Articles, Essays & Sermons

Open Letter to My Daughter

Easter morning, with the stench of death still in the air

by Ken Sehested
Eastertide 1991

Background. In 1991, after hearing that the bombing had begun in Iraq, I knew I had to respond—respond in a way like never before. After discussing it with my family and then with a clearness committee of trusted friends, I began a bread-and-water fast. It started on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and lasted until Easter morning.

To prepare for the breaking of the fast I invited friends in Memphis to join me in a sunrise eucharistic service at the “Yellow Fever Martyrs Memorial and Mass Grave” park (right) on the banks of the Mississippi River, honoring those who died while tending the sick during several yellow fever epidemics that swept through the city in the 1870s. I asked my oldest daughter, 14 years old at the time, to preside at the meal. During the following week I wrote her the following open letter to further interpret the season just past.

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Dear Jessica,

      Never before have you seen your father weep so bitterly, so publicly, with so much pain, as I did six-and-a-half weeks ago on Wednesday evening, January 16, upon hearing the news that the U.S. had begun bombing Iraq. But neither have you seen me standing, looking at you this Easter morning, with so much pride, with so much joy, with so much hope.

      No doubt my earlier tears frightened you at first. And you were probably unsure of what I was doing when I first talked with you in early February about my desire to begin the bread-and-water fast for Lent. But now, with this morning's Eucharist, you are ministering to me as I break this fast of repentance to proclaim Easter's promise that death does not have the last word in creation.

      I have the clear sense that, despite your tender age, you intuitively understand the curious relation between suffering and joy, between despair and hopefulness. My reason for writing this letter to you is so that you may more fully comprehend this confusing, seemingly contradictory reality. For though we celebrate Easter's resurrection announcement, the stench of death is still in the air.

      Even before our resurrection flowers have wilted, we will be confronted again with the presence of evil. Since Easter falls early in the calendar this year, in the coming resurrection week we will be forced to remember the enduring power of death. In 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, was executed two days after Easter Sunday by the Nazis for resisting their authority. This next Thursday, April 4, we will remember the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. right here in Memphis. And right now, half a world away, the terror of our country's military power is manifest in unspeakable devastation.

      God may be in the heavens, but all is surely not right with the world. Jesus' defeat of the world's power of crucifixion didn't make things all right. You may ask, How honest is it for us to celebrate Easter's resurrection when so much blood continues to be shed? How can we proclaim Easter's promise in an increasingly violent world? Doesn't the world snicker at resurrection claims? In fact, doesn't most of the church secretly ignore this promise? These questions must be faced.

      In our sunrise service this morning, many shared stories of our baptism. We've done so because the tradition in the early church was to baptize new believers on Easter morning, just as you yourself were plunged beneath the water—lowered by your mother and me into that healing flood—on Easter morning five years ago. . . .

      As you know, early on the church's observance of the Lord's Supper was linked to the renewal of baptismal vows, as a time to recall that old ways are past and new ways have come, that the old order of domination and violence has ended and that the new order of justice, mercy and peace has begun. As the Scriptures say, whenever one is in Christ—baptized into Jesus' life, death and resurrection—there is a new creation. The joy meal is our foretaste—our aperitif—that a new reality has been made manifest, been made flesh; and it is the announcement that a rupture has occurred—that, as Jesus said, "Behold I make all things new."

      By asking you to lead in our communion meal this morning, I am trying to tell you something very important, something which most of the Christian community in our culture has forgotten, something which many Christian leaders work hard to suppress. The disturbing message of the eucharistic meal is this:

      There is no resurrection by proxy. {Vincent Harding}

      You may know that when shareholders of a large company have a business meeting, any of them can vote by proxy, which means they can authorize someone else to stand in for them, to vote in their place. They don't have to be personally present.

      But there is no resurrection by proxy. No one can stand in for you. You have to be personally present. One of my favorite spirituals says: "Take me to the water, to be baptized. My mother cannot carry me. . . . My father cannot carry me. . . . The preacher cannot carry me, to be baptized." But the last verse says, "My Jesus, he will carry me, to be baptized." As much as I, as you father, would like to spare you the pain of discipleship, I nor anyone else can do that. We can't send a substitute to take your place. You have to be there in person.

      There's an old French proverb that says: To love is to suffer. That's a good way to sum up the meaning of the Christian season of Lent. Most of our culture prefers to celebrate Valentine's Day [February 14 that year] rather than Ash Wednesday [February 13 that year]. Most people are repulsed by the thought of smudging ashes on the forehead in the shape of a cross. Most, even in the church, shy away from the mark of crucifixion. Instead of the body-broken, blood-spilt meal which Jesus offered, most prefer the empty calories of candy. Valentine candy is the Gospel of our culture.

      But there is no resurrection by proxy. To love as God loves results in suffering as God suffers. Jesus—whom we speak of as "God's only begotten"—represents that painful affirmation.

      As you know, President Bush, in referring to the military victory in the Middle East, has talked a lot recently about a "new world order." But there is absolutely nothing new about the world order he envisions. It is an order built on the power of violence, on the rule of the gun barrel. In George Bush's order, in Saddam Hussein's order, only the strong survive. And their survival comes at the cost of much blood.

      Certainly there is a similarity between Bush's "new world order" and the new order which Jesus proclaimed. For your survival as a believer also comes at the cost of blood. But the difference is that those who live according to the old world order are required to shed the blood of others in order to maintain their power. Your power—the power of the believing community—comes in your ability to voluntarily give your own blood, to absorb violence rather than to retaliate, to suffer rather than to inflict suffering.

      In the end, only bloody timbers make for lasting peace. Only suffering love can bring reconciliation. Martin Luther King Jr. said it well, speaking out of the context of painful personal experiences in the Civil Rights Movement: "To our most bitter opponents we say: 'We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. . . . But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.'"

      In the end, only bloody timbers make for peace. Only suffering love can bring reconciliation. The power of God to bring salvation comes only by relinquishing the very things which the world thinks are essential to being safe. Thus, as the Scriptures say, Jesus did not count himself equal with God, but relinquished that privilege so that the gulf of violence and enmity might finally be bridged. Rather, "he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" and "humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2: 8, 9).

      I realize that all this talk about suffering sounds so harsh, so frightening, so morbid. The irony is that the opposite is true. The truth of the matter is that, as the old hymn says, "the way of the cross leads home." In the suffering we find our highest calling, because the suffering leads to healing and wholeness, leads to redemption. The voluntary shedding of our own blood washes clean the bitterness which infects the world. As Jesus said, only when we lose our lives will we find them. Only as we humble ourselves—associate with and tend to the needs of the lowly, the despised, the poor—only then will we be raised to the joy of living.

      Your life in God's Spirit is actually the very reason you will know suffering, the reason you will know sadness and disappointment. Not that suffering is good! It most certainly is not, and you should never, ever seek it. But it will find you, simply because God is looking, through the eyes of your soul, at creation as it was intended from the beginning. And when you see what God intended, what is now visible brings great sadness. And this sadness will cause you to be near those who suffer, to experience their pain, to attempt to bring healing and hope. You can't bring healing and hope from a safe distance. You have to get up close, which inevitably will mean you will feel the pain yourself.

      Nevertheless, rejoice! Rejoice, even in your suffering, for God is at work redeeming creation. Rejoice, even in your suffering, for you are one of God's instruments of redemption. Rejoice, even in your suffering, for redemption is not simply your personal possession, but is being extended—through you and other believers—across the whole world.

      At Easter we remember the announcement of this resurrection moment. But there is no resurrection by proxy. We must personally enter into God's drama of redemption. We must, as Jesus commanded, pick up our own cross and follow.

      May you and I both continue to learn these things—and continue to teach these things to each other—all the days of our lives.

      Love, Dad.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org