Tag Archives: Living

Confusing Facts–Mark 4:35-41

The Gospel of Mark tells us that as the storm raged around them, Jesus “was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and the disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.”

 

It was a tempest, a real gully-washer, and the disciples were understandably alarmed by it. They thought they were perishing. But the Lord of Life was there with them in the boat. They can be forgiven if they did not enjoy the ride, but they should not have been afraid—nor should we be.

I was told the other day of a certain evangelical pastor who counseled his congregation not to listen to the news any more, that is would just confuse and alarm them. They should give the time they would spend listening to the news and reading the paper to prayer and Bible study. Now there is nothing at all wrong with prayer and Bible study, heaven knows. And that might even be good advice, if ignorance were ever a good thing—which it is not.

We have to be suspicious of anyone who wants us to remain ignorant of the facts, for whatever reason. They pretend it is for our own good, but they always do it for their own reasons. The Apostles of Ignorance don’t want their people to attend to the “liberal media” because they want us to listen to their version of the truth instead. Uniformed people are always more biddable and easy to manage. It is always a mistake to turn your mind over to anyone else, no matter who.

But that pastor, misled in much else, was right about one thing–there is no doubt that listening to the news these days is confusing, aggravating and sometimes downright frightening. We can readily identify ourselves with those disciples, quailing in the boat with the storm howling all around them. We too are struggling against the contrary winds of bias and opinion; we too at times find that our little boat is in danger of being swamped by distressing images and dire warnings.

The news is not an invention of sinister forces, liberal or conservative. Just like in the Bible story, the storm around us is real, not imaginary. That it is confusing is not an excuse to ignore it and pretend that it isn’t raging. We could try to hide from it, closing our eyes tight and huddling in the bottom of the boat. But ignoring the storm that is raging around us does not deepen our Christian faith. It only serves to make it naïve and shallow and all those other things that unbelievers say that it is. No, if Christians should be anything, it is more concerned and interested in what is going on in the world, because we believe in a God who speaks through history, not just ancient history but our own. His prophets and seers have always seen his hand at work in it. And God is still speaking to us through the chaotic events of our moment in time, even when we do not always understand what he is saying and hear only the roaring of the storm.

What was always been true remains the case, beloved–to be a Christian is to be confused. To be a Christian in this world is always to be waiting for further clarification. As St. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians (4:8-9)—“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” We are confused and perplexed by the news, by the wars and rumors of wars that Jesus said must come before the end, by the monstrous lies we hear shouted from on high, by the vulgar materialism of our society, by the staggering callousness of our government, by the decision of a large part of popular Christianity to regard the political fabrications as truth, and by religious leaders waging war on the facts in the name of Christ.

It is easy to become obsessed by it all and start yelling at the television screen. It is easy to misunderstand and overdramatize our position, like those disciples in the Bible story. They thought Jesus was indifferent because he was sunk in exhausted asleep. They thought they were in mortal danger of drowning, when in fact that his presence with them in the boat ensured their safety.

The storm is real enough, but God is with us–that is the good news we need to hear right now. So when Jesus speaks to the wind and the sea—Peace! Be still!—his Holy Spirit is speaking to us as well. The facts are facts—that they confusing is no reason to ignore them. But the presence of Christ in the boat is the Fact that governs all other facts. The news is the news. What is important for us is to remain calm and still in the midst of the storm. Not to spend our little all to buy into any one point of view. The truth is that the truth is endlessly complicated and complex. But God is at work to simplify and distill it into a single limpid word—Jesus.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Church, End Times, Gospel of Mark, Gospels, Holy Spirit, Life in the Spirit, New Testament

Darn Pharisees–Mark 2:23-3:6

In the Gospel lesson for this week it says that Jesus “looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

Are you angry, beloved? Angry enough to admit you are? I am. Angry enough for two of us. Not all the time and with everyone, of course. I wouldn’t say that I’m an angry person, but sometimes with some people my anger breaks through the skin and at times I feel that there is more than enough reason for it. Reading the newspaper and watching television makes it worse, but I can’t stop that either. We live in angry times. But our Gospel lesson, which speaks to us directly about the anger of Jesus, gives you and me some guidance as to how our anger can be controlled and directed by the love of God.

It is a vivid scene that Mark sets for us. Jesus is in a synagogue on the Sabbath day–maybe it’s hot, maybe it’s crowded–and a search light is on him. The Pharisees are watching, because there is a man there with a withered hand and they waiting to see if they can catch Jesus breaking the Sabbath law by healing him. They want to use his compassion as a hook and the crippled man as bait. So there is an atmosphere of tension in the synagogue that day, and Jesus, always sensitive to an atmosphere, feels it. He hears the question buzzing around his head–“Will he do it?” Like a persistent fly. “Will he do it?”

So when he looked around him in the synagogue on that Sabbath day what did Jesus see? He saw the man with a withered hand, whose life was wasted by his physical deformity, and the sight of human suffering always ticked Jesus off. He felt the futility of it. The isolation of being different. The tragedy of wasted existence. But what stirred his ire particularly were the Pharisees, watchful as spiders, whose bodies were whole and strong enough, but whose souls were shrunken and distorted by their cold indifference and their immovable prejudices.

Jesus had much in common with those Pharisees on purely religious grounds. He also was an observant Jew. He taught many of the things they believed—the resurrection of the dead, the existence of angels and evil spirits, the judgment of souls, heaven and hell.  But he was not one of them. Our Lord was a carpenter, yes, but not a joiner. Nothing in the gospels indicates that he identified himself with any particular sect or group. He stood apart from the religious set-up of his time. He was critical of all its parties. But in particular he did not get along with the Pharisees.

And why? Although they were scrupulous in keeping the Law of Moses to the letter, they were terribly careless about the suffering of others. They were rigid, petty, vengeful, and enmeshed in politics. But what made Jesus particularly angry that morning in the synagogue was their silence. When he asked them–“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” It says that “they were silent.” And that is what made Jesus angry enough to heal the crippled man on the Sabbath just to spite them. He was angry because although they were the most religious of God’s chosen people, and the most rigorous followers of his Law, they would not commit themselves to life.

And what Jesus saw when he looked around at the synagogue that Sabbath day is what the Lord sees when he looks at the Church today. Many of the most religious, the most scrupulous, who wear the name of Jesus in the boldest characters, are the most indifferent to ordinary human needs. They too, like the ancient Pharisees, are rigid, petty, vengeful, and enmeshed in politics. When Jesus looks around at the Church he beholds a place where principles, laws, and political agendas too often trump compassion, and no doubt the Lord is angry.

His anger is a comfort to those of us who share that anger. It says to us that Jesus feels our frustration and our exclusion. His anger is a comfort, but not an excuse. Anger secreted inside withers the soul. Jesus’ anger did not lie smoldering in his heart. It moved him to concrete action on behalf of those in need. “Stretch out your hand,” he said to the man in our story; and “he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” By way of comparison, what did the anger of the Pharisees do? It says they “went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

Our anger is more often than not a result of hurt feelings. We feel it when we think, rightly or wrongly, that we are being attacked. (“Progressive?” Franklin Graham recently told a group of conservative pastors and evangelists in the locker room of the Rose Bowl. “That’s just another word for godless.”) But the answer is not to add our anger to the already poisonous atmosphere that surrounds us. The answer is to commit ourselves whole-heartedly to life. We need to vote, to give, to work, and to speak the truth in the Spirit of Jesus.

It is pretty hard for any of us, whatever our persuasions, not to get angry these days. There is anger all around us, on the right and on the left, above and below—it is an atmosphere that is always threatening to choke out our better feelings. It is reassuring that Jesus too could be angry like we are, but he could not be indifferent as we can so easily become. Even in the most hostile of circumstances he was always able to take a stand for life. In the synagogue one morning we are told he saw a man with a withered hand. He might have inquired regarding his religious preferences, his immigration status, his sexual orientation or his political party, but all Jesus said was—“Stretch out your hand.” He was obedient because he knew he needed healing. And so we should stretch out our lives to Jesus, beloved, and the Lord will restore our withered hearts to be like his.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Church, Discipleship, Gospel of Mark, Gospels, Life in the Spirit, New Testament

Lying Like the Dickens

John 15:26-27—May 20, 2018

In the Gospel lesson for the Day of Pentecost the risen Lord promises his disciples: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”

Pentecost, this third great feast of the Christian year, is a hard one to know how to observe. Christmas and Easter have their joyful greetings, their bitter-sweet stories, their winsome traditions. But what in the world should we do to keep the Feast of Pentecost?

Well, it seems to me that if you are going to celebrate the coming of the Spirit of truth, there could be nothing so appropriate as to try honestly to speak the ungilded, honest truth in a time when so many are lying like the dickens. Even if you make yourself unpopular in some quarters by it, tell it like it is, sister and brother. Because all truth comes by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the struggle to tell the truth is always a sign of the Spirit’s presence, no matter in what context that struggle takes place or whether the truth teller is a Christian believer or not.  It doesn’t matter.

And truth can be and is expressed in every tongue under heaven. There is no barrier to it—it can be spoken and understood by all. That is what the story of that first Pentecost in the Book of Acts is all about. “Each one,” it says, “heard [the disciples] speaking in the native language of each” (2:6).

But just as all truth comes by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so every lie, no matter how small or how large that lie may be, emanates from the evil one. If truth is the language of the Spirit, then lies are the language of demons. That’s why we should find the present situation in America so alarming. Because it seems as if truth itself is dying a slow death of neglect, and lies and misinformation have become the new lingua franca of politics and government. We as a nation are so befuddled by such a storm of shams and frauds that we are in danger of losing our way completely. We have been so gaslighted by the falsehoods that rain down on us faster and faster from on high that we are losing our ability to recognize the truth when we see it. And–worst of all—many of us, blinded by cynicism and tribalism, seem to have stopped caring about the truth altogether, so long as the alternative realities presented feed our self-interest and curry our prejudices. And people who do not care if they are being lied to are likely to lie themselves.

Commencement addresses normally tend to be long on pious platitudes and short on real substance. But once in while they become the occasion of telling the honest truth.  So former Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson delivered an address at the Virginia Military Institute the other day that contains this acute analysis of America’s crisis of truth: “If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as a people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on the pathway to relinquishing our freedom.” Freedom and truth are inextricably bound together. You cannot have a free society in which there is no belief in objective truth. If there is no truth there is no way to criticize power, and if there is no way to criticize it, there is no way to control it, because there is no basis for doing so.  Lies put us under the heels of the tyrants that tell them. “When we as people, a free people,” Tillerson warned the graduates, “go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America.”

So is it possible that truth could die out among us? It would seem that we are in great danger, beloved. But all is not lost. Truth is the presence of the Spirit of Jesus and of his resurrection, and that Spirit can suffer and be rejected, but Truth itself cannot die. Even in a world that is lying to the races it cannot be overcome. That is the reason for our rejoicing on this day–because we are still free to tell the truth, and because we are still free as long as we do. That is something quite different from candles and colored eggs, but certainly something just as worthy of celebration.  Pentecost calls us to speak the truth and assures us that the Truth will always be there to speak.

It isn’t easy–it seems as if nothing ever is. We are both bi-lingual in this sense–we learn to speak the shadow language of lies at the same time we are learning to tell the truth. Most people are fluent in both. Lying comes to all of us naturally—more naturally than truth-telling–and to some people it is the virtually the only language they know. Some few cannot speak the truth at all, except by accident.  But the absence of the truth, the language of lies, is a sign that the Holy Spirit is truly absent, no matter how much religious gobbledy-gook is spouted, how many empty prayers are offered, how many pious-sounding thoughts are invoked. Only truth is the sign of the Spirit—honest truth clearly spoken.

And that’s what we need to do, with the Spirit’s help, speak the truth honestly in whatever little world we live in. My world is small, beloved, yours may be just as small. But in the end it is not the size of the world to which you speak the truth that matters, it is the clarity with which we speak it. The size of the audience doesn’t matter—it may be just you yourself. Either the truth has made you free or it hasn’t, beloved. There is nothing in the middle. And if you tell the truth, you can be freer in a cardboard box than in the most enormous room.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Discipleship, Gospels, Holy Spirit, Life in the Spirit, New Testament, Pentecost

The Sweet Smile of Moderation

“God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” St. Paul writes in his Second Letter to Timothy, “but rather a spirit of power and of love and of moderation” (1:7).

It has become commonplace to say that America is a highly polarized place. There is a tug of war going on between the alt right and the alt left for the soul of the nation. As hard as one team pulls, the other team tugs more fiercely. And for the rest of us the challenge of these times is to find a place to stand, as far away as possible from the fundamentalisms of the far right and the far left. Because one is not the opposite of the other–they are both simply different forms of barbarism and fanaticism. And moderation is the opposite of both, the only place where there is peace in a world where peace is in short supply.

Moderation is not a faith, nor a political party, nor an ideology; it is a way of dealing with the dizzying complexity of our divided times. It copes with the complexity in the world outside by acknowledging and nourishing the diversity within ourselves. People who follow the path of moderation are never just one thing—always many.

I had the great good fortune to grow up in a household where moderation was the rule, not the exception. My parents were many things at once–a complicated mixture. They were deeply conservative and devout in matters of religion, strongly opposed to strong drink and tobacco in all its forms, and generous almost to fault. And at the same they were shockingly liberal when it came to social issues; they were strongly anti-big money, pro-labor, pro-civil rights, and pro-choice. They were both pietists and socialists at the same time. They taught me the importance of having many identities, not just one. And the possibility and even the desirability of holding two opposing ideas at the same time. You can believe that abortion is a sin, as they did, and at the same time believe just as strongly that it is also a sin to force a woman to bear an unwanted child.

At our house we were dyed-in-the-wool moderates, but there were fundamentalists in our larger family, people who were just one thing with a vengeance. That was the reason that at Thanksgiving children were never allowed at the main table, because inevitably an unseemly argument would break out among those who were just one thing religiously or politically. As a child I wanted more than anything to sit at the adult table and listen to what my father referred to it as ‘the Thanksgiving food fight.” But it was forbidden, and neither of my parents took part in it. When it began my mother would go into the kitchen and my father would become stubbornly silent and focus his attention on her excellent food.

The Thanksgiving food fight was always a battle for something called “The Truth.” Radicals regard “The Truth” as singular and their own possession. Moderates understand the truth about “The Truth,” that it is plural and endlessly complex. There is no single formula that embraces all that can be said about the universe or human life within it, no set of doctrines that excludes all others. On my desk I have a Coptic icon of Christ the Good Shepherd and a head of the Buddha. They both look down on me as I write, both wearing the same calm, sweet smile of moderation. They say to me–No question can be settled once and for all in this world. Everything is partial and impermanent. The only thing that lasts is love, and in this violent time love is another name moderation.

And like love, moderation takes courage. It means standing on the deck of the ship and facing the storm rather than locking yourself in a water-tight compartment below. It means opening yourself to many different visions of truth, some of them uncomfortable and upsetting. Radicals of all kinds see the world as an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil. They want to impose their particular vision of reality—called “The Truth”–upon everyone else. And it takes courage to stand up against these fundamentalisms of the left and the right, and to say that everything is not cut and dried. There is always room for another opinion.

So moderation also demands humility, a clear vision of yourself. No one knows all the answers. Every earthly arrangement is temporary and contingent upon the circumstances—and that is very good news, beloved, because every earthy arrangement would be hell if were extended forever. There is no right polity, no pure doctrine, no perfect government, no absolutely correct way to worship the Eternal—only ways. The best that can be said is that God wishes to be approached “with humility and gentleness,” as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians (4:2). But his heaven is not located in the past or the future. Things should not stay the same, nor should they change too quickly. Heaven is present here and now, where ever there is tolerance, balance, self-discipline, and humility.

Moderation is not an easy path, but it is always a blessing to know where you stand, beloved—with both feet planted on solid ground and your eyes fixed on the only thing that lasts. The byproduct of such a well-balanced life is peace.  And the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah says, “will be the stability of your times” (33:6).  Not you yourself.

Leave a comment

Filed under Letters of Saint Paul, Life in the Spirit, New Testament

Steadying the Ark (2 Samuel, Matt. 8:24-27)

There is a brutal little story tucked away in the book of 2 Samuel. I encountered it for the first time as a child, when my grandmother was reading the Bible aloud to me, as she often did. I stopped her when I heard it and wanted to know “why?” It seemed to me so ruthless and unjust. It still does rather.

King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The progress was surrounded with great joy, with the king and all the house of Israel dancing and singing before the oxcart that carried the sacred ark, accompanied by diverse instruments. And then in the midst of the fun disaster struck:

“When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:6-8).

It says that David was “angry because the LORD had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah,” and we too are bound to find the story disturbing, to say the least.  And it doesn’t help a great deal for us to be reminded that for ancient Israel the ark was the preeminently sacred object, the seat upon which God was thought to sit, the symbol of his presence with his people. It was surrounded by the strongest taboos. When it had to be carried, it was lifted with long poles, and under no circumstances was it to be touched.

But the oxen stumbled. The ark swayed. What if it had fallen? Uzzah thought he was responsible for it, and he reached out to steady the ark to save God from indignity of seeing his throne crash to the ground in a pile of rubble. If you have been around churches as long as I have, beloved, you can imagine what sort of person Uzzah must have been—in charge of the property, a bit possessive and officious, kind of a fuss budget, actually.

In any case he reached out and touched the ark and the fury of the LORD burst out upon him. A moment later he lay dead. As a child, his story both fascinated and appalled me. I asked my grandmother if he had been electrocuted. She said “sort of.” I wanted to know “why?” It all seemed to me so grossly unfair of God. That someone could be struck dead for trying to be helpful. This is certainly not a story for children to whom you’re trying to teach responsible behavior. Nor is it likely to show up in any Sunday school curriculum with an accompanying picture to color.

But it is an adult story and speaks to an adult problem. Those of us who love the church are often feel dismayed and helpless by the disarray into which it has fallen. It is a mess; who can deny it. Looking at it, we feel humiliated for God, and we would like to save him the embarrassment of the Church as it is. Not that we ever could—in our hearts we know that–but we try anyway, criticizing, worrying and fretting, getting fussy over small things, treating the church itself as an idol. That’s what Uzzah in the story did—he treated the ark as an idol, not a seat for the invisible omnipotent God, but a thing made with human hands to be worshipped in itself, and he reached out his hand to steady his god.

But the living God does not want or need to the saved by us.  He can take care of himself. Uzzah didn’t need to steady the ark. God was always in charge; there never was any real danger of its falling. In this regard you will recall another story, this one about a storm that came up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:24-27). The disciples were terrified by the wind and the waves, but we are told that Jesus was fast asleep. So they woke him to say, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!” But they really didn’t need saving. They were safe—as long as they were in the boat with the Lord. And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you little faith people.” Then he rebuked the winds and the sea, and we are told that there was a dead calm.

These days Church is being tossed about in rough seas—I’m sure you’ve noticed that. The ark is shaken by controversy and scandal. There is a fussy part of us that feels that we should be doing something about it. But we are at a loss as to exactly what. We lament that things are no being done as they used to be. We lament the indifference of the young and the shortcomings of the clergy. We think that if we were in charge things would be better. We feel as if we should steady the ark or wake the sleeping God to keep the boat from sinking.

But what we need to remember that at the threshing floor of Nacon the oxen stumbled, but the cart didn’t overturn nor did the ark fall. And on the Sea of Galilee the boat was tossed by the storm but it did not capsize. “We have this hope,” as the writer of Hebrews says, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. . .” (6:19).  And reliant on that hope we need to calm ourselves to let God take care of himself and his coming Kingdom in his own way. He is our Savior—not the other way around. He gives each of us something to do, and we should by all means do it, but with the recognition that we can’t do everything or even what is most necessary. Only what we can as well as we can.

In 1906 Winchester cathedral was in danger of collapsing. The south and east walls of the great building were sinking slowly into the ground beneath, which consisted principally of peat. Great cracks had appeared in the fabric of the building. But there was a dilemma. In order for bricklayers reinforce the foundation, the groundwater first had to be lowered. And without support, the removal of the groundwater would cause the complete collapse of the building.

The problem was solved with the help of a quiet bravery of professional driver by the name of William Walker. 235 pits each about twenty feet deep were dug around the walls of the cathedral, and they immediately filled with turgid water. Walker descended into each one of those holes and using 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks he shored up the walls of the church so that the water could be pumped out and the job completed by masons. He worked in complete darkness owing to the sediment suspended in the water. The job took years.

But before he died of Spanish flu in 1918, Walker was credited with having laid the foundation of the whole cathedral, which stands today as a monument to his courage and determination. I have a photograph of William Walker in his diving helmet, rubber suit, and weighted boots hanging over my desk. It reminds me that the Church has to be shored up from below by men and women who do what they can do, diligently and in obscurity. But they don’t delude themselves into thinking that it depends upon them. They don’t fuss. They do what they can. They feed the hungry and care for the down and out, and preach the good news, generally keep the world from ending, which it would if it were not for them.

But it is the Lord the Spirit that gives permanence to the Church, not human beings. As St. Paul writes: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; and that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).  And we need to pray that the Spirit will save us from our all too human tendency toward fussiness, that presumption that makes us want to steady the ark when we see it shaken. It will not fall, and we couldn’t stop it if it did. In that regard we are as helpless as we feel. The Kingdom does not rest upon us. What does depend upon us are the things, great or small, that we called to do in the Kingdom—that’s all and that’s enough.

1 Comment

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

How Not To Die. Matthew 14:26-27

The gospel of Matthew tells the story of how once the disciples found themselves caught in a terrible storm on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had stayed behind to pray. When evening came they were alone the boat—though anything but alone, as it turned out.  But they thought they were. And their boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. They struggled against the storm all through the night, then as the dawn was breaking, they caught sight of Jesus coming toward them walking on the sea. The disciples were, of course, terrified, thinking what they saw was a ghost. They cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’”

One of the benefits of subscribing to the New York Times is that thereby you are informed of the deaths of famous people. Most of those famous folks you’ve never heard tell of, but no matter, some of them have indeed led the very interesting lives, which make fascinating reading.  Back in January the Times reported the death of Madeline Arakawa Gins, “a poet-turned-painter-turned-architect who publicly forswore mortality—and whose buildings, by her own account, were designed to pre-empt death for those living in them.” She was 72, which doesn’t really seem like a very advanced age—especially for someone who had “publicly forswore death”–but there you are. Madeline Arakawa Gins is dead.

Ms. Gins and her husband, a Japanese-born artist who was known simply as Awakawa, wanted not only to show the world how to live better but how to live forever. Their philosophy was summed up in their 1997 joint exhibition entitled, “Reversible Destiny: We Have Decided Not to Die.”  You could avoid dying, the couple believed, through an “architecture of instability,” in which no surface was level, no wall was plumb, no corner true. Following their principles a block of apartment buildings was actually constructed in a Tokyo suburb in 2005. Newsweek described the project thus: “Each apartment features a dining room with a grainy, surfaced floor that slopes erratically, a sunken kitchen and study with a concave floor. Electric switches are in unexpected places on the walls so you have to feel around for the right one. A glass door to the veranda is so small you have to bend to crawl out. You constantly lose balance and gather yourself up, grab a column and occasionally trip and fall.”  

The rigors of living in these funhouse environments, so the couple believed, would sharpen the wits and strengthen the bodies of the residents. By abandoning ordinary comforts in favor of a nightmare existence of wildly clashing colors and midnight tumbles on the way to the toilet, the residents would stave off the mental and physical brittleness of old age and keep death at bay.

It seems important to note that Madeline Arakawa Gins did not spend her last years in one of her own topsy-turvy environments, but rather in Manhattan, where she had been a longtime resident. (Living in New York certainly has its own rigors, but at least you always can get a really a really good bagel.)  Neither she nor her husband realized their shared ambition–to reverse “the downhill course of human life.” Arakawa died back in 2010 and also in Manhattan. “This mortality thing is bad news,” Ms. Gins said at the time. “It’s immoral that people have to die.”     

Well, immoral or not, we do. We may forswear death, but death does not forswear us. It embraces us all. For once, every one of us make the team. And in another sense it’s rather nice because when the time comes death takes care of everything. We don’t need to worry about how to do it.  We didn’t learn to be born, beloved. And when the time comes for us to die, nature will teach us how to do that too. So although there is no point worrying about how to die there seems to me to be great benefit in considering how not to. So if Madeline Arakawa Gins can venture to tell the world how not to die, so can I.

The first way not to die is with things that should be said left unspoken.

It’s true that all of us have at times have said way too much. But our real moral failures were the occasions when we knew we should say something and—out of weakness or cowardice—we didn’t. I have myself have countless times failed on this score countless times, but my worst failure was with my father. It happened like this. After my mother died, he used to call me every Saturday night. I knew he was lonely–he was living alone out on the ranch in western North Dakota–but our conversations never touched on his isolation or our shared grief. There had always been a distance between us which had widened with the passing years. So when he called, we chatted about Paul and Elisabeth, who were little at the time, and the North Dakota weather.

Then one Saturday night when we ran out of things to say to each other an odd thing happened. A voice in my head said, “Say, I love you.” It was as clear as any command I have ever been given, but I did not obey it. My relationship to my father had never been like that, openly emotional. Those words were simply not in our shared vocabulary. So I didn’t say anything, and neither did he. And then the voice said again, “Say, I love you.” Maybe he heard that command, I don’t know, but in any case neither of us heeded it. Our feelings for each other were too deeply buried beneath layers of formality. Then for a third time and with a tone of greater urgency the voice inside me said, “Say, I love you. Say it. Say it now.” I opened my mouth, but I just I could not bring myself to do it. It would have cost neither of us anything, and it would have been worth the world. But instead what I said was, “Good night, Dad. I’ll talk to you next week.” We hung up, and then came the silence. The next morning my brother called to say that when he had gone out to the ranch to help with the chores, he had found my father dead in his chair.

And from that experience I learned something I have never entirely forgotten–say what needs saying and say it now. Now is the most precious possession we have, but what little value we place upon upon it. Now—this moment–is the chalice that holds the very blood of Christ, but we throw it away like a used Styrofoam cup. We all have something that needs saying. The question isn’t–Is it embarrassing? Is it the appropriate time? Will I sound foolish? The only question that matters is—Does it need saying? And if I fail to say it now, might it remain unsaid until the world’s ending?  

The second way not to die is with things undone we might have done.

We can’t do everything—we learn that early on—but out of its rich and various assortment God’s world is always offering us another wine we have never tasted. “Life must be filled up,” Samuel Johnson said, and every day offers us fresh and joyful ways how to fill its emptiness. Our choices are countless–but not infinite. Sooner or later they will run out, and whatever pleasures the next world offers us, our options there will not be the same.  So we should not die with anything undone that we can do. It seems an odd to say in this Lenten context, but the imperative to embrace life in this world to fullest degree possible is as important as any we have been given. The pursuit of happiness, beloved, is more than just a right—it is our duty.

 We had that lesson driven home some twenty-five years ago when my wife Penny was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In your thirties you really don’t give death much thought—you are too busy with other matters. The kids were little. We had just moved to Florida. Then suddenly we ran head on into mortality.

Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward way had been lost.

That’s how Dante in his Divine Comedy begins his narrative of his descent into hell. That’s where we found ourselves—“within a forest dark”—lost and with no helpful poet to guide us through the circles.  Actually, we didn’t get much human help at all during that period, which was probably because didn’t ask for much. Penny and I are pretty independent people. But suddenly we found ourselves that one terrible step beyond independence. We were alone.

 The Lord helped us then and later, when we had another cancer scare. But it was still a terrible year—especially for Penny, of course. She faced it as she faces everything—with bravery and practicality. She had chemotherapy every three weeks and after she had each treatment she was very sick to her stomach and unable to do much of anything for days but sleep. Each treatment was a little stronger than the last. And each time by the time she was really feeling better it was time for another round. Once in a while, however, she had a good day, and when she had one we got out and we did things. We were limited, of course. As I said, the kids were little. Our resources were limited on many levels. We didn’t have much money. We were often tired. It would have been easier to stay home. But whenever we could we went out and had fun.

It was a terrible year for everyone, I have to say that again, but it was one when we learned a lesson we have never entirely forgotten. Life asks—life begs to be filled up. And we betray the gift we have been given when we live less fully and vividly than we are able. At times comfort is nice, heaven knows, but experience is always more blessed. And adventures shared with those we love—even the smallest adventures–are more important than the safety of our reclining chair. We do all kinds of things to excuse ourselves from living, beloved—we cite our age, we list our aches and pains, we cry poor.  And we are indeed limited, beloved. We are, after all, mortal. But there is no excuse for not doing what we can do.

The horizons of eternity stretch out limitlessly on either side of this present moment, but all we really have is this one day to plan and to enjoy. So we should seek out what is really important and do that, and not get so enmeshed–what a perfect word for it—not get so tangled up in the web of excuses that ultimately don’t amount to a hill of beans. Yes, every choice we make contains some element of risk. Every adventure costs us something in time, in effort, or in money. Is it too difficult? we ask ourselves. Is it too expensive? Is it too dangerous for little me? But the only question that matters is whether or not we will listen the insistent voice in our heads—which is certainly the Holy Spirit—saying—“Don’t be afraid, Do it. Do it now.”    

          And that is the third way not to die–in fear.

In the Gospel of Matthew we are told a story of how one evening the disciples left Jesus behind and got caught in a tempest. Apparently sudden storms are common on the Sea of Galilee and, I am told, quite deadly. The disciples were in real peril. The evangelist tells us that their “boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.” Older translations say “the wind was contrary,” which I rather like. The disciples were struggling for their very lives against a “contrary” wind, and that is a situation we recognize as our own. We too our struggling against what our friend Madeline Arakawa Gins called “the downhill course of human life.” It is a struggle we will not win, certainly not by ourselves, beloved. But we are not alone–anything but alone, as it turns out.            

          “Early in the morning” the disciples saw Jesus coming toward them, walking on the water, and they are terrified. They thought they were seeing a ghost, and started screaming like troupe of frightened Girl Scouts. But over the voice of the storm Jesus called out to them– “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Take courage. Man up—a rather sexist expression, but an eloquent one. But that is what the Spirit of Jesus is saying to you and me–Act like adult human beings, not something less. Your peril is real enough, but I am here, and I am more real than anything that can happen to you. So master your childish fears of the darkness and consider your actual situation.

I look back at my life and I can see the work of the Spirit in every twist and turn of it. In every time of peril and change, the Lord has been with me. The fear of death comes naturally to us. I suppose I am not so afraid of death as I am of dying—that’s maybe too fine a point. But I know someone else made me–I did not make myself. And the one who had the power to make me, can remake me in any form He wishes. I have only to wait to see what he will do with me.

In the meantime, Jesus says: Do not be afraid, not because there is nothing to be afraid of—the storm around them was real enough–but because I am with you. I have always been with you.  I will always be with you. Our courage in the face of death is based not based upon our own strength—if it were we would have good reason to be afraid—but upon the Lord’s faithfulness, and upon the creative power of his Holy Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead and will raise us also to a new kind of existence, different from this one, but not unlike it. Therefore, beloved, do not be afraid.

That command is the refrain of the gospels. It surround the story of Jesus. When he is born the angel says to the shepherds—“Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10). And when the risen Christ appears to his disciples and again they think they are seeing a ghost–he asks them, “Why are you frightened?” (Luke 24:38). It seems a rather naïve question. They had never met a person who had died before, and they were unnerved by the experience. But it was just another human experience, like any other. In this world just about anything can happen, and usually does. And that’s the whole point, beloved. There is nothing that comes up—no matter how strange and unnerving—that should frighten us. Christ is risen, after all, and we are not alone—anything but, as it turns out.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gospels, New Testament