We all have beginnings. I guess except God.
But the earth, air, light, animals, humanity all “began.” However you think about it, unless you have a better theory, everything begins. Also except for the mobius strip, everything has an end. Nobody likes to really think about it, especially at church because it is a little depressing. We all love the new, the fresh, the recently purchased, and are not so interested in the end of things.
I remember seeing the movie “stand by me” when I was almost in middle school. Stand by me was a movie with a really great 50’s soundtrack, and was about 4 middle school boys going to go see a dead body that they learned about from one of the kids older brothers. I was almost the age of these boys, and I wished that I could have their adventure on the train tracks. These boys were in the beginning of their life as they embarked on this adventure. In this beginning they learned about the abuse that one of the boys took from his father. In this beginning they dodged a train from a bridge. Something about this movie’s storyline was a magnet to my soul. And as I was a kid that was in the beginning of my life, I was learning from them. I learned the story of Lardass Hogan and how he got back at the entire town for being so mean to him. I was a part of boyscouts, but there wasn’t that solitary intimacy where stories were told and hikes were made. We were city kids. Something about this beginning was fresh, and spoke to me. Near the end of the film the narrator talked about where everyone was now. One of the kids had grown up to be a bar tender and was killed because he got in the middle of a fight and was knifed. A grim end. There probably wouldn’t be a movie that would depict that storyline. Unless it was a story of revenge, ending in the justice and retribution of the innocent.
I’m probably going to get flack for this one, but I recently read the hunger games because of the hype encircling the new movie. And I was disappointed. Not because it wasn’t a rivoting storyline, it was super engaging. I just didn’t think the author would go there. When I learned the nature of the book, I thought: “Surely I won’t read about children killing each other… this will be a good book about how one person revolutionizes the status quo.” But I was wrong. I read about children killing other children in a gruesome battle. I thought it would be a story of alliance, and morality over the forced hand of the evil government. Nope. It’s about a girl who kicks the ass of other children in the hunger games. I’m pretty sure the other books in the series will get there eventually. I’m just not interested anymore, because though it is rivoting I feel sort of betrayed that the author had me go there, and realistically I don’t need to read any more about kids killing other kids.
When it comes to storyline, I enjoy suspense, I enjoy a real ending where the main character learns the whole story and it has an ominous tone. I love a happy ending as well… who am I kidding. Or if there is a poignant Standing on a desk and saying O captain my captain. And the bagpipes are sounding. And you are seeing respect of someone that is getting fired for being a scapegoat. Well you have me in tears. But full on tragedy or blatant gore to the end. You’ve lost me. I guess its all about where the story goes, and finally how it ends.
I wonder what the end of the story was like for Nicodemus. Nicodemus was this guy who was a part of the Sanhedrin that shows up in John’s telling of Jesus’ story. The Sanhedrin was the people that ran things in the temple. And because of the controversy surrounding Jesus, Nicodemus met him during the night. It was Nic’s beginning, at least in our story…that we hear the fabled football verse: John 3:16. For God loved the world that He gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not parish but have life abundant. TOUCHDOWN! He knew Jesus was a master of the things of God. But in the beginning, was completely confused by him. How do I enter my mothers womb again? He asked as Jesus talked about being born again. Can you imagine being introduced to Jesus and having his first things that he says make you question if he is asking you to crawl up your mom’s vagina?
Nic was on the inside, but he saw that Jesus had something that he wanted. He wanted clarification. He snuck around to find it, but was confused by Jesus’ answers. Messages about being re-born from the spirit, thoughts about how God works like the wind, cryptic words about salvation associated with moses’ serpent staff being raised up, and finally a soliloquy on trust in who Jesus is as the Son of God.
Something happened in that beginning besides confusion though, because Nic seems to keep popping in and out of John’s storyline. The next time he shows up in John 7 the Sanhedrin were starting to get pissed at Jesus’ message. They had sent some officers to seize Jesus, and the officers didn’t do it. Irate, they began accusing the officers for being taken in by Jesus’ magic. But Nic piped up, he said “Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?” He questioned the torches and pitchforks they had for Jesus’, and very quickly they dismissed Nicodemus because of where he grew up. “you’re from galilee.” Here is a man, wealthy, has religious power. Yet because he was a voice of reason that went against the dominant paradigm, he was diminished.
Finally we see Nicodemus, after Jesus has been cruxified. John writes this: Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus at night, came now in broad daylight carrying a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. They took Jesus’ body and, following the Jewish burial custom, wrapped it in linen with the spices. There was a garden near the place he was crucified, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been placed. So, because it was Sabbath preparation for the Jews and the tomb was convenient, they placed Jesus in it.
He had come at night, and now he came in broad daylight. Peter who denied Jesus 3 times, said there was no connection between them, was shown up by Nicodemus; someone who only felt comfortable talking to him at night.
This is Nicodemus’ end of the story. Burying Jesus. I’m not sure if being a part of the Sanhedrin that Nicodemus would be ignorant of the rumors that went out Easter morning. But this is all John gives us of this character. Nicodemus’ story ends here with myrrh and aloes in the light of day.
And I think that is what I want us to hold in tension here. I am so programmed to want the happy ending, or the new beginning where everything is fresh, or stand on that hope, that I don’t feel the difficulty of the end. I gloss over the loss of the character that got stabbed because that isn’t a good storyline. I feel gross inside because the author instead of giving me a vibrant story of revolution and morality I am stuck with the horror of children that end each other’s lives. Ends aren’t fun. And because of my need to skip to the Resurrection, I miss the value of the end of Nicodemus’ story.
His story is one of being placed in an impossible situation where to align with Jesus is to be diminished. He is intrigued; he sneaks to learn from him, he finds Jesus has much about him that is right, he begins defending him to his group, and yes he gets diminished, and finally.. in the end Nicodemus finds too much value in Jesus to sneak around, and he chooses to honor him with burial. The end of this story is not only one of compassion, but one of revolution. He is there tending to his friend in the light of day. Nicodemus’ end is a farewell to being bound by the constrains that the Sanhedrin would have for him. Though we may want to skip to Jesus conquering death, Nic’s mournful compassion of Jesus unlocked the chains of control his world had over him. Let’s not skip the weight and meaning of ends so that we can plow into new beginnings.
It is important to feel that loss. To be present in it. It allows us to cling to loved ones for support. It opens us up to new possibilities. It makes us human. It is hard, and scary, but if we don’t face it we will miss the weight and meaning in the end.
It is very much like in the Charlie brown cartoon where Linus is waiting for his blanket to be dried. There is nothing to hold onto. Anxiety and self doubt are up, motivation and efficiency is down. Old weaknesses such as confused priorities and miscommunications emerge. People are polarized. Teamwork is undermined.
You never want to read a book or watch a movie that yields those results… it’s not worth it. Waste of money. Yet we all have beginnings and we all have ends. And yes those end’s transition into new beginnings. But today I want to pay respect to the weight and importance of the farewell.
Donna VanHorn has been a part of our community for years, and two or three years ago began the process of taking this community on as a responsibility. Within that time she listened to you, enjoyed you, spent Christmas with you, loved you. Also within that time she grappled with an end of her own. A threatening bout of cancer that through the difficulty of surgery and medication challenged who she thought she was. Now, as a masters holder in spiritual direction, Donna’s end with us is here. And It is important for us to say: thank you, we love you, and do great things.
Two months ago we did a journaling workshop in grief that Donna inspired. I went through the difficulty of coming to terms with the end of my dad’s life. He died about 2 years ago of a brain tumor.
In one particular exercise I remembered a time in which I played my harmonica in the Westminster Presbyterian Cathedral at my Grandpa’s funeral. My aunt LouAnne who is a harpist accompanied me. We played amazing grace together. Me for my Grandpa, and her for her dad. We had many beginnings together. My grandpa teaching me to hike up a hill in a zig zag fashion to make it less steep. Him teaching me how to fish. And him throwing me a box of harmonicas and telling me that I should learn, because he never did. LouAnne and I played in memory of him that day at his funeral.
It was this image that came to me as I was remembering my Dad. My dad was a civil war buff, and collected artifacts from that time. When he was 3 months away from dying, he chose what song would be played at his funeral. The song is called the Ashokan Farewell. A song that was made popular from the civil war series on PBS. It is those two thoughts that merged in my mind to bring this journal to life for me. Here it is:
The Harmonica solo resounds throughout the space, the harp is playing the joy and golden tone echoing through the cathedral walls. The sound echos and is warm and happy to be here with you.
The song rises and falls and is dreamy, the joy is bright and the vibrato is like water on the still pond that you tossed a small stone into.
The brightness of the tone is like the mountain air.
The tone than goes to the Ashokan Farewell and paints the dark clear night and a large full moon over the water.
The dreamy sadness is sweet in the air and the memory of my dad is within it.
The song ends and there is a warmth and echo in the sanctuary
[The warmth of the wood and the cushions of the sanctuary allow me to be still and happy."
I love you Dad.
The sun is sinking low in the sky above Ashokan.
The pines and the willows know soon we will part.
There’s a whisper in the wind of promises unspoken,
And a love that will always remain in my heart.
My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter,
The magic of moving as one,
And a time we’ll remember long ever after
The moonlight and music and dancing are done.
Will we climb the hills once more?
Will we walk the woods together?
Will I feel you holding me close once again?
Will every song we’ve sung stay with us forever?
Will you dance in my dreams or my arms until then?
Under the moon the mountains lie sleeping
Over the lake the stars shine.
They wonder if you and I will be keeping
The magic and music, or leave them behind.
Give Donna a hug. Be sad, Be happy for her, Be present, and celebrate her farewell with us.