Gazing into the Tomb

Post Author: Name Withheld

desert bloomI stood on the side of the interstate, blowing into a Breathalyzer, hoping that whatever number popped up was below the legal limit. The thought raced through my head, “If I get arrested, who will I call to bail me out?”

I should have been worried about what would happen when the congregation I pastored found out. I should have been worried about what would happen if a DUI were revealed in the background check that was part of my desperate search for a new job. Instead, the question kept coming, “Who will I call to bail me out?”

I still thank God I never had to answer that question.

That was one of the lowest moments in the two years I spent at my first full time pastoral call. Well, maybe. The truth is, most of the time I spent in that call was bad.

If I started a list of all the ways the call was bad, I don’t know how long I would keep writing. Most everything came down to the fact that the congregation wanted to fire their pastor of nearly 20 years. Instead, they hired me to correct his ministry while working as part of a pastoral “team.” Dysfunctional systems plagued the church; the community substituted nostalgia for what had been for the hope of what could be.

Their brokenness seeped into me, finding its way into my body and my soul.  Soon, I was sleeping at least ten hours a night, often more.  A ten-pound weight gain turned into twenty, then forty, then fifty.  Calorie counting and exercise didn’t make a difference, so why bother? Two margaritas after every church meeting turned into three or four. They dulled my senses and suppressed the aches that never left my body.

The few folks hoping for something better at the church withdrew; most left within the first year of my coming, as they realized the long-term pastor would not participate in any of the changes the congregation had recommended.

To add to a difficult job, I found myself in the lonely position of being the only ordained woman in a small town that is a bedroom community to a larger metro area. In two years, none of the other pastors in the town bothered to learn my name, even though we ate together nearly every month at the local Ministerial Alliance meeting. The town where my congregation was and the larger city nearby were both inhospitable to any newcomers. I had never known such isolation.

The friends I did find were liberal, gay or atheist. None of those things bothered me; all of those things meant that my friends couldn’t be part of the life I shared with my congregation.

Doctors offered anti-depressants, therapy and sleep studies. The most common advice: “Find a new job.” That advice was also the only help offered by the judicatory body.

The goodness of God’s beautiful, miraculous, unbelievable call to ministry seemed a distant memory. Assurance of that call never faded, but if this was what following that call meant, I was prepared to withdraw my answer, “Here I am. Send me.”

Now, like Mary looking into an empty tomb, I live in amazement. Like Mary, looking into an empty tomb, I wonder if I can trust my senses.

Can this be true? I serve a congregation whose main question to me during interviews was, “Do you support LGBTQ rights?” I serve a congregation whose first answer is yes:  yes to the stranger, yes to putting in a community garden, yes to new orders of worship, yes to figuring out relationships with people radically different from us, including the Hispanic congregation with whom we share space. Yes. Their first answer is always yes. Yes, let’s change. Yes, let’s run headlong into this place where God is calling us to be.

Can this be true? One day soon, will I say the wrong thing and all of it disappear? Will I wake up from this beautiful dream and find I am still living in the nightmare? Can this really, honestly be true?

As I live wondering whether this community that God has called into being is really, really true, I feel Something outside me take hold. That Something must be God, too, for that Something is at work, taking over all that brokenness that had seeped into me. Heal is the wrong word, for the scars are still there. Reverse is the wrong word, for that assumes a return to the person I was before.

And, like Mary looking into the empty tomb, I start to wonder, “Is this resurrection?”

I now live my life in the deserts of Arizona, with both skyscrapers and mountains in the distance. The sky is bluer than I ever imagined possible; the sweet smells of a desert spring fill the air. I never knew that deserts bloom, too.

Here in this place, my body and soul have come alive. My clothes became loose within a week of my arrival. The mountains call, so I hike. Pools glisten, so I swim. I wake, on my own, to the doves’ call in the early morning light. Everyone around me has moved here from somewhere else, so conversation is easy to come by.

I wonder, now, how long Mary gazed into that empty tomb. I wonder how long she waited, thinking her eyes deceived her. I wonder how long it took her, after she had seen the risen Lord, to decide to shout the news to anyone who would listen. I wonder how long it was before the Spirit prodded her conclusion, “This is real.”

I wonder, because I’m still not sure this is real.

I think, though, that maybe, just maybe, this is resurrection. If this were not resurrection, the wounds from those two years would still be raw and oozing. If this were not resurrection, I would still taste bitterness and anger. If this were not resurrection, it would not feel so otherworldly.

This must be resurrection because the death of those two years seems more dream than memory. This must be resurrection because that death has lost its sting. This must be resurrection because that death has no power over me any more.

And the strangest thing of all? This confession: there had to be death for resurrection to come.  This resurrection would not be so sweet if death had not been so brutal. This resurrection would not be so unexpected if hope had not disappeared. Without death, life could not have taken over.

Now, the taunt of Easter comes easily from my mouth, for the first time a natural response rather than a forced claim, “O death, where is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

For Christ is risen, and I am risen, indeed.

Photo Credit:  Photo by author, name withheld


5 replies
  1. Mariclair
    Mariclair says:

    Alleluia! I feel like I could have written this. Congratulations on your new call, and I know how hard it can be to trust that it is really that good- when I started my resurrection call, I got the wonderful advice to shake the dust off my sandals, and keep walking. And let them love you!

  2. Julie
    Julie says:

    Thank you for these words. I cried as I read them, remembering my toumb, and giving thanks for the resurrection that only comes from death. Your writing is beautiful – I could see the hills and mountains and pools and doves, and pray you can stay for a long time, serving in joy.


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