Six Words

I was listening to Michele Norris on the radio the other day; she was talking about the Race Card Project. I had never heard about it. Norris had written an autobiographical book about race relations in the United States, and she was making plans for a book tour. She wanted to find a simple and creative way to get the conversation with the audience started, and what she came up with were little black postcards she handed out to people. She asked them to think about their experiences, hopes, dreams, laments, or observations about race and cultural identity. Then they were to take those thoughts and distill them down to one six-word sentence and write it on the little black postcard, ready for sharing.

Once Norris hit the road on her book tour, she quickly realized that she didn’t really need that kind of incentive. All over the country people who came to hear about her story wound up sharing their own. “Despite all the talk about America’s consternation or cowardice when it comes to talking about race,” Norris said, “I seemed to have found auditorium after auditorium full of people who were more than willing to unburden themselves on this prickly topic.”[1]

That’s how the little black postcards became the Race Pard Project with its own website. People took the cards with them and mulled over the assignment. Norris hoped that a few might send them back to her via email or put a stamp on them and mail them. But it didn’t take long, and dozens of those little postcards started arriving in the mail every week and bit by bit, more and more of those little six-word “essays” piled up in her inbox and via twitter. The submissions posted on the website are thoughtful, funny, heartbreaking, brave, teeming with anger and shimmering with hope. Some will make you smile. Others might make you squirm.

Listening to the story on the radio, I thought about Maya Lin, the artist best known for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.  I remembered hearing her once in an interview talk about a very common question people ask. She was born in Athens, Ohio, but when people would ask her, “Where are you from?” and she would say, “Ohio” there would be, all too often, a follow-up question that just happened to consist of six words, “No, where are you really from?” Maya Lin is Chinese-American, and I found several very similar postings on the race card project website from Korean-Americans, Pakistani-Americans, and others.

Six words tell a story. In some of the posts, you immediately feel the sting: “No, I am not the nanny.” Others come with a hint of resignation: “I really wish it didn’t matter.” And a few offer wise suggestions for how we might change our conversations and relationships for the better. One six-word essay said, “Ask who I am, not what.”

Six words tell a story. The idea isn’t new, it’s been around for some time. Smith is a web magazine that is home to six-word memoirs by whoever wants to submit one. “I still make coffee for two,” wrote somebody recovering from a difficult break-up. And screen writer Nora Ephron penned another great one, “Secret of life: marry an Italian.” (I’ll have to ask my sister about that one.) Ernest Hemingway is said to be the one who first challenged writers to tell a story in six words, but who knows. He certainly wrote one of the best ones: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This heartbreaking sentence strikes me as one of the many stories human beings have written on that long day after the darkest of Fridays. Life is so fragile. Sometimes our worst fears become reality. Promises are broken. The phone call confirms the dreaded diagnosis. Trust is betrayed. The friend is executed. Joy is gone and hope is buried.

The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee saw the tomb and how he was laid. And then they sat that long day after Friday, small jars of ointment and bags of fragrant spices in their laps; they just sat waiting. Luke says they rested, but we know they didn’t. They were waiting for the world to turn so they could go to the tomb and anoint the body, so at least he would have a proper burial.

At early dawn they came to the tomb and nothing was like it was supposed to be. The stone was rolled away, and when they went in, they did not find the body. Now, what kind of six-word memoir would you distill from a morning like that? Something like, “What did they do to him?” or “Please, no, I can’t bear this.”

The women were much too confused and upset to think about words that might capture that moment; but they didn’t have to find their own words because angels spoke to them. There are countless ways to imagine how that might have happened; to me the point seems to be that the words that transformed the shock of complete loss into good news for all, those words were given to the womemn by messengers from heaven.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you… !” they said, and the women remembered Jesus’ words. I’m almost certain the angels didn’t ask, “Remember how he told you…?” as though it were just a matter of putting two and two together. The angels said, “Remember how he told you that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again,” and the angels’ words triggered the women’s memory, and finally Jesus’ own words and teachings helped them begin to unfold the wondrous thing God had done: The world of sinners had had its way with Jesus of Nazareth, but God raised him from the dead.

God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s our story in six words. That’s the story we received, the story we proclaim.

Do you think the stone was rolled away so Jesus could get out? I don’t think so. The stone was rolled away so the witnesses could get in and then come away from that place of heartbreak and buried hope with the story of God’s death-defying doings. The stone was rolled away because God wants witnesses, women and men who continue on the way of grace in a world with so little room for it, and such a deep thirst for it.

God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection wasn’t just a for-example-display of God’s limitless creative power; God didn’t just raise somebody, but raised Jesus. God raised Jesus who had proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor to us all. The resurrection is God’s response to Jesus’ violent death at the hand of sinners; it is God’s vindication of Jesus who had been convicted by the powers of the state, of religion, and of the crowd. The resurrection is God’s confirmation of Jesus’ way as the way of redemption.

God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s our story. Now that astonishing news was beginning to unfold in the women’s hearts and they rushed to tell it to the eleven and all the others. Their response? Every preacher’s nightmare. The translations vary, just pick one. “These words seemed to them an idle tale, empty talk, a silly story, a foolish yarn, sheer humbug, utter nonsense.”

Some have suggested that the first Easter proclamation was poorly received because the messengers were women, and you know that’s a pretty strong possibility, not just for the first century AD. You might think that the eleven and all the others should have been prepared for the glorious good news and eager to receive it, given that the women were confirming what Jesus himself had told them several times on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem. But their words seemed like a silly story to the apostles and they didn’t believe the women.

God raised Jesus from the dead. Six words that change everything. Six words that reflect a reality that is too much to take in for any of us. But it’s not all up to us; that reality has a way of taking us in:

The gospel reading from Luke for this day ends with a curious verse. But Peter got up and and ran to the tomb, it says. Now why would he do that after they had all just dismissed the women’s witness as utter nonsense? You know it won’t be long and this same Peter will be one of the most visible witnesses of the early church. We heard one of his testimonies this morning in the reading from Acts. We know this was a critical moment for him. So what was it that made him get up and not walk, but run to the tomb?

Anna Carter Florence asked a group of people that question, and they each put themselves in Peter’s shoes and responded.[2]

I went because I was curious.

I wondered if the women might be right.

I hoped they might be right.

I wanted to see for myself.

I went because I felt guilty.

I had to apologize.

The Holy Spirit drew me.

I wondered if I was the reason Jesus was alive.

The good news of Jesus Christ finds us where we are and draws us closer. The living Christ himself finds us and heals our brokenness, forgives our sins, and gives us new life. The resurrection of Christ isn’t something we can take in; but it is a reality that takes us in. It is a new creation where we live as a people transformed and renewed for the purposes of God.

God raised Jesus from the dead, and God wants witnesses, women and men who continue on the way of grace in a world with so little room for it, and such a deep thirst for it.



[2] See Anna Carter Florence, Journal for Preachers 2004, 35-37