Category Archives: Easter

Life inside the Trinity. John 16:23-33

The risen Lord says to his followers—and to us, by the way: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Because the national news has been so disquieting lately, I often find myself taking refuge further back in the paper. Here in Florida the homegrown stuff is liable to be rather bizarre and garish—but that somehow seems reassuring in troublous times. It usually consists of the familiar litany of opulent drug busts, alleged vampire attacks, and naked liquor store heists. Just business as usual here in the Sunshine State. Then every once in while a local story comes along that is in its own way even more troubling than the national news, because it represents such intimate, recognizable human suffering. You feel as if you might well know the people involved personally, and you are forced to grieve for them.

For instance in last Sunday’s paper there was the story of the murder-suicide of a St. Petersburg couple. They belong to a type familiar to us here–Florida has more than its share of such vigorous, affluent senior citizens living out their dream down here where everyone knows that 60 is the new 40. The husband was in fact 69, a longtime, much-decorated St. Petersburg police officer who had reinvented himself and found a lucrative and interesting second career as a financial adviser. The wife was 72, a business consultant and guest columnist for the Tampa Bay Times. Over the years she had contributed over a hundred articles about business and career development. She was the president of Strategic Communications, a consulting firm she founded in 1985 that specialized in public relations, marketing, and employee motivation. The husband was an associate vice president for investments at Raymond James. He told a friend that did not intend to retire for another six or seven years. He loved what he was doing. They were prosperous, well-liked and much-admired–poster children for “the new old.”

Then almost overnight everything fell apart. The husband suffered an accident at the gym that left him unable to walk without a cane, and then only haltingly. The wife learned that a hip injury she had suffered would eventually leave her dependent on a walker or a wheelchair for the rest of her life. “If you don’t have health, you don’t have anything,” the husband had told a friend back when he was still “a picture of health.” So when their vigorous good health abandoned them, everything else they had meant nothing. They experienced what all of us will if we live long enough—they went from being healthy and independent to being feeble and infirm quite suddenly. It was the greatest shock of their lives. They had always expected their bodies to obey them, and then all at once their bodies declined. They felt betrayed, empty, at the end of their rope. They had no other life. The husband was especially depressed by their declining physical condition—he was very “down the dumps” the friend said afterwards. It had occurred to the friend to suggest professional help, but he hesitated, as we all might. They were such self-sufficient people. They had never needed any help.

Then one day last week, their daughter in San Francisco tried and couldn’t get in touch with them, so she called a neighbor. When his knocking was answered only by the barking of couple’s dog, he called the police. The husband’s body was found dead in the front hall. His wife’s in her home office. He had apparently shot her, and then used the same handgun to end his own life.

I repeat this story not to sadden you, beloved—although it is a very sad story—but to give us both pause. It is a story the demands our attention. As someone with a firsthand knowledge of depression, I can never bring myself to pass judgement on those who come to such a terrible place as those people did. I pray for their souls, but I don’t venture to pronounce sentence on their actions. None of us are really that much stronger than the rest of us, beloved. And no one knows the darkness and emptiness of the hell into which people not so unlike ourselves can sink. Only Jesus knows.

But at the same time we have no business judging, we also have to say clearly that this is not where we are intended to end up, driven to a despairing act that repudiates everything good that has gone before it. Our end should offer us and those who survive us peace and resolution and a sense of balance. It should be the part of our lives that makes sense of their whole.

Because in every part of our lives—but especially at their ending–the difference between hope and despair, between order and confusion, the distinction between purpose and meaninglessness depends upon where our souls are situated. We have to have another life—the one we live in these fragile bodies is not enough. Either we are also living inside the Trinity of Three Persons, as part of the eternal life of God, or we are in trouble.

But it isn’t a simple matter, living inside the Trinity. Some people talk about “being saved” as a once and for all, cut and dried arrangement they strike up with God. They accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, confess and receive forgiveness, and then ride off like Judge Roy Bean to condemn the rest of humanity from the saddle of their high horses. But their self-righteousness and unkindness reveal the truth. It just isn’t that simple. The judge is just as guilty as the defendant. As sinners we are condemned to complexity, beloved. Life inside the Trinity can never be reduced to a tract entitled God’s Plan of Salvation with four points and a prayer.

It is complicated because we have to live it out in the world, and the world is a complicated place. We may want to love God single-mindedly with our whole heart, mind, and will, but our desire for him is constantly being muddied by our all-too-human lack of concentration. We are easily distracted. We get confused. We waffle. We get angry, and then we get sad. We chase our own tails. Then our tails turn and chase us. We worry about ourselves, and when we tire of that we worry about other people. Then we just worry. We get so caught up in what Jesus in the Gospel calls “the world”–which is roughly half gorgeous spectacle and half ghastly nightmare—that we lose our focus upon what is Really Real.

But then quite suddenly and unexpectedly we stumble upon that Really Real again, because it is prevenient, always there, and grace enfolds us like the cloud of glory enfolded Moses—but not for long and never permanently. The grace of God never leaves us, but we are constantly leaving it to dwell in our own selfishness. We step in and out of that magic circle of grace–the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is better imagined as an endless circle of being and loving rather than as an equilateral triangle as it is often pictured—every day of our lives and sometimes several times each day.

But it is always there–that’s whole the point. The life of eternal grace is there for us to step into. The fullness of joy is always possible to those who ask. “Ask, and you will receive,” the risen Lord says, “that your joy may be full.” Our goal in life is not to understand the Holy Trinity, which would be an exercise in futility, but to experience it from the inside. And the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes that possible for us. “I have overcome the world,” the risen Lord says to his followers. Jesus died on the Cross and rose again that he might offer us those worlds of light that live inside the Trinity. It did all that so that we might have another life.

And that’s what makes the tragedy of that murder-suicide in St. Petersburg so heart-rending. That couple, who had everything else, only seem to have had one life, the life they lived in their bodies. That is not to say that that life meant nothing–no love or compassion is ever wasted, beloved. Whatever was good in those people survives. I believe that. But when push comes to shove—as it always does—life in the body is not enough.

It lets us down. In the end our bodies always leave us alone, even when we are surrounded with an admiring crowd, even when we are in the arms of those who love us best, we are abandoned. That is our condition. Jesus calls it “tribulation,” the confusion of ordinary human life. “In the world you have tribulation,” he says. “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Peace versus tribulation–that is the conflict in which we have to live out our lives—in the tension between the chaos and confusion of life inside our bodies and the calm and stillness of life inside the Trinity. It isn’t always a very comfy place to be—pulled as we are in two directions. We know that, don’t we, beloved? But as my dentist said to me recently in a moment a considerable discomfort—“Don’t worry now. This isn’t going to last forever.”

 

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Filed under Discipleship, Easter, Gospels, Life in the Spirit, New Testament

Our Bizarro Twin. Luke 24:1-12

“The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but [the two men dressed in dazzling clothes who met them at the empty tomb] said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. ”

That little flock of women who first spread the message of the resurrection were, of course—in their own time and place—the very ones least likely to be believed. But God gives us the good news and tells us to share it. It doesn’t seem to matter to him whether or not we are believed. It is the telling that matters. And predictably the disciples who first heard the story regarded it as “an idle tale.” The resurrection news is just so bizarre, going as it does against all expectation and all common sense, and in so many ways so unsettling and so uncanny.

No wonder Easter is still, from the commercial point of view, such a hard sell. While each year the goblin market of Halloween, Easter’s “bizarro twin” at the other side of the calendar, continues to break its own records for the consumption of its wares—costumes, candy, cards—Easter lags far, far behind. And it is worth asking just why exactly. Shouldn’t the news that death is dying be easier to market?

The problem is with that very word. Because you cannot talk about the resurrection of Jesus without bringing up You Know What. Even papered over with the imagery of cute rabbits and drenched in the scent of spring flowers, Easter retains that tell-tale whiff of mortality. And in a time when pretty much anything can be talked about openly, death remains strictly off limits. For modern people death-talk has about it the same forbidden quality as sex-talk had for our Victorian great-grandparents. It is our big No-No. As far as humanly possible we have banished from our lives any mention of their Great Opposite, and we discuss it with our children only with the greatest reluctance.

That does not mean, however, that death has been banished entirely from the popular consciousness. I know this because every Halloween I act the part of the talking corpse at Honeymoon Island State Park. On the stage of this world some are given the great parts—King Lear and Prince Hamlet. I play the Dead Cowboy. My face is smeared with grease paint and fake blood. An open wound is carved in my bosom. Made up I present indeed an alarming sight—I have pictures to prove it. Then night falls and I lie down in a coffin of my own building, waiting for a gaggle of silly geese to come waddling down the haunted path. And when they do happen by, I sit up and speak in a hollow, sepulchral voice—like Lazarus returned from the grave to tell all. Oh, and you should hear them squeal and squawk when they spy me there in my coffin. I scare the ever-livin’ goose-poop out of that goofy gaggle. Still they must enjoy it, because each year they come back for more.

What is disturbing is that they often they bring with them their young offspring, who are genuinely terrified by what they see along the haunted path. They scream with real terror when I sit up and start to speak, and I hear their goosey parents saying, “It’s not real. He’s just an actor.” They say this because they want to believe it themselves, and they want their children to share that belief, that death isn’t real. That it’s all grease paint and pretend. That our mortality is a mere fiction, the Biggest Joke of All–but never, ever a reality, present to us at every moment of our lives. The gooselings, however, know better. They scream and cry because they know that there is a fearful reality hidden under all the silliness of Halloween.

In that regard that little flock of women who dutifully trooped off to the tomb on first day of the week to anoint the body of Jesus with spices have it all over on us modern people. They never doubted that death was real. They knew it intimately well. They had seen and touched and smelled it. In their society it was always there, all around them, undeniable. In ours it is a deep, dark secret hidden even from ourselves.

But in order to experience the painful joy of Easter you and I have to stop pretending, beloved. In order to really hear the cheering news of his resurrection we have to acknowledge that Jesus really died—dead as a door nail—and so will we. If his cross drives home any point at all, it is that death is factual and personal to each one us. And only through that dark glass of that realization can we glimpse the eternal meaning of Christ’s rising, and understand why it was necessary for the women to find the tomb so absolutely empty, so totally vacated. Rising, he left the winding sheets behind him. Because the risen Lord was not a friendly ghost like Casper. When he arose it was as The Paschal God, naked and alive in an utterly new way, as no one had ever been alive before.

Sigmund Freud said that we human beings are fundamentally, constitutionally unable to imagine our own death, and he was probably right. Some have done their darndest to confront their death head-on. John Donne, the seventeenth century English poet and preacher, went so far as to sleep the last years of his life in his own coffin. Nice try, you must admit! But on the whole, we find it well-nigh impossible to picture a world in which we ourselves are not present. Even the boldest spirit among us is death-shy. The fear of nothingness is our deepest human dread, beloved, and we hide it from ourselves at all costs, papering it over whenever possible with nervous laughter and maudlin sentimentality. So the news that Jesus died and rose again must always confound and terrify us as much as it did that little flock of women who were its first witnesses.

But The Paschal God–bless him!—does not leave us in our terror and confusion. He comes to us, through the doors we close and lock behind us, in the upstairs rooms where we hide ourselves from reality. He comes still marked with the gristly signs of his own death and says, “Peace be with you. Do not be afraid.” Not that there is nothing to be afraid of—there are still plenty of things in life to fear. But we are not left by ourselves to face its Great Opposite. Whatever lies before us, Jesus has been there already. He has gone ahead as “the pioneer and perfector of our faith,” as the Book of Hebrews puts it (12:2). Or as the Apostles’ Creed boldly puts it, “He descended into hell,” and then “on the third day he rose again.” The Lord knows where we are going and he knows the way back.

And his resurrection turns everything “bizzaro.” That thing that most frightened us has become the door to eternal life. And the universe, which had seemed dark and meaningless, has revealed itself to be chock-a-block with light and possibility. The Resurrection of Jesus makes everything possible. We will be all right. Better than all right. Therefore, beloved, let us keep the feast. Have an extra Cadbury crème egg on me. In spite of the shocking Trumpism of our time and its sometimes triumphant vulgarity, Christ is still risen. Nothing can alter that. And just as a thousand thousand candles can be lit by a single flame, the news of his resurrection continues to kindle human hearts with hope and courage. So to those of you who share that hope with me, I wish you great joy this Easter.

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Filed under Easter, Gospels, New Testament