resurrection as fact had pita for brains. The information was given as a foundation for hope, hope that if death wasn’t the last word for Jesus, neither would it have to be the last word for anyone who wanted more of God and more with God than this world could afford.

The passage from First Isaiah read for us earlier is a joyful and picturesque passage. If you didn’t know already, you’d never guess that it follows one of the darkest, most gruesome segments in Hebrew scripture. What comes before our joyful passage is a passage of dark symbols describing what happens to groups and nations who reject the ways of God. They bring doom upon themselves, and the milieu in which they are thereafter forced to live is nothing more than the most barren of deserts. Life has been replaced with lifelessness; then, all of a sudden, without expectation or probability, beautiful life sprouts in the most barren of desert places. This can’t be! But it is!

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” Resurrection. Life overcomes lifelessness. Life overcomes death. Death loses; life wins. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.’” Resurrection. Weakness gives way to strength. Fearlessness overtakes fearfulness!

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water....

Resurrection. What was dead is enlivened. Usefulness wins out over uselessness. What is parched and cracked is replenished with ever-flowing streams. “The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly!” Amen.