Easter and April Fools

March 27th, 2018

The divine comedy

This year Easter Sunday shares the calendar with April Fools’ Day, a coincidence that last happened in 1956 and won’t occur again until 2029. This affords the church a rare opportunity to engage with ancient but less well-known concepts like the idea of holy fools, and it gives us the chance to engage in some Easter laughter.

In the biography Frederick Buechner: Novelist and Theologian of the Lost and Found, author Marjorie Casebier McCoy described part of Buechner’s credo: “When we are experiencing terrible things, we know that the worst thing is only the next to the last thing that will happen.” In reference to Jesus’ words in Luke 6:21 (“Happy are you who weep now, because you will laugh”), Buechner said in his book Whistling in the Dark, “That means not just that you shall laugh when the time comes, but that you can laugh a little even now in the midst of the weeping because you know that the time is coming. All appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the ending will be a happy ending. That is what the laughter is about. It is the laughter of faith. It is the divine comedy.”

The worst thing

My friend Martha Hickman, an author who wrote several books on dealing with grief and loss, once said that heaven takes on a different meaning when it begins to be populated by people you love. I knew Martha because her husband, Hoyt, supervised my internship when I was at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I first met them shortly after their 16-year-old daughter had died after falling off a horse. When I first heard their story, I, as a 28-year-old, couldn’t imagine how parents could possibly live through such an ordeal.

After graduation, my husband and I remained friends with the Hickmans and often stayed in their home when we traveled through Nashville. When our own daughter, Anne, died at age 33, I turned to Martha’s book of daily meditations, Healing After Loss, to get me through that first year. Just as Martha had said, I experienced an increased interest in what resurrection means and, at the same time, a recognition that whatever it means was beyond human knowledge. I would have to trust in God’s love — for me and my husband, for Anne, for Anne’s husband and for their six-month-old daughter.

As a minister I’ve officiated at many memorial services, relying mostly on the liturgy in The United Methodist Book of Worship that Hoyt Hickman himself was involved in shaping. For me, the most significant line in that service is in the opening prayer: “Give to us now your grace, that as we shrink before the mystery of death, we may see the light of eternity” (page 142). I still shrink before that mystery.

Before Anne’s death, my husband and I had moved closer to her and her family to help. A few months later we entered into that surreal state of fresh grief. Knowing that our small granddaughter needed our love and care got us up in the mornings, and the fatigue of grandparenting put us to sleep at night. We were beginning our journey through what every parent believes is the worst thing that could ever happen.

From loss to new life

In the fall of 2015, at a time when fear of Islam was mounting after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, I was working on writing a piece about respecting other religions. In the course of my research, I turned up a presentation called One Light, Many Candles, by the Reverend Betty Stookey, who is ordained in the United Church of Christ, and her husband, Noel Paul Stookey, who is the “Paul” of Peter, Paul, and Mary, the 1960s folk group whose songs provided inspiration for the civil rights movement, the peace movement and other drives for positive social change. One Light, Many Candles combines Betty Stookey’s readings from world religions with songs written and sung by her husband. The central thesis argues that we can respect other religions without losing our own religious identity and commitment.

Though I knew some of the trio’s songs — like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “This Land Is Your Land” — I hadn’t really followed their music. All I knew about Noel Paul Stookey was that he had written the “Wedding Song (There Is Love),” which has been sung at thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of weddings since the early 1970s. I started listening to his solo music and found in it both a balm for my grief and a fresh language for my faith. I ordered a copy of Noel’s new CD, At Home: The Maine Tour, and wrote a review of it for Sojourners magazine. Throughout my engagement with Noel’s music, I started to receive new life.

Then I took a step that was totally out of character for me. I wrote Noel Stookey and said, “I’d like to write a book about your faith journey, your solo music and your social activism.” When I heard from him two months later, he said, “If you’re serious, go through each one of my songs, and see if there’s a couplet or a theme that provokes a larger question.” Two months later, I sent him 40 pages of interpretation — probably more than he’d wanted — and dozens of “larger questions.” Three months later — and three years after Anne’s death — we met to start talking about the book, which is in progress today.

As we started writing, seemingly separate parts of myself began to come together. The graduate student in English who searched for theology in poetry met the seminary student who loved the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The clergywoman who focused her energy on collaboration and collegiality met the campus minister who encouraged students to ask hard questions and look for God beyond the church building. The advocate for social justice met the pianist who met the preacher who met the writer who met the mother whose heart was broken beyond repair, and together they all found themselves woven together with the pain and the joy that coursed through my very existence. In short, I felt reborn. I felt brand-new.

“April Fool”

One of the songs that fed this journey was “April Fool,” an especially appropriate title for this Easter when we get to celebrate the two occasions together.

April Fool
You wear your heart on your sleeve
And though they laugh when they leave
You call it Love and I believe (you)

April Fool
Why must you always play the clown?
You had the edge you laid it down
You gave it up without a sound . . .

Oh April Fool
How can they say “love is cruel”?
They catch the ring but drop the jewel.
Like a teardrop in a pool . . .

April Fool
As the heart shows through the eyes
Before you were born you were recognized
And unto the losers comes their Prize.

Oh April Fool
Even as the hands were washed, you knew
We’d free the thief instead of you
April Fool
You said the Father was in You
You said we know not what we do
Forgive us . . . April Fool.*

Jesus was mocked and dismissed. His way embraced laying down power, not grabbing it or holding it tightly. His teachings and his example of love are often seen as unrealistic in a world of competition, untenable in a world of greed and violence. In short, some could say that Jesus was a fool.

What I am learning most from grief, and from Noel’s music, is the peace found in surrender. I say “am learning” because I’m not there yet. I am learning to surrender to what I can’t change, to God’s mercy, to love. It’s the same lesson that we learn from Jesus in his crucifixion. Paradoxically, surrender leads to resurrection, new life. As Noel would say, “And unto the losers comes their Prize.”

* "April Fool" by Noel Paul Stookey
© 1981 Neworld Media Music Publishers
All rights reserved. Used by permission.


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