I’m remembering a picture of me as a little girl in a pinafore holding an Easter egg. Nearby, on our front stoop in Ohio, sits a basket with a real live duckling. My mother is nearby. The year is 1954. We are on our way to Easter Services at the First Presbyterian Church. My father, Buster Shartle, took the picture. It is warm enough in southwestern Ohio to be without a coat. Here in the Adirondack foothills there is still a bit of snow left and I’m still dressing in layers.
I am also remembering that little girl, so daintily dressed and pampered, lying in bed unable to sleep at night, trying to imagine what it must have felt like to have nails driven through flesh. Easter is, first of all, about the hideous death before there can be the Resurrection. It seems there was a lot for that little girl of four or five to absorb. The duckling was dispatched by a fox. The mother had issues. Easter ducklings and pinafores didn’t change things. These days in a world of hurt, it still hasn’t changed. A South Korean ferry filled with teenagers flipped over; we remembered the Boston Marathon bombings; another crazed high school kid went on rampage; another soldier, ditto.
Perhaps that’s the reason that I have Buddha and Kuan Yin represented around my house and in my office rather than crucifixes. These are a witness to my life long struggle with all that’s been preached, promised and, in some cases, threatened from a Christian pulpit. Nietzsche said that the last true Christian died on the cross. John Shelby Spong said that God is unemployed, if not dead. He doesn’t save, He doesn’t heal, He no longer affects weather or battle outcomes. We seem to take care of or fail at most of that ourselves without His interference. So why church? Why Holy Week?
On Saturday I helped the Altar Guild, one of the few of such active institutions left in this Episcopal Diocese of Albany. I polished brass. There is an 1880 collection plate fashioned by J&R Lamb Studios, famous still for its church windows, wood carvings and artifacts. The brass plate is engraved in the style of the pre-Raphaelite Brethren with passion flowers, oak leaf clusters, a cross and whip on the left side, and the three nails to the right of the central IHS symbol. The plate was donated by a woman named Abby Mumford Thompson in memory of her sister, Lucretia C. Whiting, about whom I can find little or no information. It is a thing of beauty, this plate meant for collecting money from the congregation and yet reminding the giver and receiver what is crucial to the faith–crucial–the same root for the word crucifix. Those engraved symbols seemed to be given more credence in those Victorian times.
As I work on a chapter about such artifacts for a history of Bethesda Episcopal Church, I am aware not only of Bethesda’s history, but of all faiths and religions and their symbols. There were people back then who, when they cried “Heaven help us,” probably believed that there could still be Divine intervention in their crises. I honor the history while I struggle with the faith. I love the music, so beautifully performed by Farrell Goehring, Kathleen Slezak and the Bethesda Schola Cantorum. I love listening to scripture. I believe in showing up, helping, listening. I do not cry for Heaven’s help. I go to the doctor. I read John Shelby Spong. I wonder if the snow around the Buddha will ever melt.
Buddha before spring, 2014:
Buddha on April 14, 2014: