(repost) A reflection on resurrection hope

As we explore the ongoing reality of the resurrection in our lives which this season of Easter-tide between Easter Sunday and Ascension Day celebrates, I thought the following reflection on resurrection and hope which I wrote shortly after being widowed might be worth sharing.

I hope it blesses you.  Please share how you find new life in your own journey through the resurrection life Christ makes possible.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Because Christ Lives, We Can Face Today. And Tomorrow Too.

coffee-prayer-scripture

I continue to look at prayers of Scripture and the church which have either helped me through my dark times or I have found to help others in my work as a chaplain and as a pastor. Because of how I’m finding prayer occurring in community, bound in the web of relationships which surround us in our trials and are truly life-giving, rather than just isolated prayers as individuals have been helpful to me in my dark times and to others, I am using the prayers and meditations recommended by my own United Church of Christ in its Book of Worship as a guide.

Today I turn to a reading that, to be quite honest, I rarely use for such an inspiration but which I recall being read in part as my dear pastor spoke words over my wife’s remains. I remember standing there, in my suit with tears in my eyes, surrounded by my family, hearing these words drone on like the honk and screech of car in Los Angeles traffic. I heard them but did not really listen to their meaning.

It is perhaps appropriate to really listen to them today, for I write on the third month anniversary of me walking to find my wife already having left her body which lay breathless and abandoned like a chrysalis emptied of its butterfly. Whereas I could not hear these words then, I can hear them now.

The words in my prayer book come from 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

“Now, since our message is that Christ has been raised from death, how can some of you say that the dead will not be raised to life? If that is true, it means that Christ was not easter iconraised; and if Christ has not been raised from death, then we have nothing to preach and you have nothing to believe.  More than that, we are found to be lying about God because we said God raised Christ from death – but if it is true that the dead are not raised to life, then God did not raise Christ. For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is a delusion and you are still lost in your sins. It would also mean that the believers in Christ who have died are lose. If our hope in Christ is good for this life only and no more, than we deserve more pity than anyone else in all the world. But the truth is that Christ has been raised from death, as the guarantee that those who sleep in death will also be raised.”

I have to admit at first that some of this reading rubs me the wrong way and this may be why I tuned out as it was read as Kat’s ashes were laid in the church garden and also why I tend not to read it.   Growing up in conservative churches – first, Adventist, then charismatic, then evangelical – these words often sound like they are saying if I do not believe a particular thing happens in death, my faith is empty.   I have to believe something specific happened to the body of a man in Nazareth, Jesus son of Mary, after death or my faith is empty. My sins are a heavy burden upon me then.   Unless Jesus was risen and in just this way, we are all fools here. Bound to nothing but pain.

Re-reading these words of Scripture and faith today I am struck that this hard message is not really what these words say.  They do not really Angeldefine what resurrection means in the way I heard them being said to growing up. If I lay aside my defenses against this text and my preconceived notions, I find that something more general is being said which can speak to me now and really to all who grieve.

I still remember the first time I really stared into death as a great abyss, death as it appears without hope of resurrection.   I was working as a chaplain intern at a local hospital after having been a pastor in a number of small churches. I was called to sit with a family while their adult child passed, a child who had lived their life wracked with the illness of addiction. They had been in and out of drug treatment and mental hospitals their whole adult lives and I think even as a teenager. And they were dying of a drug overdose, despite their many attempts at recovery. I sat with this dear one’s parents as they wailed, crying out against the injustice of it. I had no words for them. I sat and offered comfort.

In that instant the unfairness of that death struck me so hard. It made me think of when I sat in a similar hospital room by a relative many years beforehand, holding their hand.  These loved one had tried to take their own life. As I sat, tear-filled, looking into their eyes I had wondered, uncertain what I believed might lay ahead for them if their attempt on their life at their own hands succeeded.  I had always heard suicide meant damnation, though I could not then nor can I now find a single Bible verse that says such a painful thing.  As I watched their chest fall and rise to the metronome beat of the hospital monitors, I concluded I could not believe God would cast off forever someone who took their own life while in the throws of mental illness. It seemed to me that God would not judge us for what our illnesses do to us, but offer us grace, mercy, and healing in the next world.  A God so cruel and merciless did not seem worthy of worship and love, let alone like the Person of Jesus we claim to be our picture of who God is as Christians.

But sitting this time with that memory fresh before my eyes, watching this young person slowly painfully die, I could not believe in God. I could not believe any loving presence could allow such unfairness to happen as to let such a young person full of promise die, who only succumbed to their addiction as many others before them did yet lived, only to have it still overpower them and kill them.  For one so young who had fought valiantly against their addictions with every resource that lay ahead of them seemed too much to fit my understanding of how a God of love ought to work. I saw the deep love this person’s parents had and the tears in their eyes and I could not believe. For after all, would not a God who loves us all love their child at least as much as they did, maybe more?

In that moment all I could see in death is a great, bottomless abyss. A darkness. A falling into night.   A maddening emptiness that robbed all of meaning.  Without resurrection, why? How? What for?

That experience changed me in some profound ways. It put into perspective so much of this religious language we use to comfort others that at times bring great pain.  Upon the rock of this real experience of loss, trauma, and tragedy, such words crashed into a thousand splinters offering no solace either to me or this family.

I’ve had so much language of comfort given me. All by people who mean well.  Yet often in my most recent loss, that language too rings hollow.  I’ve had to actually tell some people: you are not helping me. This one dear woman at my church who did not know my late wife’s pictures are put away no longer to hang on my wills, nor did she notice my wedding ring is not only no longer on my finger but no longer on my chain around my neck as well, did such a thing. She came up sitting at tomb 2and reminded me Katharine is still with me. Those words, intended to give life and comfort, wounded me so much. It took me a lot to get to the place I realized she is not coming back. She has gone. And where she has gone, I cannot know.   In whatever new life lies beyond her beyond the circle of this passing world, she is not my wife any more.   I am not her husband.   We gave each other 13 beautiful years. And that is all we got under the bright skies that adorn our world. I came to a moment I realized: I walked in on her not having any breath in her lungs. But I do.   There is breath in my lungs and a life to be lived here and now, alone, as me.  This taught me a lesson that has been hard and painful. To have breath is to have a duty to embrace all of life that lies before us. With what openness we can. Without letting fear, shame, guilt, and trepidation keep us. While we have breath, we have life. We do not honor those who have passed on into the next world by sitting closing the books on our lives with despair. I do not feel I honor her by pining for her.  No we honor them by embracing what life lies open before us, even if we may fall, fail, and make mistakes. Even if our hearts break — well, dear friends, that is what hearts are for. Without risking them being broken we cannot find love and without love, how empty is our lives! And so I need to not think of Kat with me, lest I pine for what I cannot have and stay stuck in the past. Others find that helpful.  But not me.

Seeing how our religious language breaks down in such moments and how precious each moment of the lives we have are was what I walked away with both in my recent loss and that painful moment in the hospital room.

But when I can believe in resurrection, it does make a difference to me. To me resurrection is not about what happened to Jesus’ body after death – or our own. I am not sure whether I empty tombbelieve or not that if we had watched Jesus’ body in the tomb we would have seen anything interesting.   It is not for me about whether a body goes through a change of some kind as the Gospels are often read as saying, but about what happens to the whole person beyond this earthly life.

When the early Christians encountered Jesus after his death, in some mysterious way they experienced that in all of who he was, though his body had died, Jesus lived on.   He was with them, a living presence in their lives, an active presence in their world.   He went on. And it meant they could too, no matter what the world threw at them.

I highly doubt if they found his body, which the Gospels say they couldn’t and so they concluded it too had been raised in some glorious way, it would have changed their sense that he too lived on and they would too. For, though different, I cannot tell you how many jesus resurrection appearance 1times as a minister and a chaplain I’ve talked to people who, on facing the death of the body of one they loved, later had experiences in which it felt as if the veil between this world and the next was pulled back and they could see and know that person was still living on in some way, still vital and active in God’s world.   I have had such experiences myself. I remember the first real heart-shaking death of my adult life, a dear friend from college. She had, like my late wife, a number of debilitating disabilities. But she lived her life with the most passion and vibrancy of anyone I knew in college. The last few years of her life she had multiple illnesses. One day, a few weeks after seeing her and her husband, I heard her voice.   I turned around and saw nothing. Then I felt what was like her hand resting on my shoulder, and that joyous laughter like music she always belted out when we were driving to and from events together in college.   Then, shortly afterward, the phone ring. I knew the news, though, before I answered. I knew that was my dear friend I felt there with me, letting me know she had passed from death to life, into that place where all her struggles had been turned into glory.   So when I heard her husband on the other line, tears in his eyes, voice croaking with pain, I could be a comfort.   For though he had seen and was still with her body that lay dead or dying, I knew she was not there.  She was risen.

Whether with a change in his body literally like the Gospels depict or with something like happened to me with my dear friend – who knows? – these early Christians experienced Jesus alive, beyond death, somehow victorious over the crushing loss of jesus resurrection appearance 8crucifixion. As sensing in my own way my dear friend was not gone but changed, still active and even more alive in God’s world, gave me strength to stand with her widower, so experiencing Jesus somehow present and alive beyond death changed each of them. It gave them the courage to risk life and limb for their new beliefs, to stand against the weight of empire. To resist the tyranny of abusive religions and abusive governments. To believe, too, that the crushing injustice they faced every day was not the final word in their life and in their world. To hope the life of Jesus would be fully made known in the world at some point when his living presence fully was revealed to all – what we call often the second coming but I think more of as the reconciliation of all things– and all things made right.

I have too sensed moments in which I felt my dear Kat was still active in this world – not so much with me, as some people try to reassure me – but moving beyond into greater things than she could do trapped in a body that refused to cooperate with her.   That sense that death is not the end but a movement through dying, beyond death itself, into a new kind of life, does buoy people in their pain.

Not only does it buoy me, giving me the courage to not give up on life, the strength to keep finding meaning in my days and opening my heart to others, but it does so in patients’ families and parishioners for whom I have cared. Knowing this parting is not the ultimate end, but a change in relationship with those they love, gives them strength to move forward in hope.

For Christians, such a movement and hope is built on the image of the risen Christ, shaped by this mysterious experience of these early believers. We don’t have to know exactly what happened to Jesus & them, or even to those whom we love who die, to hear and trust their message: death, injustice, pain, loss, and trauma are not the final word. If Jesus passed through all of these and came out living, present, and active in God’s world we know we can too — as can all we love.

To me this hope and promise is beautifully described in the recent southern Gospel hymn, “Because He Lives”:

God sent His son, they called Him Jesus

He came to love, heal and forgive

He lived and died to buy my pardon

An empty grave is there to prove my savior lives

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow

Because He lives, all fear is gone

Because I know He holds the future

And life is worth the living, just because He lives

How sweet to hold a newborn baby

And feel the pride and joy He gives

But greater still the calm assurance

This child can face uncertain day, because He lives

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow

Because He lives, all fear is gone

Because I know He holds the future

And life is worth the living, just because He lives

And then one day, I’ll cross the river

I’ll fight life’s final war with pain

And then, as death gives way to victory

I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He reigns

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow

Because He lives, all fear is gone

Because I know He holds the future

And life is worth the living, just because He lives

I can face tomorrow

Because He lives, all fear is gone

Because I know He holds the future

And life is worth the living, just because He lives

May the hope that Christ lives give you courage and strength whatever darkness you face.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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