Easter and the Breath of Life

Friday is about the embrace of Christ as he wraps our sinful selves – each and every one of us muddy beyond measure – in his infinitely loving arms, taking our sins upon himself while hanging on the shockingly sacred cross.

Saturday is about waiting with bated breath for the time to pass and for the Christ to breathe again. Knowing how the story ends does not lessen its glorious unfolding, and so Saturday is marked by holy suspense and wonderment.

Sunday is about life, hope, joy, disbelief, deep belief, new clothes, and a feast to end all feasts.

(Luke 15)
When that stinky, filthy, sorry and soiled son – just returned from a life of utter independence, and also utter pig stench – was embraced by his gracious, forgiving, gentle, and loving father, the story was not ended.

Not even close.

That son needed cleaning up (done by the father) and new clothes (provided by the father) and a joyous welcome home party that blew the roof right up off the house in a burst of wild celebration (hosted by the father).

The older son – who had never left home outwardly but had surely left it inwardly – wasn’t at the party, not because he missed it or wasn’t told. He skipped it. Entirely. Totally. Even after being warmly welcomed and invited. The older son didn’t want hugging. He didn’t want cleaning up. He didn’t want reclothing. He didn’t want rejoicing. He didn’t want a party – not that party, at least. And what we don’t want is not forced upon us. Ever.

The lost son was found, and the family partied like there was no tomorrow (even though there were endless tomorrows.)

(John 20)
When Jesus hung on that cross – dripping with the stink and stench and filth of the world’s sins – and held all of humanity in his embrace while breathing his last, the story was not ended.

Not even close.

Less than 48 hours after he’d been nailed to the cross, and maybe just 36 hours after he died – really and truly and totally died – Jesus’ tomb was empty. Really and truly and totally.

This is rather a big deal. A stupendously, shockingly, and stunningly big deal, in fact.

Resurrection doesn’t just happen every day (though a little part of me is brought to life each day after it has first died out really, truly, and totally).

And of course, no matter how much he’d told them it would happen, his best friends weren’t expecting their really, truly, and totally dead leader to ever be anything other than really, truly, and totally dead.

They didn’t know the end of the story yet. Their suspense and fear were real. Truly and totally.

So you can imagine their surprise when just 50 or so hours after watching him take his last breath, they saw Jesus right there with them – where they huddled behind locked doors for fear of what might happen to guys who were friends with the man who had turned the world upside down really and truly and totally.


Also understandable: their fear of what might happen to them was nothing compared to the shock of what did happen to them. Seeing a dead guy, that is. Who was really, truly, and totally no longer dead. He spoke. He embraced. He laughed. He comforted. He breathed in and out, in and out, in and out, no more breathing his last, now re-embodied in flesh and blood – flesh no longer just human and blood no longer merely shed.

And then the unthinkable: the risen Christ, breathing in and out, in and out, in and out – really and truly and fully alive – breathed in and out right onto his friends, much like God breathed into the first of humanity, eons and ages and lifetimes ago.

“Don’t fear,” he said. “It’s me,” he said. “I’m here,” he said. “Be at peace,” he said.

Then he breathed on them and said, “Be. Be born. Be new. Be mine. Be filled with the Spirit of holiness and life.”

So you see, there is no doubt that we all – each and every one of us – takes God’s breath away – not by force, but by the depth of his own holy love: first on the cross, where he breathed his last; then at the party (for that’s what happened behind those locked doors on Sunday night – a party indeed), where he breathed their first. Our first.

The Lord is risen. The tomb is empty. We have been cleansed. Our spirits are full.

We know how the story ends. Let’s now live into its glorious unfolding – really, truly, and fully.

The Cross of Christ, the Savior’s embrace, breathtaking love

(June 1989)
When the child was still not three, the only outdoor rule was this:

You may not go outdoors by yourself. Ever.

It could not have been simpler, clearer, or more reasonable. Stay in with mom or go out with mom. Those were the options.

On that particular Wednesday night when the dinner hour arrived – for which I had miraculously cleaned up, not a small thing in the days of small children –  I could not find the child. Anywhere. Which was not entirely new or unexpected. He had no great love for being found.

I methodically checked inside closets, under beds, down basement stairs, and behind the shower curtain. I rechecked inside closets, under beds, down basement stairs, and behind the shower curtain.

The child not-yet-three was in none of those places because he was here instead:

Child swims in mud.
Child swims in mud.

Front-crawling through the mud puddles he was, because there is nothing better than swimming if you are not quite three.

He’d gone outside. Without me. Which was against the rules. And then he swam in a mud puddle because it was there, calling his name, and I had never said:

You may not swim in the driveway mud puddles. Ever.

Dinner was late. I was clean. The child was dirty up and down and all around. And the child had done wrong – much or little didn’t matter. He was a muddy mess indeed. I could have said:

Do you know what happens to little boys who sneak outside to swim in mud puddles? They turn into mud pies and spend their whole lives living in muddy muck, eating dirt and slime, crying because they are locked out of the house forever and ever and ever. That’s what.

I considered it. I really did. After all, I was clean. That doesn’t happen every day when the kids are not-yet-one and not-yet-three.

But it was chilly out. And people were getting hungry. And there are no beds or books or blankets out in the mud. And he was a child, – my child.

The only option: to go out myself, walk through puddle after puddle until arriving at his puddle, bend down to eye level, and say:

Here I am. I’ll help.

He was not interested in being helped.

Child swam in mud.
Child swam in mud.

I wrapped my arms around him anyway – because sometimes mothers must; cringed as the muddy slime smeared all over the clean me – because where else could it go; felt that precious not-yet-three boy against my body – because that’s right where it belonged; and caught my breath – because, gracious sakes alive, mother love will take one’s breath away, no matter how much muddy slime drips around the edges.

(Luke 15)
When the boy was not quite a man, there were rules aplenty, but more importantly there was this:

Home, security, family, love.

Which was more than enough. More than more than enough.

But not enough for the boy. Not nearly enough. What he wanted was a dead dad. Because that meant money. And money meant power and freedom and life. Everyone knows that.

But the power, freedom, and life drained out dry, leaving behind nothing but the slimy filthy stink of hopeless disgrace and shame-filled self that dragged on and on and on until even the disgrace and shame was sucked dry, a lifeless shadow of its lifeless self.

When the son came back, dirty up and down and all around, stenched through and through, having done wrong beyond measure, the father could have said:

You? Here? You?? Here?? YOU ARE DEAD TO ME!

But he never considered it. Not even once. Not even though he had every right to. This was not a child in a puddle. This was a soul in a tempest.

So: filled with love and compassion, he embraced the boy; and when that filthy stench of death and shame smeared all over his own unsullied self, he did not cringe, draw back, cover his eyes, or hold his breath to keep out the stench.

Rembrandt: the father embraces the son.
Rembrandt: the father embraces the son.

But indeed, he did catch his breath – because gracious sakes alive, a holy love will take the Savior’s breath away, no matter how much sin drips around the edges.

And drip it did. Drip and smear and suffocate, all over the Savior while he hung there on that gloriously death-drenched cross, holding us in his breathtaking embrace, hugging us from death to life.

Eugene Delacroix (c. 1845)
Eugene Delacroix (c. 1845)

(I Peter 2)
He personally carried our sins – dripped and smeared all over his holy soul – in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. And having carried them there, and nailing them there, and hanging them there on himself, he said IT IS FINISHED,

And then he breathed his last.

Because we really do take God’s breath away – that day, this day, every day.

Purdue, Day Three: the hard realities of death and life

Purdue Memorial Mall, Day Three (Photo: CKirgiss)
Purdue Memorial Mall, Day Three 1-23-2014 (Photo: CKirgiss)

It was sunny today at Purdue. Sunny and snowy. Sunny and snowy and freezing. Sunny and snowy and freezing and beautiful. Which is to say, it was a day pretty much like every other wintry day on campus the past two weeks.

Except that it wasn’t,

because two days ago, Tuesday, January 21, 2014, someone was killed here. Most people know this already. The world is like that these days – something happens one minute and the world knows the next. And the world graciously and kindly and sincerely mourns and aches and supports from both near and far, until another tragedy strikes, which it will, because that is the kind of world we live in.

Things are quite back to normal here today for many people. On the surface, at least. It’s not always easy to know what’s going on underneath the surface, in the private corners of peoples’ minds, in the silent spaces of peoples’ souls. Sometimes we are not aware of those things even in our own selves because those private corners and silent spaces can be daunting, overwhelming, and (we might think) better left alone. Who has time to ask those questions? To face those fears? To navigate those emotions? Worse yet, what if there are no questions to ask, no fears to face, and no emotions to navigate?

I fear that on this Day Three of what has been called The Purdue University Shooting Tragedy – because we must have a way to refer to it – too many private corners of peoples’ minds and silent spaces of peoples’ souls will be left undisturbed, pushed aside because of busyness, or fear, or nonchalance, or something else entirely.

And that would make what happened just two short days ago doubly tragic.

It would surely be a mistake to contrive meaningless questions, conjure false fears, and navigate non-existent emotions just for the sake of being able to discuss one’s “personal grief process” or one’s “difficult emotional journey.” After all, not everyone has questions or fears or tangled emotions surrounding what happened here two days ago.

And that is absolutely fine. It really is. It is not a direct measure of one’s compassion or empathy or humanity.

But everyone, absolutely everyone, should know without a shadow of a doubt that what happened here on Tuesday was indeed a tragedy. Not because it happened at Purdue. Not because some of us were in the vicinity. Not because some of us were directly affected. Not even because some of us knew the people involved.

What happened here on Tuesday was a tragedy simply because it happened at all. Every single time a life is taken, regardless or where or when or why, it is a tragedy of unspeakable magnitude.

Every single time –

because life is inherently miraculous. Mysterious. Amazing. Wondrous. Breathtaking. Sacred.

If it were not, there would be no reason to mourn what happened here just two days ago.

If life matters, then certainly we must mourn its loss. (And oh my gracious, I cannot begin to imagine what that mourning and loss looks like for families, those who love longest and deepest.)

But more importantly:

If life matters, we must live out that reality each and every moment of each and every day with each and every person. Period.

If we do not, then how dare we presume to mourn a lost life? How dare we presume to struggle with death’s sorrow? How dare we band together in a show of support and solidarity for a life cut short?

Someone I greatly admire said today, through heartbreakingly wrenching tears, “I feel as though I have lost a child.” We should all feel that way — not because this is about us or how we feel, not because our sadness is what really matters, and certainly not because we are in a position to understand the pain of those who in reality did lose a child — but rather because a life was taken. And when a life is taken, we all lose something.

Please: in the normalcy that defines so many Third Days such as these, do not fail to stop, to think, to contemplate, to listen, to reflect, to consider the reality of what has happened. Do not make this tragedy worse than it already is by missing the indescribable magnitude and significance of a single lost life. And do not make this tragedy worse than it already is by failing to pay close attention and learning something.

For we all have much to learn. Not just about death, but also about life.

Daffodil dismay

As October winds down to its last day, the weather has kicked into a frenzy that is leaving everyone a bit upended.

Sandy has already begun wreaking havoc on the East Coast. So much for humanity being in charge of the world. Every now and then, we are faced with the reality of What Lies Beyond, and our only response is to batten down all the hatches. And also shut down Wall Street.

In my own little corner of the world, the past six months have wavered between drought and drenching rains, seasonal dog-days and early chills, and now seasonal frosts and surprising heat. Last week it was 70 degrees. And also 34.

Photo: CKirgiss
October hydrangeas

The hydrangeas in my front yard are playing by the seasonal rules (those rules of nature that we humans know are beyond us but that we still like to nod at and murmur over, as though we somehow devised them ourselves). They are dried out, appropriately bronzed, and extra crunchy to the touch. They’ve settled into a dignified state of horticultural rigor mortis, no longer in peril of bending and bowing, blown this way and that, tossed and twisted by the air that blows around them. Instead, like the aged who droop with elegance and grace, they are at risk of being snapped off in a flash, torn from the stalk that roots them to the ground.

All is as it should be there in my front yard. I have successfully ushered my hydrangeas through another season of life. Just look at them. Really, I am quite something.

My back yard is another story. Amidst all the naked trees, withered leaves, and shriveled perennials (who are compliantly following all of the seasonal rules), there is this:

Photo: CKirgiss
October daffodils

Green among the brown. Growth among the decay. Life among the death.

If the context were anything other than the late-October nature cycle, this scene would be cause for rejoicing, would it not? For these little daffodils of mine are a delightfully poignant metaphor of the spiritual life. Rejoice! Give thanks! All is new! Amen.

I love spiritual metaphors as much as the next person. Sometimes more.

But these are my daffodils, thank you, not my soul. I look to them for miracles and messages – in season. I want them to do their regular old daffodil-thing so that I can, in small measure, fancy myself to be a green-thumber who works wonders in her little plot of dirt. I need this from my daffodils because, truth be known, my thumb is as ungreen as it could possibly be. Embarrassingly so, being of good farm stock. On both sides.

These rogue daffodils are doing it all wrong. They are making a mess of things. They are threatening my springtime feelings of humble smugness and self-congratulations. Springtime! Blooms! Look what I grew! Amen.

Stupid daffodils.

Beautiful life.

Beyond my control and comprehension.


A tale of death and life

Photo: CKirgiss
2012 Apple Popcorn Festival, Brookston, IN.

A few weeks ago, I saw these pumpkins while walking small-town streets during a small-town festival.

And I rejoiced because I love everything about this time of year. The crisp air. The changing leaves. The crunchy earth.

The impending death.

Weird, I know.

Most discussions about being, whether humanistic or religious, are framed by the precisely ordered phrase “life and death” for good reason. The one so obviously follows the other.

Except when it doesn’t.

Coming as it does between summer (the season of life) and winter (the season of death), autumn treads in both worlds, displaying a bold embrace both of that which is flourishing and that which is dying. In these early days of autumn, the dying can be beautiful to behold – shocking red that is so rich I can (almost) smell it, feel it, taste it. And on the same branch, a green so deep I can (almost) hear it breathing, singing, growing.

Photo: CKirgiss
October leaves of Indiana.

We tend to view autumn as the season following life (summer) and leading into death (winter). And we tend to view that transition from life to death as a completed cycle, the final stage, the end of something.

Except when it’s not.

Because of course, winter is not the end. Spring follows on its heels, each and every year without fail, leading into summer’s riotous burst of life.

I love autumn for all the reasons listed above, and like all other autumn lovers, I’m thrilled to be wearing sweaters, eating soup, and wrapping myself in wool blankets again. But I’ve learned that my autumn-love is about so much more than that.

It’s about celebrating “death and life” in that precise order. My redeemed but still-sorry soul is so desperately in need of death – pruning, refining, purifying, cleansing – so that life can flourish in its place.

Autumn helps remind me of this, helps settle my soul into a place of spiritual expectancy in preparation for the much-needed, oft-repeated, sanctifying process of dying to self so that I can live for Christ. Such death is not the enemy, not to be feared, not to be avoided, and certainly not to be mocked. Such death is miraculous, renewing, and breath-taking. Such death is a gift, really, an invitation from Jesus himself to enter the re-creation story of my own spirit that he began on the cross.

I need to die. I really do. In so many ways. How unspeakably wondrous that such death is really a birth, which is a paradox typical of life with Jesus Christ.

And how even more unspeakably wondrous that nature’s season of death, stretched across the long, dark winter months, is momentarily pierced with the greatest Birth of all. Such is the grace of God that though life leads to death, death also leads to life. Over and over and over again.

Eleven years later…

I wrote these words 11 years ago, but could have written them yesterday – not just about the events of that day, but about all of life when it is lived outside of God’s immeasurable, forgiving, majestic, jealous love. (Please silence your outcry for that last element. God’s jealousy is not humanly petty. It is gloriously divine. It is for us…all of us, and nothing could be more breathtakingly astounding) .


Regarding September 11…
I have a thousand questions I want answered.
I have a thousand fears I want quelled.
I have a thousand thoughts I want sorted out.
I have a thousand concerns I want soothed.
I have a thousand things I want changed.
I have a thousand people I want saved.
I have a thousand places I want seen.
I have a thousand songs I want sung.
I have a thousand steps I want walked.
I have a thousand prayers I want uttered.
I have a thousand bridges I want crossed.
I have a thousand roads I want traveled.
I have a thousand books I want read.
I have a thousand poems I want whispered.
I have a thousand birds I want freed.
I have a thousand trees I want honored.
I have a thousand skies I want admired.
I have a thousand oceans I want remembered.
I have a thousand eyes I want dried.
I have a thousand ears I want opened.
I have a thousand voices I want heard.
I have a thousand wrongs I want forgiven.
I have a thousand mountains I want climbed.
I have a thousand stars I want named.
I have a thousand lives I want lived.
I have a thousand fields I want sown.
I have a thousand rivers I want blessed.
I have a thousand children I want born.
I have a thousand sorrows I want healed.
I have a thousand days I want begun.
I have a thousand years I want danced.
I have a thousand clouds I want explored.

But I have only one God, who is true from the highest depths to the lowest valleys, from the farthest east to the farthest west, and from the beginning of always to the end of never.

The god for whom people were willing to die last Tuesday is no god at all.

The true God does not say, “Die for me.” He says, “I’ve died for you.”

The true God does not say, “Hate others.” He says, “Love others…as much as you love yourself.”

The true God does not say, “Crucify the enemy.” He says, “Crucify your heart so I can create in you a new one.”

Would that the entire world could live in the contented peace of such simple truth as this.

copyright 2001 Crystal Kirgiss

A fruitful endeavor

Photo: C. Kirgiss

This year, what with the drought and all, my raspberry bushes were a bust. Nary a single blossom or berry did we get.

Sometime in mid-summer, just when things normally begin to get exciting in the berry patch, the bushes simply fell over into a collective droopy heap of dry, shriveled, sad, exhausted, and bare canes. Where berries should have been was nothing more than small, darkened, hardened, undeveloped blossoms.

We don’t harvest enough berries to brag about – just an added dash of bright red in fruit salads or atop ice-cream treats. But that’s enough to make us feel productive, farm-ish, and connected to the earth in some small way. That’s enough to marvel at the sweet burst of flavor. That’s enough to revel in the mystery of dirt-plus-rain-plus-sun-equals-bounty. That’s enough to be reminded of God’s goodness.

That’s enough to make this year’s non-harvest a source of disappointment.

It was – and still is – quite heartbreaking. I need to get out there and prune back the dead canes so next year’s berry crop stands a chance. But it’s depressing to look upon that pile of despair, to think about what could have been, to realize that the miracle and mystery of nature doesn’t always have a joyful ending.

I don’t particularly like the image.

It hits rather close to home.

It echoes the truth about my humanity.

It reflects what too often happens in my own life.

Droopy heaps of dry, shriveled intentions…of exhausted, bare emotions…of hardened, undeveloped thoughts…of dead, fruitless endeavors…these are the natural result – the only possible result – of a soul’s drought.

Bearing spiritual fruit is a miracle so far beyond dirt-plus-rain-plus-sun-equals-bounty that it’s nearly impossible to comprehend. How can broken creatures such as we produce beautiful things such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

We cannot, of course. On our own, left to our own devices, life is nothing more than a perpetual, deadly drought.

Thank God we are not consigned to live on our own, to scorch and shrivel and droop and rot in a pile of dry death.

Thank God we are invited to plant ourselves along the riverbank, to drink deeply of the water of life, to fill our souls with the truth of Christ, and to experience the breathtaking miracle of a fruit-filled life.

Thank God we are not subject to nature’s shifting weather patterns but instead are showered with the endless grace of Jesus.

Thank God we are loved and redeemed and transformed and cultivated in spite of ourselves.

Thank God indeed.