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Mountains with many faces

Snowy mountain peakby Liv Larson Andrews

for saints Florence, Leonard, Thomas and Pamela

Over the phone, Grandma Florence’s voice was weary. “I just don’t know if I can do it anymore,” she said.  

“Do what?” I asked.

“Say the creed.”

“Oh.”

My 95-year-old grandmother explained how she felt uncomfortable speaking the words of the creeds aloud when she had come to question so many of the images and ideas in them. She mentioned the virgin birth, the idea of hell, “and sometimes,” she added, “I’m not so sure I believe in the resurrection.”

As a parting gift to humanity, Leonard Cohen recorded his last album in October 2016. He died the following November 7. In the title track, “You Want It Darker,” you can hear his low, gravelly voice sing about the crucifixion and Jesus’ experience of abandonment and shame:

“Magnified, sanctified be thy holy name.

Vilified, crucified in the human frame.

A million candles burning for the help that never came.

You want it darker; we kill the flame.”

The song’s refrain comes around to a Hebrew phrase, hineni, or “here I am.” Like my grandmother, Cohen’s song doesn’t really come around to resurrection. It’s kind of a song for everything opposite Easter: death, darkness, doubt. Yet it also offers a chorus welling straight up from the tomb, voicing a deep, broken, cross-centered faith. Can we listen to the voice of doubt in the Easter season, too?

Doubt and faith are often compared to two sides of a coin: two faces, one thing. I find that as I work with people in my community, as I listen to the darkness in Leonard Cohen’s voice and as I try to understand my grandmother’s questions, the journey and the struggle with faith has more than just two faces.

Around my home in the inland northwest of the United States, mountain peaks rise up—offering a more fitting image for our life of faith. These hills are varied. Some peaks are smooth and gentle, worn down by glaciers crossing over the land thousands of years ago. Other peaks are craggy and dramatic, so high they reached above the ancient glaciers and were never weathered by moving ice. Somehow all of these mountains speak to me about the wide variety of ways we walk the path of faith.

Every mountain, however, has a north face. The north face is always the darkest, scariest and hardest side of a peak to ascend. According to my rock climber friends, it is also the most interesting and compelling side of the mountain. Maybe the experience of doubt is like climbing on the north face: sometimes exhilarating and motivating, sometimes perilous and deathly. If we need a human voice to embody the feel of the north face, it could be that of Leonard Cohen.

And if there is a character in Scripture who models “faith on the north face” and speaks from this cold, dark, yet compelling place, it is Thomas. Perhaps it is a kind of hidden joke within the lectionary that on the first Sunday after Easter, a Sunday known for low attendance in worship, we meet Thomas, the guy who wasn’t there. When the other disciples had gathered in fear behind locked doors, Thomas was out and about somewhere else. Maybe he was coping with his grief about the crucifixion by being out in the world, serving, loving, climbing onward. We’re not told why he’s absent from the scene in the 20th chapter of John, but he certainly misses out when Jesus appears to the other believers, showing his wounded side and hands, breathing peace upon their gathering. Having met the Risen Lord in the flesh, the disciples receive a bodily grasp on the reality of the resurrection. They can take hold, literally. Thomas, not so much. He’s left alone to sing in the dark.

Muscle memory

Climbing, bicycle riding, roller-skating, swimming: So many of the ways we move or exercise are learned once and stay with us. Perhaps we lose part of a skill or our abilities diminish if we don’t participate for a while, but the basic moves—the backstroke in the pool, a lie-back in a crevasse, the way our toes push off the ground to begin pedaling the bike—come back to us with just a little practice. Somehow our bodies retain knowledge that our brains can’t always access. We call it muscle memory.

This Easter, what if we were to approach the reality of the resurrection with what our bodies already know, rather than dwelling so much in our heads? Could we, alongside Thomas, let the cry of faith come from a bodily need for resurrection rather than a heady desire for proof?

My grandmother Florence was a genius, no doubt about it. She took up learning Russian in her 60s because she needed an intellectual challenge. She was a fierce thinker and fine theologian, never daunted by questions and always excited by puzzles. I think she found the “north face” of faith, that area of exhilaration and peril, to be a kind of home for her. Her mind remained sharp, even as her body deteriorated in her final years. I wonder if the creeping sorrow she felt came not so much from a feeling that her questions remained unanswered, but that her body could not help her to remember the truth she had lived all her life. She once told me, “I long for good liturgy, like newlyweds long for sex.” Red-faced and laughing, I understood her completely. Liturgy forms a bodily knowledge that strengthens us to weather darkness and doubt. When we worship with others in community, hearing their prayers, singing hymns together, we can face the cold, dark north face of faith. When we must miss it for long seasons, we do long for it.

There is a kind of muscle memory to worship, a knowing that is held in the body. For example, although we may not be able to fully articulate our theology of Holy Communion on any given Sunday, we sure do know to hold our palms open when we come to the table. We may not be able to explain the meaning behind all the statements of the creeds, but we still stand up and the words come to our lips. We can’t encompass the gift of grace in baptism with words, but we know to put our fingers in the water and trace the sacred sign of the cross upon our heads, recalling who has claimed and clothed us. I put that reality before Grandma once, too. “Don’t you think there is a kind of liturgical way we say the creed?” I asked her. “Of course,” she replied. She could hear me getting preachy and opted out of conversation.

Grandma Florence died September 27, 2014. My family decided to include the creed in her funeral liturgy after all. We sang, we heard the word; we supped. We remembered her baptism with splashing water and prayers. Even while grieving, our bodies leaned toward resurrection. I think so-called Doubting Thomas leaned along with us.

This is my body

My good friend Pam died this past August. I had the great privilege of celebrating Holy Communion with her in her last fully functioning day. Cancer riddled her body, but wit and wisdom still guided her speech and thoughts. Though a good 40 years younger, she reminded me a lot of my grandmother. Feminist. Genius. On her own bodily strength, she walked from the porch to a waiting chair on a beautiful green lawn. The chairs were set in a simple circle to convene a unique worship space: We were blessing her son and his fiancé into marriage. Her neck bore the signs of swollen lymph nodes, and her legs buckled from weakness. Still, she stood to speak the creed, and she stood to pray for her son and future daughter-in-law, all the while knowing she would not witness their life together for long. Her hands trembled but formed a strong platform for me to place in them the bread of life: the body of Jesus, a body of suffering in which she fully shared.

Pam never climbed mountains, but she sure walked all over them. She would “walk the lines,” meaning that she hiked the cleared space underneath the power lines that criss-crossed the mountains near her home. We shared many good talks under those power lines, along those cleared paths. Her body and her mind were strong. She was undaunted by questions, invigorated by challenge. When her illness worsened, she made a point to hike with her father and siblings in the Cascades she loved so well. High-risk alpinists might ascend the dark north face, but Pam carried the north face in her body. Somehow, that walking of the lines made her alive to the presence of Jesus, even though her next days, hours and even breaths seemed uncertain. Doubt and darkness were not horrors to be avoided, but places to dwell with the risen Lord, the Lord who asked Thomas to touch his side, the Lord who stands in the shadows of Leonard Cohen’s dying flame.

In the end, that’s why we read about Thomas in the Easter season. Doubt and darkness are not places far removed from God. We know God most profoundly in the midst of death, death on the cross. Florence, Thomas, Pamela and Leonard are all held in the body of Christ, not the other way around. It was not their strong faith that made them close to Jesus; it’s the abiding presence of God that draws near to them and holds them fast even in their deaths. For all the saints, for all of us this Easter season, it is Christ’s muscle memory that matters most. We reside in the deep memory written on the body of the risen Lord, his scars still visible though he has been raised. His body enfolds each of us and the whole cosmos, in the promise of resurrection. In Christ’s broken body, we see that no brokenness of our own—no darkness, pain, distance or loneliness—can ever sever our connection to God.

Yes, the north face of the mountain is cold, dark and perilous. Doubts and questions come unbidden, threatening to shake us. Yet Christ has walked that lonely north face, has climbed a hill of death for our sakes. Risen, Christ meets us there still, just as he met Thomas, wounds and all.

The Rev. Liv Larson Andrews is the pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Spokane, Washington. She lives with her husband and two sons and dreams of hosting a lectionary-based cooking show.



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