Archive for March, 2017

The Easter Ragman

March 31, 2017

A number of years ago, Walter Wangerin wrote a story called “The Ragman” to help us understand the message of Easter.  The Ragman is a picture of Jesus and what He has done for us on Good Friday and Easter.  Here’s the story:

“One Friday morning, I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking in the alleys of the

city. He was pulling an old cart, filled with clothes; and he was calling in a clear,

resonant voice, “Rags! New rags for old, I’ll take your tired, old rags. Rags!” Now

this is a wonder, I thought, for the man stood six feet-four, with arms like tree limbs,

hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed with brightness. Could he find no better job

than this, to be a ragman in one of the rougher areas of the city?

Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into her

handkerchief, shedding thousands of tears. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was

breaking. The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly he walked to the woman and asked,

“Will you give me your rag; I’ll give you another.” He slipped the handkerchief from

her eyes, and laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. Then

as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing. He put her tear-

stained handkerchief to his own face; and began to weep, to sob as grievously as she

had done. Yet she was left behind without a tear. “Rags! Rags! New rags for old!”

 

In a little while the Ragman came across a little girl whose head was wrapped in a

bandage. Her eyes were blank and empty. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.

Now that tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely bonnet

from his cart. “Give me your rag, and I’ll give you mine.” He loosened the bandage,

removed it and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. I gasped at what I

saw, for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow ran a darker, richer

flow of his own blood! “Rags, rags! I take old rags!” cried the sobbing, bleeding

Ragman.

The sun was at its height by now, and the Ragman seemed more and more in a hurry.

“Do you have a job?” the Ragman inquired of a man leaning against a telephone

pole. “Are you crazy?” the man sneered, pulling away from the pole and revealing

that the right sleeve of his jacket was empty. “So give me your jacket, and I’ll give

you mine.” The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman. I trembled at

what I saw. For the Ragman’s arm stayed in his jacket, and when the other put it on,

he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.

 

By now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping

uncontrollably and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling the cart with one arm,

stumbling with exhaustion, he still ran on ahead faster. I wept to see the change in

this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed to see where he was going in such

a hurry, perhaps to discover what drove him so. The little old Ragman came upon a

landfill, a garbage dump. He climbed the hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little

space on the hill. Then he sighed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a

handkerchief. He covered his bones with a jacket; and he died.

Oh, how I cried to witness his death! I slumped in a car and wailed and mourned,

because I had come to love that Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of

this man. When I saw that he was dead, I couldn’t keep from crying. I cried myself to

sleep. I slept all the way through Saturday to Sunday. But then on Sunday morning, I

was awakened by a violent light, a pure, hard, demanding light shining against my

face. I looked up, and I saw the last and the first wonder of all. There was the

Ragman, folding his clothes, a scar on his face, but alive! And besides that, healthy!

 

There was no sign of sorrow, nor of age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined

with a clean sheen! I was in awe of the transformation, but humbled by the sorry

state of my own ordinary sameness. I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I

had seen, I walked into the Ragman’s presence. I told him my name, and that I felt

like a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes, and I said with dear

yearning in my voice, “Dress me. Dress me with your rags.” He dressed me. My Lord

dressed me. He dressed my feet, my body; he dressed all of me. He put new rags on and

now I glow in the sight of the Ragman, this Ragman, my Christ.”

 

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We Still Need Easter

March 1, 2017

A recent survey by the American Psychological Association that was released last week found that:

66% of Americans feel stress about the future of our country

57% feel stress about the current political climate

49% feel stress about the results of the 2016 election.

I think people have always felt some level of stress and worry about what is going to happen in the future, but these anxieties seem to be stronger and more widespread today than they have been in a while.

Part of what I think is contributing to this is our diminishing level of confidence in our leaders and institutions to address the challenges of our times.  People seem to have a decreasing level of trust that our leaders can focus on the big issues, have the competence to handle complex challenges in compassionate ways, and can bring people together to find solutions for complicated problems.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside.  If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we have destroyed ourselves.”  The old cliché is “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”  As much as we worry about terrorists coming in to our country from outside and attacking us, our biggest problems actually come from ourselves.

This is what we learn from the Bible.  The Bible teaches us that sin lives in every one of our hearts.  In Mark 7:20-23, Jesus says that evil flows out of every human heart.  In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:3, Jesus said, “Why are you worried about the speck in someone else’s eye, when you have a log in your own?”  We don’t have to look far to find evil.  All we have to do is look in the mirror, and there it is.

In 1933, Simone Weil wrote about the suffering we experience in a world that seems to be falling apart.  She said that one of the most disorienting perplexities is that evil isn’t always recognizable.  Sometimes it is incognito.  She wrote, “Never react to evil in such a way as to augment it.”  That is one of the challenges of our current times.  How do we not throw gas on the fire?  How do we not make the situation worse?  How do we act so that evil decreases rather than increases?

When Hannah Arendt wrote about the evil that was experienced under the Nazi leadership in Germany, she talked about the deliberate disconnect from reality that she called “holes of oblivion.” (Today, we call them “alternative facts.”)  She said that one of the key ways to confront evil, and the lies that it keeps telling, is for simple, ordinary people to keep standing up and speaking the truth.  Evil will try to suppress the truth.  Evil will try to shut people up by firing them, putting them out of work, or trying to discredit them.  But, there will always be a few who will speak up and tell the truth, even in spite of the consequences.  While people worry that the evils of the Nazi way of thinking could happen anywhere, the truth is that it did not happen everywhere.  That is what gives us hope.

The presence of evil in the world, even the growing presence of evil in the world, continues to show us our ongoing need for Easter.  This month, we begin the season of Lent.  Lent is the 40 days (plus Sundays) leading up to Easter.  It has traditionally been a time for reflection and contemplation on the meaning of Easter, the sacrifice that Christ made on our behalf, and our utter dependence upon God.  Easter was the day that Jesus defeated evil in the world.  Yes, evil still exists, and evil continues to flail around as much as it can.  But, it has already been defeated.  The game is over even though the time has not run out yet.  Evil doesn’t want to admit that it is losing, and it will lose, but it will.  Easter is our assurance of that.

Easter reminds us that evil is real, that we do not have the power to stop evil by ourselves, and that we are dependent upon Jesus to defeat evil for us.  We will continue to battle it the rest of our lives.  Evil is like a boxer that has already been knocked out.   But, he continues to get up off the mat and flail his arms around, trying to inflict a little more harm on us, before he completely collapses, totally defeated, never to get up again.  Without Jesus, evil would win.  Without Jesus, we would lose.  Without Easter, we would be without hope.

Because of Easter, evil has width, but not depth.  Evil is like a bad weed that grows and grows and takes over the topsoil.  It looks like it is everywhere.  But, it has no roots. It has no depth.  It can kill off the grass and the plants on the surface, but it can’t go deep, which means that it won’t last.  Only good has the roots to go deep.  Because of its roots, good will outlast evil.  Good will conquer evil in the end.  Good has the depth that evil lacks.

That is what we learn from Easter.  That is why we look forward to Easter.  That is why we have hope.  The evil that we see now will not last.  Evil was defeated on the cross.  When Jesus rose from the dead on Easter, he signed evil’s death sentence.  It’s only a matter of time, before He shuts it away completely.  Hang in there.  Easter’s coming.