What do you do when your dreams die? The very dreams that have been shaped by your glimpses of God and of life abundant, the dreams that have given meaning and purpose to your identity—what do you do then?
And what do you do if you can’t quite blame yourself for having gotten it wrong? You don’t even quite know how to repent or redirect your life and your dreams. Instead, you feel trapped in what feels like an empty, directionless space, grieving what might have been while wondering if you had been deluded by fantasies the whole time.
Mary is in such a place on Holy Saturday. She had glimpsed life abundant in her relationship with Jesus, enabling her to discover afresh the transformative power of God’s presence. Jesus had set her on a new path, in which she had seen the fullness of God’s reign breaking through, in which she had seen new possibilities for her own life.
But now it was gone, taken from her. A part of Mary died with Jesus on Good Friday. What else could she do but grieve, lamenting what might have been while wondering whether she had been mistaken in trusting him?
In John 20:11ff, Mary is grieving at the tomb. Her grief is so overwhelming, her world is so shattered, that she doesn’t recognize the risen Christ when he appears to her. She mistakes him for the gardener.
Then he calls her by name. “Mary,” he says. Hearing him speak her name, she begins to rediscover her life, her dreams, and her vocation. “Rabbouni,” she calls back to him. Maybe her hope can be renewed.
Yet her hope leads her to try going back to the past. She tries to cling to the risen Christ. But he tells her not to hold on to him, because he is preparing to ascend to the Father.
Instead, Mary receives a mission, a renewed vocation: to go to the disciples and tell them about the resurrected Jesus. “I have seen the Lord,” she proclaims to the “dis-spirited” disciples. The inconsolable Mary, weeping outside the tomb, becomes the first evangelist of the Good News.
Mary’s story illumines the power of the risen Christ’s forgiveness to call us out of despair into new life. He calls us out of the sin and brokenness and grief in which we feel trapped. Sometimes we feel trapped because of things we have done or have failed to do for others. Sometimes it is because of things others have done to us or failed to do for us.
Typically our despair is fed by a complex mixture of sin and suffering, but the result is the same. We grieve and lament and allow our world to shrink.
How do we hear the voice of the risen Christ call us out of despair and rediscover our vocation, our dreams, our life? Sometimes Christ speaks powerfully to us with an offer of new life through Scripture, the sacraments, in the midst of prayer or through daily discipleship. We long to hear the gracious, forgiving and renewing voice of Christ directly, calling us by name, as did Mary.
Often, though, we hear the voice of the risen Christ, and rediscover a powerful sense of our vocation, through the gift of holy friends. Holy friends are those people who offer a “grace of being held,” especially in the midst of grief and unresolved suffering. They know our stories, and so how we have been named and claimed by God, and they have a peculiar gift for knowing just how to challenge, support, and encourage us to dream again.
My wife Susan and I discovered in our own lives that holy friends are those who know how to challenge the sins we have come to love, to help us affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim, and dream dreams we otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed.
I don’t really need to be challenged to give up the sins I already hate. I may still need to repent of those sins that mar my life, but I know the task before me. The real challenge is to discover those sins which I’ve come to love, and thereby often re-describe in ways that make them sound – well, not sinful anymore. That is when the risen Christ often speaks through people who know me well, challenging my self-deception and calling me to a renewed sense of holy living before God.
I need such people to challenge me. But if that is all they do, I won’t want them around very much. I need holy friends also to encourage me, to help me affirm gifts I am otherwise afraid to claim. Jesus helped Mary see that she was a person with dignity: that was part of what made his death so excruciatingly painful for her. We long for people who call us to live fully into our vocation as a gift from God, and who inspire and enable us to become more than we, in our shame and guilt, would otherwise imagine to be possible. It is no less problematic for us to be self-deceived in failing to see our gifts than it is to see and claim our sins.
Holy friends challenge and affirm. They also help us dream dreams we otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed. The true vocation that Mary receives from the risen Christ includes more than forgiveness and a restored identity. It is her commissioning to go and tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” She is empowered to bear witness to God’s reign.
Ephesians 3:20-21 offers a beautiful vision of this expansive dreaming empowered by the risen Christ: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Just as in our brokenness we can lose our capacity to dream, or mistake fantasies for authentic dreams, so by the power of the risen Christ we imagine new worlds and discover beautiful dreams for our vocation. Such was the gift that Teboho “Tsietsi” Mashinini discovered through holy friends in South Africa. As a young boy growing up in apartheid South Africa, Teboho “Tsietsi” Mashinini blended right in with the crowd. His face told no particular story, his name carried no distinction and his future looked as grim as anyone’s. The apartheid government wanted it that way, too, because masses of anonymous humanity proved much easier to control than named individuals in tight-knit communities. As soon as a young, black boy began living into a name and a story, apartheid would begin to lose its grip. Once he gained an identity, he might gain something even more threatening to apartheid: hope.
But those in hopeless situations typically don’t invent hopeful solutions on their own. Hope tends to emerge as a relational surprise, an unearned gift from another who knows you and loves you. . Or it’s given by Benadette Mosala, another teacher who saw artistic potential in Mashinini, given his natural amiability and creativity. Of all the relational influences that contributed to Mashinini’s newfound hope, none left quite as strong a mark as a discipleship group in his local Methodist parish.
There, members of the group challenged assumptions that apartheid had instilled in him; that his life had no value, that he would never amount to anything, and that black South Africans had nothing to hope for. Tsietsi’s father had been a lay preacher in the church, so these people knew him well. They told him that he had leadership potential, and encouraged him to see his own life story within the context of a larger story of divine liberation. These strands eventually came together, and he – no, they – began to dream dreams beyond apartheid.
One of those dreams took shape in the mid-1970s, shortly after the apartheid government had announced that the white, colonial language of Afrikaans would become a mandatory language for education. Black students like Mashinini became outraged, feeling an acute blow to their dignity as non-white South Africans. In response, Mashinini convened a meeting of nearby student leaders. Together they formed an action committee, which agreed to organize a mass demonstration for students that would take place three days later, on June 16, 1976.
That morning, Mashinini led hundreds of students from his own high school to meet with thousands of others who had gathered from nearby schools. As with many other peaceful demonstrations in non-peaceful times, the situation quickly turned violent. Police had barricaded their intended marching route, so the students marched along a different one. Eventually, however, police and students collided. Sparked by an incident involving rock throwing, police began shooting recklessly into the crowd, leaving between 150 and 600 bodies in their wake.
Dubbed the “Soweto Uprising,” the events of June 16, 1976, marked a watershed moment in apartheid resistance. The United Nations Security Council shined an international light on the apartheid regime, strongly condemning it with the passage of Resolution 392. Internally, many white South Africans grew troubled at the realization that their government was capable of such violence. Perhaps most importantly, however, the Soweto Uprising gave young, black South Africans hope for a life beyond apartheid – a life that Mashinini now believed was possible. Many years later, when South Africa had begun its peaceful transition to democracy after the end of Apartheid, June 16, 1976 became recognized as South Africa’s version of July 4. It is now a national holiday and celebration, thanks to the vision that Mashinini and his friends helped make possible.
When young Mashinini believed he was nothing, God used holy friends to help him become something. Mashinini easily could have remained immersed in his sense of being nothing, and could have acted out of that deprivation and the fears that accompany it. The result could have been destructive for him as well as others around him. Instead, Mashinini discovered the gift of friendships, people who called him beyond himself to live into a Christian imagination for his future, and for the future—including the whole future of South Africa.
Often, when it feels like your dreams have died, Holy Saturday feels interminable. The more you think, the more you shrink, and the more anxiety and fear set in. What can you do when you don’t feel like doing anything?
We hope and pray for friends who can help us discern our vocation. Vocation is lived through the grace of ordinary living in family life and daily work. And vocation is lived through an extraordinary witness to the possibilities of a new country. Either way, we can lean into the possibilities for life abundant.
We will discover and rediscover our vocation as we seek to live as Easter people, bearing witness that even in our despair, God finds us, calls us by name, and invites us to tell others: “I have seen the risen Lord.”
Dr. L Gregory Jones is the Strategic Director of the Laity Lodge Leadership Initiative and Williams Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School.