Iron nails, posted to Flickr by user ncculture
The most powerful Easter experience I ever had was in a liberal/progressive, “welcoming and affirming” American Baptist Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania. It would have been in the spring of 1994 or 1995, I think.
In a service before Easter, probably Palm Sunday (somehow), the pastor had delivered a sermon which included with it an activity that called on the entire congregation in attendance to participate.
Throughout the activity, we listened and sang about the nature of sin as separation from goodness, separation from each other, brokenness in relationship with others and with ourselves, all the judgments and anger and sullen self-centered obsessions that get in the way of our being able to love and accept each other.
And as we sang and listened, we processed through the sanctuary, getting in line to pick up our nails.
These nails symbolized our own sin–not surfacy things like drinking or lust or swearing but those things that fundamentally keep us from being in right relationship with each other, with God, with ourselves.
So we each picked up a handful of nails and walked up to a cross that was about two and a half to three feet tall, standing on a table in the center of the sanctuary. The cross had strips of powerful magnets embedded in both beams, so the wrought-iron nails stuck easily to the magnets.
It was a large church, so when we were all finished, the cross was really covered in nails. That was pretty symbolic.
On Eastern Sunday, the minister preached a sermon not so very different from most mainline Christian pastors and priests might preach. Jesus took our sins upon himself, and because he did, we are not bound to them. We can–any time we choose–let them go and return to right relationship with each other.
To symbolize this act of removal and letting go, the minister in his robe and stole strode over to the cross covered with our nails and started wiping the nails off with great sweeps of his hand.
The nails crashed to the table, the iron clattering against glass and wood in a rolling thunderclap that resounded through the sanctuary. Stroke after stroke, the nails fell, smashing into each other, piling up on the table and scattering to the floor. Each swipe and crash and clatter startled me, sending shivers around my skin like an electric charge.
It was the most visceral experience I’ve ever had of what it meant to have a clean slate. A fresh chance. My mistakes and fears and scorn all removed, piled up, and scattered.
I think of that cross, those nails, that thundering echo every Easter Sunday.
I do, of course, still have mistakes and fears and more scorn, still more, despite learning to respect others.
But I am grateful for the shining lights of faith, whatever that faith may be, whether Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or whatever, that have come into my life to let me know that I can set those mistakes and fears and scorn aside. I can risk loving even people who seem unreasonable. I can risk loving even people who seem wrong.
I can risk loving them because they help me to see the parts of myself that I still judge, that I still look down upon and reject. I am learning that people who set us off are like mirrors, helping us to see what it is we haven’t yet learned to accept about the condition of being human.
I’ve learned that, as long as there are pieces of myself and pieces of you that I reject, there’s something inauthentic about how I am in the world. Mistakes and fears and even those things that might invite scorn are not who we are. We might even be passionate about them, but they do not define us.
Our humanness defines us. And while we each are unique–you are the only one of you that will ever be–our humanness ties us together. We will have that in common, even if we have fundamentally different beliefs about what all of this means.
I can set aside my mistakes, my fears, and even my scorn to risk loving my own unreasonable, occasionally wrong self. We are all in this together.
So I invite you to think of the last person you thought was crazy or unreasonable or neurotic or whatever, and just whisper, “Maybe I can accept them, because that is not all that they are, and I am also sometimes crazy (or unreasonable or neurotic or whatever). Maybe (another deep breath here) I can accept myself. We’re all in this together.”
For further reading: Pema Chodron on how and why to Be Grateful to Everyone.