The picture of the resurrected Lord that I remember from childhood isn’t a picture of an empty tomb, but of Christ returning triumphantly to the Earth for his Second Coming.
Angels surround him, playing celestial trumpets as he rides in on the clouds. And Jesus, arms wide open with white robe flowing behind him in the breeze of his descent, comes toward a desert landscape—probably somewhere in the Great Basin along Utah’s Wasatch Front.
I grew up in a faith tradition that doesn’t use the cross. We have the risen Lord, not the dead one, they said. It made sense to me at the time. Who wants to think about Jesus’ death—the agony, the betrayal, the humiliation of it all? Better just to focus on some future day, when he comes back again in might and glory and this time manages to rid the world of people not like us.
Like I said. Total sense.
Until I realized that you can’t be reborn until you’ve died first.
Growing up, I had a sense that being right about God was the most important thing in the world, followed closely by obeying all the rules. It turned God into something of a Cosmic Vending Machine: I’d input orthodoxy and obedience, like a dollar bill, and in return I’d get peace and happiness in this life and power and glory in the next.
The only problem was that the goodies always seemed to get stuck on the way out. It left me tired, discouraged, guilt-ridden for my inevitable failings—and at the bottom of it all, I doubted deeply. Of course, this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, and I was certain that my distress was the result of my own inadequacy. I built up walls around myself, so that no one would see how flawed I was. It was my own personal temple to shame.
It came crashing in around me one drizzly spring night. I was seated at my kitchen table, long after my family had gone to bed. Maybe it was the bleakness of the day, but all I know is that I found myself whispering words I had never dared admit to anyone, especially myself: “Dear God, I don’t know if any of this is real. Including you.”
It’s funny. I had dreaded those words for so long, but as soon as they escaped my lips, I felt free. Not that there was anything magical about those particular words or this particular struggle—simply, I was finally free to explore what was real because I had let my false self die, and my false god with it.
In scripture, Jesus promised to rebuild the temple after it was destroyed. The disciples thought he meant the temple at Jerusalem, but Jesus was speaking of himself. I’ve discovered that rebirth looks different from what you’d expect, but somehow, it’s better than anything you’d ever invent for yourself, because you’re breathing the clean air of truth.
Barbara Brown Taylor says, “What appear to be death throes may be the strenuous pangs of birth.” And rebirth seems to spring up in the most unexpected places: an empty kitchen, a doubting head, a broken heart.