Branches of Meaning
Based on Acts 2:14-24, 1Peter 1:3-9, Psalm 16, John 20:19-29
Mark Nepo is a spiritual author, poet and storyteller. He has a number of best-selling books which reflect his approachable and broad concept of spirituality. In his book, “The One Life We’re Given: Finding the Wisdom that Waits in Your Heart”, he tells a story about finding meaning throughout our lives. It resonated with me this week when my dear friend, Bruce Lugn, told this story to our contemplative prayer group. I found it to be not only a brilliant bit of storytelling, but also a new way to experience our scriptures this first Sunday of Eastertide. Let’s hear the first part of the story from Mr. Nepo: “A troubled widower made his way to ask a wise old woman about his troubles. The old woman received him and they walked along a stream. She could see the pain in his face. He began to tremble as he asked, “What’s the point? Is there any meaning to life?” She invited him to sit on a large stone near the stream. She took a long branch and swirled it in the water, then replied, “It all depends on what it means to you to be alive.” In his sorrow, the man dropped his shoulders and the old woman gave him the branch. ‘Go on,’ she said, “touch the branch to the water….’”
I’m thinking that the followers of Jesus were in a similar psychological place as the “troubled widower” in Mr. Nepo’s story. They had lost their Lord, teacher and friend in a most horrific manner; had heard from Mary Magdalene that He was alive but they hadn’t yet seen Him; were holed up in the Upper Room with doors locked for fear of the Temple and Roman authorities; were unsure of their way forward. It was too soon in their grief to grasp the significance of His life, or to find any meaning beyond the fact that He was dead. There was only the dark emptiness, disorientation and pain of acute grief and loss. They couldn’t get their minds around the fact that Mary had seen Jesus alive and that He was “ascending to His [my] Father and our Father, to His [my] God and our God”. They found themselves as paralyzed by these circumstances as the Roman guards had been when the angel rolled away the stone at the empty tomb. They were in a liminal space – a space between now and the future, and they needed to be galvanized into action by the wisdom of their hearts. Sounds similar to what many of us are experiencing now…doesn’t it? Let us ask God in this liminal time to galvanize us with the power of the Holy Spirit and the peace of Christ to find meaning in our lives…
The writer of 1Peter is exhorting the believers in diaspora who are suffering “various trials” – likely persecutions because of their beliefs. The writer reminds them that they have been given “a new birth into a living hope” by God’s miracle of the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. By continuing to have a genuine faith and trust that God will do for them what was done for Jesus, they will be glorified and honored when the Christ returns. Even though they had never seen Jesus, their unwavering faith in Him will lead to their salvation.
Peter is giving his first sermon in Acts Chapter 2 in response to the actions of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost. The ability of the Galilean disciples to speak in other languages is being seen by some as a gift of drunkenness. Peter derides that line of thinking letting all know that it is the fulfillment of what God through the prophet Joel had foretold about the “last days”. Peter tells the Jews in the crowd that though Jesus was handed over to the Romans to be crucified, that this was all according to God’s plan. Peter tells the crowd that, “…God raised the Christ [him] up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in death’s [its] power….”
It is evening of that first Easter Sunday and the disciples and assorted friends are gathered behind locked doors in the Upper Room where they had celebrated the Seder meal with Jesus. They were hiding from the Temple and Roman authorities – convinced that they would soon be found out and would suffer the same fate as Jesus. Though Mary Magdalene had told them that she had seen Jesus and that He was ascending to God, the disciples huddled in their room afraid to go out. Thus, Jesus the Christ came to them and calmed their fears with a word of peace and the breath of the Holy Spirit. He empowered them to cast out sins before departing. However, Thomas was not with them and obviously didn’t believe that the others had really seen Jesus in the flesh. Jesus returned, and though Thomas never touched the risen Christ, the wisdom of his heart told him he was in the presence of his Lord and God.
In our human lives, we are always in search of meaning and purpose. We will often confuse ourselves into thinking that some worldly idol (e.g., wealth, power, prestige, recreational drugs and alcohol, relationships, acquisitions) will provide us with these things. The truth is that no worldly idol will ever provide meaning and purpose. Time spent with idols distracts and diverts us from our search for real meaning and purpose; because of that we feel evermore empty and adrift, and the cycle continues. Fear and perceived loss of control are also significant distracting factors in our search for meaning and purpose. Idol worship, fear and perceived loss of control are all at work in our lives these days. Not for a century, and before that not since the great plagues of Europe in the Middle Ages has the majority of the world’s population been so disconnected, dispersed and fearful. We huddle in our homes like those Jesus-followers of old, wondering if and when we (or someone we love) will be lost to this trial. While we wait, are we expecting the risen Christ to come to us and breathe into us meaning and purpose for our lives?
It seems a good time to get back to our story…the wise older woman and the grieving man were sitting beside the stream. She was swirling the long branch in the water and had just responded to his question of whether there could be meaning and purpose in his life following the death of his wife. She said, “It all depends on what it means to you to be alive.” In his sorrow, the man dropped his shoulders and the old woman gave him the branch. ‘Go on,’ she said, “touch the branch to the water.’ As he poked the branch in the running stream, there was something comforting about feeling the movement of the water in his hand through the branch. She touched his hand and said, ‘You see, that you can feel the water without putting your hand in the water, this is what meaning feels like.’ The man grew tender but still seemed puzzled. She said, ‘Close your eyes and feel your wife now gone. That you can feel her in your heart without being able to touch her, this is how meaning saves us.’ The widower began to cry. The old woman put her arm around him, ‘No one knows how to live or how to die. We only know how to love and how to lose, and how to pick up branches of meaning along the way.’”
The Disciple Thomas shows the truth in the older woman’s words with his responses toward the risen Christ. He did not need to touch Christ to feel the meaning that He was Thomas’s Lord and God. Likewise, through the power of the Holy Spirit which we access through the branches of worship, prayer, scripture reading and study, and spending time in community with other believers, we can be in touch with God and God’s meaning and purpose for our lives – this is the path to our salvation. When you are feeling down and unsure of whether you have what it takes to continue on through the trials in your life, consider what the wise older woman taught…it all depends on what it means to you to be truly alive and filled with meaning and purpose. We really do only know how to love and to lose. Consider our present time and those things we have lost. Staying strong with our faith in the risen Christ, however, will allow us to weather this time of trial and come out of it with a greater sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Grab a spiritual branch and dip it in the water of God’s ever flowing stream of love for you and you will find meaning. Amen and amen!