Tuesday, May 29, 2012

just for an afternoon

The Word for today:
Mark 16: 9-20

And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. (Mark 15:21)

In my footloose, bohemian days, I went to New York City all the time. Maybe a dozen times a year, I used to go to New York just for an afternoon.

When I say “just for an afternoon,” I’m not referring to the length of my stay. I mean that the afternoon was what I went there to do. And New York was the perfect setting for an afternoon perfectly played.

Beginning in the wee hours of Saturday morning, I’d drive from Buffalo to New Paltz, where there were college friends who would take me in for the night. Then I’d take the train to New York, where I did what I came for—the afternoon.

Then I’d get on the train back to New Paltz and sleep through what was left of the night. Then I’d drive back to Buffalo on Sunday. Ahh, youth.

As I said, I didn’t just spend the afternoon, I did the afternoon. It was sort of like performance art before there was such a thing.

Most of the time I did much of nothing, which was the best part of the whole production.
But sometimes I actually went somewhere specific. I sometimes went to the public library, which is my favorite place in New York. I went to the Metropolitan Art Museum. I sat in the bleachers in right field at Yankee Stadium, which is a lot like going to the zoo and a baseball game at the same time.

Now and then I went to experimental theatre or improvisational comedy clubs. One time I walked into an improv place and I had no sooner gotten a beer and was making my way across the room to an open table when I was whisked away by two extremely attractive women!

They sort of guided me between the tables towards a storage room behind the stage.

When we got there they wanted to know, “Are you ready to be a star?”

“I was ready to drink this beer.”

“Oh, we’ll get you more of those if you’ll play a part in our play.”

Those were fair terms, so a deal was struck. I was to play a rather artsy professor. I was given a tweed coat, eyeglasses without lenses, a black beret, the gist of a plot, and a few examples of the situations that might arise. Then they told me to put on the coat and the glasses and “become” the character. “Respond with a sentence to whatever sentence we speak,” I was told. “Say the first thing that comes to mind.” So I did. And for 20 minutes, I was a star, with two free beers to boot.


Simon of Cyrene was impressed into duty in much the same way. From his home in North Africa, he’d come all the way to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’d brought his sons along for their very first time.

Turning a corner, they were met by a gruesome procession. Battered and bloodied men were making their way through the narrow streets, carrying heavy beams that must have weighed 50 pounds.

Though he himself was a very big man, he was suddenly nearly lifted off the ground by two burly centurions, one at each side. They hustled him forward until at his feet was a man who’d been so severely beaten that his face was a featureless pulp.

He was ordered to carry the beaten man’s beam. So he placed one of its ends over his left shoulder. Then he offered his right hand to the condemned man.

The heat was rising, the road was uphill, and the suffering man was unable to stay on his feet for more than a few minutes at a time.

Over the final steps of their ascent, Simon had to carry the man in the same way he’d sometimes carried his sons when they were too tired to walk.

With a beam over one shoulder and a man over the other, it was almost more than Simon could bear, but there were just a few steps remaining. Then he dropped the beam to the pavement and slowly lowered the man to the ground.


I’m not sure of the theological implications of helping God get up so he could die on a cross instead of the street.

I’m not sure there are any theological implications. And, to tell you the truth, if there are I don’t really want to know.

What I do know is that there will come a day when, suddenly, you are offered a part in God’s Story. You’re no longer just an onlooker, just a Bible reader. There you are on the page with Jesus.

Above all else, take the cue. None of us, in any cosmic sense, are playwrights. We are bit players at best, who know not the whole, just our role. So you will not understand what is going on as you are swept along into circumstances that are neither of your making nor of your choosing.

There will be time to ask questions later, but for now just play the part you’re called to play. Play that part with all your heart. Lend God the hand he gave you. Put your back into it if need be. Walk right into the Story and become one with it, even if it’s just for an afternoon.


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