Good Friday

The text of Tom’s Good Friday meditation from earlier this evening…

source: crosswalk.com

At the center of the Gospel,
at the center of the Christian religion,
at the center of everything,
is a broken, bloodied, tortured Middle Eastern Jew
hanging on a cross between a couple of criminals,
abandoned by his disciples
with only a few loved ones brave enough to linger and look on.
And we have come here today to honor this bitter truth:
That for you and me to be made whole,
The Son of God had to die in this fashion,
And in a bizarre twist,
We call this day “good”.

You know, I really only have one “Good Friday story.”  The memories we associate with this day are often too intangible to lend themselves well to storytelling, and yet, there is this one that jumps out at me.

Kenyon College, and yes, it is that pretty.
(source: kenyon.edu)

In the spring of 2009, I was preparing to graduate from Kenyon College, having only just renewed my relationship with God and accepted a call to ministry a few months before.  To give you an idea what sort of environment Kenyon was, the most celebrated athletic event in our 190-year history was a debate over whether the word “myriad” was a noun or an adjective.  Yeah, it was that kind of school.

Kenyon was a place swarming with artists and writers and actors and musicians.  It was a place where everything was achievable with an open mind and a diligent work ethic– where even the most banal of fraternity parties might be littered with conversations about Aristotle and Dante and Nietzsche.  It was the sort of place where a religious studies major could write his senior thesis in the form of a 425-page comic book about the afterlife. . . which I completely lost when my hard drive crashed a month after graduation.  It was this comic book that got me into the most uncomfortable church experience I have ever had, and it all happened on Good Friday.

Given that many of the creative types who inhabited the college also attended the campus chapel, the minister there came up with a novel approach to Good Friday.  She assembled a group of artists, playwrights, poets, even a local novelist, and created a sort of holy coffeehouse.  There was only one rule: each work presented that night had to address the issue of human suffering.  She called it “The Good Friday Project”.

Flattered to be one of the few student participants among a group of faculty and local celebrities, I prepared a short animated version of my comic book (essentially a cartoon) and checked out a projector from the library so I could show it.

It was a dark evening, and there was still just a bit of a chill in the air when we all gathered in the campus chapel that night.  A member of the drama department led off with a short play that he had written from the perspective of Job.  Telling the tale of the most famously tortured man in history, this play featured Job’s conscience and inner demons debating how he should respond to his circumstances.  We were off to a heavy start.  Next came a musician playing doleful melodies on a slightly detuned violin, and she was followed by a poet who had written extensively on the subject of his own mortality.

The Church of the Holy Spirit at Kenyon College
(source: kenyon.edu)

From there, things took an appropriately dark turn.  The novelist got up and read an excerpt from his latest book (which chronicled the experiences of a woman trying to care for her terminally ill husband who only knew how to respond with anger and abuse).  To call the reading “emotional” would be an understatement.  Audience members recoiled in their seats as the novelist screamed obscenities at the top of his lungs, and only later did I learn that it was the true story of his wife’s experiences trying to care for him when his future looked bleakest.

Arguably the climax of the evening was a film cropped together by another drama professor.  With melancholy music underneath, scenes flashed by on the screen of some of the greatest moments of suffering in human history: the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, protestors in other countries being mowed down by machine gun fire, images of children starving in the ghettos of unidentified cities– it was a nightmare captured on film.

This was an evening of agony, and all of it was intended to catch but a glimpse of the pain Christ endured on the cross.
And then it was my turn.

Throughout the entire event, I had been getting progressively more nervous.  You see, unlike any of these other presenters, my comic book had a happy ending.  The main character succeeded on his journey of self-discovery, acquiring a new appreciation for life and even getting the girl in the process!  The whole thing was –dare I say it– uplifting.  As I hooked my laptop into the projector, I was terrified.
I was about to show something unmistakably happy at The Good Friday Project.
I was about to ruin the atmosphere that these artists had worked so hard to cultivate.
I was about to undercut the entire point of the evening.

As the intro music started to play, I closed my eyes in fear of these artists’ judgment.  I braced for impact, and that’s when the most beautiful thing that could’ve happened happened:
With my eyes closed, I heard a quick pop and a hiss,
And when I opened my eyes again, I saw it–
The projector bulb had burned out, and the screen was now blank.
No one was there who could fix it, and there was no backup projector.
So to this day, I am the only person who has ever seen my full Good Friday Project presentation.

As I stood there and stared dumbfounded at the broken projector, the room around me was totally silent.  The audience was completely shocked.  They were embarrassed for me, and a few even offered their sympathies, but something overcame me in that moment.  It was like feeling God’s reassuring hand on my shoulder, and I did the most inappropriate thing I could have: I started laughing.

the Church of the Holy Spirit (exterior),
photo by Larry Miller

And we’re not talking about little chuckles here.  This was doubled-over, tears-welling-up, side-aching laughter.  The audience looked at me like I had lost my mind, but I just found the whole thing so funny.  Here I had been, so scared of my too-upbeat presentation, and I was saved by a burned out projector bulb.  Only God could have that kind of comic timing, and I could feel Him there in the room.

By now, the event coordinators were assuming I was hysterical, so at their quiet urging, I excused myself from the room as quietly as I could and guffawed my way down the steps to the chapel lawn.

It was a good five or ten minutes before I could stop laughing, and as I looked up at the starry Ohio sky, one thought occupied my mind:

“God, You are the greatest practical joker of all time.
For three days, you let the entire cosmos believe
that the Trinity had been broken,
that Death had claimed Christ forever,
and that we would be doomed to pay a price that we couldn’t.
But the whole time,
The whole time,
You knew.
That’s why it’s called Good Friday.
Because amid all the suffering and loss and pain
That the Son of Man endured
Is an inescapable truth:
That You knew what You were doing,
And You wouldn’t just abandon us to sin and death and damnation.
Suffering would not have the last laugh.
No.  You saved us.
You saved us with what You did on that cross.”

And so now, you and I find ourselves in a strange situation.
We gather around the cross and behold there
the broken, bloodied, beaten Son of God
dying.
Dying so that you and I won’t have to.
Dying so that the children of God will not be lost to sin.
Dying so that the will of God might be fulfilled
and love might reign forever in His perfect Kingdom.
And you and I, through the mercies of hindsight
Are in on the biggest practical joke in history.

Death and Sin conspired at the foot of the cross,
Thinking their victory was assured.
They celebrated as Christ was laid in the tomb.
God was dead.
But they didn’t know
What we know,
That a resurrection is coming,
And that, that, is what makes this day so good.

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