I am certainly not the first to take note of this, but it bears repeating. Sometimes the virtual world of social media, emails and texting seems more real than the material world in which my body exists. I walk into a restaurant and see the glow of screens as people share a meal together, but fail to look at or interact with each other in that moment. As they walk in the door at 3:45pm,I ask my kids how their day at school was, while I am also returning a Facebook message to one of my 400+ friends. Sometimes I don’t even look my kids in the eye when I talk to them because of this “other world” in which I “live.” What are the implications of this? We will be pondering this question for years to come.
As Easter approached this year, I found myself thinking a lot about bodies – hands, feet, faces, noses, bellies, knees, ears. I thought about Good Friday, when Jesus’ body was beaten and pierced and finally breathed its last breath. His face went dark, his eyes became vacant, his hands were still and cold. On the third day, when we was raised from death, it was his actual physical body that was raised. This was not “virtual reality.” Jesus was no ghost.
He even took pains to explain that to the disciples and then demonstrate it by eating food. Given the physical reality of all that happened on this holy weekend, I wanted our congregation and community to enter Easter in a more tangible way. I wanted us to not only hear and see the story, but to pray through the holiday with our entire bodies, to become grounded again in the physical and material nature of this world we inhabit… a material world that God created and God deeply loves.
Through the hard work of a committed team, A Good Friday House of Prayer was born, with thirteen prayer stations. People came to pray with all five of their senses. We built altars out of rocks. We knelt down and washed each others’ feet. We folded prayers into paper cranes and put them into a tree. We traced our hands onto paper and colored them, then wrote people’s names on each finger as a prayer. We rang chimes and held begging bowls in our hands. We lit candles and put band-aids on a globe as we prayed for people around the world. We nailed injustices to the cross and planted seeds in moist, brown soil. We walked in shoes that did not belong to us and considered Jesus’ compassion for all kinds of different people.
The night was packed with symbolism, and that touched people. What surprised me, however, was the way it all became communal prayer. I had pictured people quietly moving from station to station, connecting with themselves and God in private – apart from the foot-washing room, which required people to work together, of course. But that was only one station among many. The night was supposed to be mostly silent, but there was this hum of chatter going on all around me. I felt annoyed. Why were people being disruptive in this holy space?
As the night wore on I observed what was happening. Seventy year-olds were helping 5 year-olds trace their fingers onto paper. 50 year-olds were helping 80 year-olds nail injustices to the cross. Parents were helping their toddlers walk in shoes much too big for them. A single older adult had built a rock altar of thanksgiving, and a twenty-something took a picture of it so they could send it to them later. Married couples were washing each other’s feet. My two children, who seem to bicker more often than not lately, washed each other’s feet… and giggled the entire time. Together, people were folding paper prayer cranes and planting marigold seeds of hope and trust. When the House of Prayer was technically closed for the night, folks still gathered outside at the fire bowl to talk.
My annoyance changed to gratitude. Why did it surprise me that the practice of re-grounding ourselves in our tangible reality would not only re-connect us to God and ourselves, but also to each other? I wanted this Good Friday event to help us pray with our whole bodies, with more than just our words. It did that… and then we discovered God in each other, face to face and hand to hand. The risen Jesus lives among us.
This is no virtual reality.