“I kept that promise.”

File:Verso l'infinito - Convento Frati Cappuccini Monterosso al Mare - Cinque Terre.jpgSunday

It’s hard to describe what happened to me at the altar during the prayers of the church, yesterday. Typical Lutheran congregations don’t have a shared vocabulary for discussing personal spiritual experiences. Other communities of which I have been a part find it easier to say that God spoke to them. They know we are not talking about any kind of auditory experience, but a kind of intuition, a sense of some truth breaking into our consciousness.  A truth that comes from somewhere beyond us. Or deep within us.  Though it does seem almost audible at times.

It typically comes with the force of deep conviction. It carries a certainty, though we seldom think of it as if it were absolute. If the intuition doesn’t work out, we are willing to let it go. We misheard. Or it’s something whose truth is waiting its time.

Anyway, I had one of those moments in worship Sunday morning.  It came to me as if a voice, saying “I kept that promise.”

The reference is to the story of the synagogue ruler’s daughter, where Jesus comes in answer to the father’s prayer for her healing only to be met by the wail of mourners. On the way, the little girl had died.

It is that story with the words “Talitha cumi”, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I have read that text in worship many times since I laid my daughter’s body in the ground. The text from Mark comes around in the assigned lectionary every three years, as does the account in Matthew, and we have been through the cycle five times, now. It is always bittersweet to give voice to those words before the congregation.  I recognize the message of the text. I understand the grace of Jesus’ work. I also know the parents’ grief. There has always been a certain kind of hole in my heart that Jesus wasn’t there to say those words to Anna on the night her life was taken.

It’s been 16 years. And, for some reason, this morning I was finally ready to hear Jesus whisper to me: “I kept that promise.”

He had spoken those words. Beyond my hearing, in ways far more profound than I can understand, he kept the promise. He spoke to Anna saying, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I know it sounds like pie in the sky, a pious fiction, a denial of death’s dark realty.  And anytime in the last 16 years it would have sounded that way to me, too. I have fought fiercely – sometimes unfortunately fiercely – to be truthful about the reality of death. I resist all the pious platitudes about God’s plan and loved one’s in heaven. Death is death. It rips from our arms those we love. It rends the human community. It is an invader in God’s good creation. And even in those times when it comes as a relief after long suffering, it is still death, still a thief, a bandit, a terrorist, stealing life from the world – whether sucking it away slowly and snatching it away all at once.

The wonder of Easter is not that it minimizes death’s power. The wonder of Easter is that it proclaims that death is a pretender. It does not own our lives. It could not silence Jesus. It could not stop God’s redeeming work. There is a making whole of this rent world that awaits us. Somehow. Beyond our understanding. But real enough for us to trust. Real enough for us to live.

Why, today, I don’t know. It wasn’t our assigned reading. The text hasn’t been on my mind. I wasn’t experiencing a moment of grief – though the grief of Anna’s death is never all that far away. It wasn’t particularly related to the prayers being offered or the sermon I had just preached. But there it was. And today, for whatever reason, I was ready to hear: God was faithful. He spoke the words. He kept the promise.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verso_l%27infinito_-_Convento_Frati_Cappuccini_Monterosso_al_Mare_-_Cinque_Terre.jpg By GIANFRANCO NEGRI (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Like Living Stones

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Friday

This is a reposting of a reflection for this fifth Sunday of Easter from three years ago. It connects also with our preaching theme for this week on Genesis 2. The anniversary of my daughter’s birth is this week also. I have written about it here. I have also changed the second photo of the Church of Saint Sava. You will see why.

1 Peter 2:2-10

5Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

I love the passive tense in this verse: “let yourselves be built.” We are not given a great task of building a cathedral. God is the builder; we need only let it happen.

Tuesday would have been my daughter’s 33rd birthday. Words don’t come easily this week. Sentences start, but can’t find their ending. Thoughts flit by, but don’t linger, don’t focus. I can’t find those strong threads that weave themselves into coherent messages. I read a blog entitled “I had a boy,” from a woman who had lost a child, and all I could respond was, “I had a girl…”

Grief is a strange thing. Did C.G., our cat, remember all her kittens that were given away? Was there some ache in her soul? Some remembrance? Some emptiness? If she did, I saw no days of lethargy and tears.

We are beings meant to connect. Meant to connect with others. Meant to connect with that heart of existence we call God. And when those connections are sundered, we are like amputees whose minds still envision their missing limbs and are at a loss to find them gone.

Simon and Garfunkel sang, “I am a rock. I am an island.” But, in the words of John Donne, “No man is an island.” We are living stones, meant to be built together into a living temple.

After setting the first human into a garden in the creation story of Genesis 2, God says, “It is not good that this human should be alone.”   It’s not just about marriage and family, it is about friendship and community. It is about our humanity.

Those ties between us are so constantly ruptured, riven by thoughts, words and deeds. The hunger for connection is so primal, but the reality so difficult to achieve. This is the first portrait of sin: Adam and Eve hiding from each other and from God behind fig leaves.

It will not be long before the years Anna has been gone will surpass the years she was here. But the torn threads of the rent human fabric linger. To them comes only the promise that God is building a living temple…and the exhortation to let ourselves be joined, bit by bit, into that crowning achievement where God and humanity dwell together.

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Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACathedral_of_Toledo_(6933231488).jpg By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Cathedral of Toledo) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AB%C4%9Blehrad%2C_Vra%C4%8Dar%2C_chr%C3%A1m_svat%C3%A9ho_S%C3%A1vy_v_noci_II.jpg  This image is a work by Aktron / Wikimedia Commons.

Before the mystery of life

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Sunday Evening

Matthew 4:12-23

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

I sat alone in worship this morning. I am staying with my father this week following the death of my stepmother. A marriage of nearly 61 years. He wasn’t up to worship.

But I could go. No one here would really recognize me. There would be none of the gestures of sympathy that create awkwardness to those who are trying to keep control of their emotions. But emotions there are. I buried my grandfather from this church years ago. I know where I sat that day. I remember my young cousin sitting on my lap in the car as we rode away from the church in what seemed like darkness, though it couldn’t have been. I buried that same cousin from here not too long ago.

We buried my grandmother from here. More recently we have buried my uncle, the father of that cousin who sat tearfully in my arms as we left my grandfather’s funeral. Maybe what I remember is the funeral home. That would explain the darkness.

Whatever the case, this space has been associated with too much grief of late. I was baptized here before I can remember, but I was a participant in none of those other joyous occasions when children were brought to be baptized or weddings might have been celebrated. So it’s just memories of where Farmor sat and where I have sat with my father and stepmother on the occasional Sunday while visiting.

The night she died, Gloria asked me to do her service. If today was any indication, it won’t be easy. Tears floated in my eyes making it hard to see the hymnal, let alone sing. The sermon was kind. I was grateful to be at the table. But after, in the silence back in the pew, I could feel the sorrow welling up. So I ducked out before the benediction to avoid the crowd of friendly people eager to make me feel welcome at their church.

Only it is also my church, in a way. And the day is coming when we will set Gloria’s ashes on the table near the rail and try to honor her memory and somehow find our way through the complicated realities of an extended family that tends to see church as a cultural thing, not the promise and presence of that power at the heart of the universe that is the source and goal of life and the font and perfection of love.

first-lutheran-sanctuary-windows-2It would be nice if we could just say the ancient words and all be carried along by their familiar comfort. But they aren’t familiar to us anymore. And they are tainted by the negative perceptions of all religion as partisan and judgmental and even hateful and violent, despite the fact that Jesus was not the founder or reformer of religion but its victim.

Yet in him was the face of the eternal. In him was courage and truth and mercy and life. In him was the balm for our sorrows and the summons to live as his hands and heart in the world. In him is a life that will not perish.

Hymns and traditions and rituals have grown up around Jesus’ words and deeds, but the hymns and traditions are not the point; they are meant to help us hear and see him, meant to connect us to the Spirit that was in him, meant to empower us to live the strength and compassion and grace that was in him, meant to embrace us in our sorrows and stand together before the mystery of life with hope.

Photos by dkbonde

Even Gloria

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Looking back to last Sunday

Isaiah 42:1-9

9See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

It’s several days, now, since we celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord, but it is the first opportunity for me to look back. I got the phone call on Saturday that my stepmother was in critical condition and the flight I found meant that I would have to duck out of worship early on Sunday. The plan was to slip out after the blessing of the bread and wine, but the service went long and I slipped out at the sharing of the peace.

It is strange not to be able to be present as the service reaches its fulfillment at the table. Something is unfinished. We have heard the word. We have sung some of the music. We have even prayed the prayers. But the big prayer, the Eucharistic Prayer that recites the great history of God’s saving work from creation to this moment that is embodied in bread and wine – that prayer has gone unspoken. At least by me. I have not seen the bread broken as Christ was broken. I have not tasted the bread or caught that brief whiff of the wine that tells me that I, even I, am part of the great communion of heaven and earth begun in this Jesus.

And so as I flew to Colorado, as I rode to the hospital, as I entered the room to my stepmother’s bright eyes and delighted smile – and my own tears – it is as though we are still in the middle of worship. The service is not reached its fulfillment. The bread we await is yet coming. The new creation is ahead of us.

And as I join in the family gathering, as we weep the tears and tell the stories and take turns sitting at her side to hold her left hand (Dad had a firm, sometimes too firm, grip on her right hand), the feast to come awaits. Somehow living and dying are part of worship, part of the offering of all life back to God, part of the living in the light of grace and being sustained by the promise that the coming feast is come and yet coming. We are God’s children now. What we shall be is not yet revealed, but we are God’s children now. And Sunday I will stand among the congregation at the church where I once stood with Gloria and my father. And Gloria will be among the communion of saints in a manner beyond my comprehension. But the bread will be there. And the wine. And the promise. And the hope. And the mystery that all things are God’s and will be God’s forever. Even Gloria. Even we who weep.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALoojangu_v%C3%A4rvid_2.jpg By Kristoffer Vaikla (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

God is still God

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Nathan confronts King David / David in prayer and fasting with worried servants watching

Wednesday

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-20

15 The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. 16 David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground.

The prayer of a parent for a child is desperate. Even when death is certain, the cry rises. Seven days the king lies on that floor. Seven days without food. Seven days in urgent petition. Hoping against hope. Pleading with God.

We all know of David’s sin with Bathsheba – he abuses his royal power to take another man’s wife and then arrange the husband’s death to hide the crime. But the crime is not hidden. God sees. And God sends Nathan to confront David.

The consequences of David’s sin are brutal: A lasting legacy of violence will plague David’s house. A son will take all David’s concubines in full view of all. And this child will die.

The death of children is common in David’s time – but the prophet makes sure that David knows that the death of this child rests solely on himself. If there were no sin, there would be no child to perish.

Other kings have slain prophets for such a message, but David acknowledges his sin.   And David prays. Seven days. Hoping against hope. Desperate prayer. Tears. Against the greatest fear of every parent. Maybe God will work a miracle? But no miracle comes.

David knows God is a God not only of judgment but of mercy, so David begs for mercy. For the child. For the mother. For God to erase the consequences of his deed. But sometimes there is no recovery from the consequences of our deeds.

And then our text says:

19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” 20 Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped.

David worships. He comes before the altar. He offers his sacrifice. He hears the prayers and the song. He remembers this God of the Exodus. He acknowledges this God of Sinai. He communes, partakes of the holy meal. He goes forward. Life will not be easy, but God is still God.  And there is yet mercy.

+   +   +

For other reflections on the texts for this Sunday from this and previous years, follow this link Lectionary C 11, or Proper C 6

Image: Paris psalter gr139 fol136v  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_psaulter_gr139_fol136v.jpg  public domain

Peace

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Saturday

John 20:19-31

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

The sanctuary was rich with the aroma of lilies this morning as the family gathered for a small private funeral. It was not the Easter of the crowded sanctuary and eager children. It was not the Easter of the organ and trumpet, bells and choir. It was the Easter of a family traveling the road towards Emmaus, from pain and confusion towards the presence of the risen Christ.

The first word out of Jesus’ mouth when he appears to his followers in John’s Gospel is the word of peace. It is also the second word he speaks. We don’t have the normal “Stop being afraid” that we get with a heavenly encounter; we have the dominical word that does not simply offer peace but brings it. “Peace to you.” It’s not a wish or a hope, but the gift of the risen Lord.

Peace eludes us. Not just in the face of death, but in all the stress and challenge of ordinary life. We are concerned for our children, concerned for our parents, concerned about work, concerned about finances, concerned about the care of the house, concerned for our health, our sleep, our future, our past.

And whether we recognize it or not, we are concerned about matters of the spirit. We often think we are seeking happiness, but we are seeking peace. Wholeness. Connection. Meaning. A sense of harmony within ourselves and with the world around us. We are seeking peace. Shalom.

Peace eludes us. But where we do not expect it, peace comes. In the breaking of bread. In the recognition of wounded hands. In the presence of the risen Christ. In the breath of the Holy Spirit.

Where we do not expect it, peace comes. In a quiet sanctuary and the scent of lilies and the paschal candle burning: Christ the risen one, Christ the light of the world, Christ the light in my darkness, Christ the wounded one, Christ the living one, Christ who gathers us into his peace.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooklyn_Museum_-_The_Appearance_of_Christ_at_the_Cenacle_(Apparition_du_Christ_au_c%C3%A9nacle)_-_James_Tissot.jpg  James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The ransomed of the Lord shall return

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Wednesday

Isaiah 51:4-11

The ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

We are grateful for the remarkable recovery from brain surgery of a child in the parish. Every day seems an answer to prayer. But even as we celebrate his recovery, there are parents in the congregation whose children did not recover.

I think of them as we provide each status update. I know the complicated emotions of gratefulness for others even as you grieve your own loss. When my daughter was killed, I knew the land of bitterness was nearby. There’s a story of my brother crawling through the fence on my grandparents’ farm into the pasture where the bull grazed. I can feel my mother’s fear even now as she tells that story. The land of bitterness is like that field. It’s an easy fence to cross but a terrible place to go.

Advent is for those parents whose children didn’t come home. It is for those whose hips are mending in a hospital bed. It is for those whose homes are empty or cold or absent. It is for those who flee their homeland – and those unable to flee. It is for the parents of Alan Kurdi whose body will continue to lie in the surf as long as his image endures in our memory.

Advent is a simple promise: the sorrow of the world shall not endure. The gulf that separates the perfect realm of heaven from the troubled realm of earth will be overcome. God will come to dwell with us. Indeed, God has come to us already in the child of Nazareth, the crucified and living one.

Advent is for the parents whose children didn’t come home, and the parents whose children won’t come home, and the children who have reason to not go home. But it is also for the families that do come home, that have enjoyed in some small measure the goodness God intended for us in families. Yet even the best of families have known the ache of our fallen world. And so all are recipients of the promise that shapes this season: “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Come, Lord Jesus

For last Thursday

I wrote this post after the funeral last Thursday, but waited to get approval from the family before posting it. The sermon from that day, “We have seen the chariots of fire”, is posted at my site for occasional reflections: Jacob Limping (named from Jacob’s encounter with God that ends with him limping toward the promised land – wounded yet blessed).

I didn’t get the posting for Wednesday done on time yesterday; my heart and mind was on the sermon for today. We buried a child of the congregation. 26. Bright. Talented. Loved. Addicted. Somewhere there is a drug lord prospering from selling tainted heroin. In our parish we weep.

The church was beyond full. People squeezed together into the pews, filled the balcony, brought chairs from the fellowship hall, and then stood in the back. There was so much we wanted to say. And words were so hard to find. We wanted to say how great he was. And we wanted to say how angry we were. Angry at him. Angry at the world. Angry at God. Frustrated. Wounded. Seven times he had been in treatment. Seven times he had slipped. Not because he was weak. By no means. Perhaps because he was so talented, so smart, so much a winner, he thought he could control it. Perhaps because the dragon is so deceptive.

Perhaps because the disease is so virulent.

So words fail. How do you capture the sweet boy working our Bible school, idolized by the kids, and the betrayer of friends he ditched to go buy drugs? How do you capture the acolyte bearing the cross with the young man bearing a terrible cross. How do you speak of the talented young man with a bright, bright future and the lifeless body on the floor of his apartment bedroom?

How do you speak of the charming, sincere smile and the stormy conflicts that must have occurred in the home? You can’t say all that. So the remembrances were more of a choked tears than joyful celebration. But there was the boy we loved. The young man we loved. And the tragedy we all felt.

Come Lord Jesus. It is the most ancient prayer of the church. Come, Lord Jesus. Come set right our world. Come heal the wounded, free the bound, raise the dead. Come bring that perfect reign of light and life. Come raise the world from its brokenness into your perfect light. Come.

And come to the family. Bear their burden – you who have borne the burdens of all. Surround them with grace, as you have brought grace to all. Heal their hearts, as you will heal the hearts of all. Take us back through the eastern gate, past the flaming sword, that we may eat again of the tree of life and dwell in your perfect garden.

From grace into grace

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Saturday

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

3“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

I have laughed at the petulance of the people in the wilderness. It’s a comfortable position of moral superiority. As if I would not have been among the grumblers.

It’s an easy thing for a pastor to do, faced as we are with grumblings in our congregations and people whose eyes sometimes seem to be less concerned with the Promised Land than the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s oh so seductive, as you read the story, to imagine that you occupy the sandals of Moses. But such a hearing of the text, however delicious, is not only presumptuous, but altogether too shallow. It makes caricatures of the people of Israel as well as the members of our congregations.

The people of Israel have seen wondrous deeds, though I suspect the wondrousness has been exaggerated in the retelling. There are hints in the text that the events at the Red Sea (technically, the Sea of Reeds) weren’t like the Cecil B. DeMille drama. In fact, most of the Biblical “miracles” are really pretty ordinary events – but events that were wondrous in their timing. That the wind blew all night to dry up the marshland enabling the Israelites to escape is wondrous in its timing if not spectacular to behold.

So these people have been rescued by what moderns would likely call “good fortune” (a phrase that explains nothing and refers to an ancient deity in the Greco-Roman pantheon) and now they are hungry and thirsty in the wilderness. They are refugees in flight, not a triumphant victory parade. And there, in the barren lands of the Negev, the thought of perishing slowly in the desert makes the suffering of Egypt seem preferable. It is a choice we all often make. The long road to freedom requires a great deal more courage and sacrifice than most of us muster easily. We can put up with a great deal of tyranny for a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs.

I know that the larger sweep of the Biblical narrative is a story about a broken covenant and rebellious people. So from the perspective of the generation assembling the narrative in exile in Babylon with Jerusalem in ruins, the story is about the persistent faithfulness of God in spite of our faithlessness – even as it yet summons us anew to faithfulness.

But as I ponder the story, as I consider all the different layers in the narrative, I begin to see something other than petulance; I see grief.

“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

They didn’t ask to die in their beds; they wished that God had slain them in Egypt. This verse is the corporate equivalent of Jeremiah declaring that God should have killed him in the womb or Job lamenting the day of his birth.

Cursed be the day on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying,
“A child is born to you, a son,” making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb forever great.
Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?

It is the cry of despair born of grief.

Job has lost all his family. Jeremiah is forced to witness the folly of his nation as it plunges towards destruction and the terrible suffering of siege. Israel in the wilderness was not a happy march into freedom. This was a people who had lost a life, however harsh. Yes, they have fled the suffering of their bondage. But they had also fled in fear for Moses had made this people a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh. They were the cause of Egypt’s troubles. They had become the object of the nation’s hate. There is language in the story that they were driven out of Egypt. They had lost their life and their homes there, however cruel and harsh it had been.

But now they are in a cruel desert. Weary, hungry, thirsty, far from a home of any kind.

“God should have just killed us when we were still in Egypt.”

It is hard to hold to a promise in such times, hard to keep putting one foot in front of the next. Hope doesn’t come easily to the grieving. We see only what is lost not what might be.

In grief we tend to lose the thread of our story. The imagined future that has shaped our lives is lost to us. I remember a widowed woman in a nursing home, in a room she had shared with her husband, bitter that he had left her. “We were supposed to go together.”   They had been a couple without children or friends, but they had always had each other. Now she had lost the story line that had shaped her life.   It is the same with the death of a child or a sibling. One of my daughter’s early comments at the death of her sister was: “She was going to be my maid of honor.” It is the anguish of divorce, the crisis of a lost job or career.

In grief we lose the thread of our lives. The days become a wilderness through which we stumble, because we no longer know where we are going. My mother wanted to trade her life for my daughter’s. We all would have.

The wilderness is still wilderness. What was is no more and what will be is not yet. The people grieve – and God provides. Day by day there is bread enough for the day. And water is found in unexpected places.

There is a layer in this story of faithlessness and testing. But there is also a story of mercy. God provides. God leads. God upholds them even when they wish they had never been born. And the Promised Land comes. Not easily. Not quickly. But it comes.

Those little pieces of bread we receive each Sunday morning are a far cry from the feast envisioned by Isaiah or celebrated in the vision of the New Jerusalem. But they are enough for the day. They are sufficient for the journey. They witness to God’s persistent faithfulness. They bear witness to the promise. They call us to journey on. And in that bread and wine we find the thread of a new story, of a life and a world borne forward from grace into grace.

 

Image: By Anonymous (Meister 1) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Alive in Christ

Thursday

1 Thessalonians 4

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Icon of the Second Coming of Christ. Greece ca. 1700

13We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

It doesn’t say Christians won’t grieve; it says we grieve in hope. And before we decide how literally we want to take the imagery of this whole passage, we should be clear about the purpose of Paul’s words: “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

Grief is hard work. Even when we grieve together, it tends to be a lonely road. We pull in to ourselves and away from others. Not on purpose, it’s just the nature of pain. We are not far from the wounded animal that looks for some safe hole in which to curl up and lick its wounds.

Grief is hard work for those who care for the grieving, too. It hurts us to see them in pain.

And grief is not simple. It is not one wound, but many. There are all those complicated emotions lurking in the shadows of loss: feeling like you have been abandoned by your loved one; guilt for feeling abandoned; anger that you have been abandoned; guilt over the anger. And then there is just plain guilt: for some part you have played in your loss or some things you have failed to do – or simply that you survived. And then, sometimes, there is relief – even gladness – that the person is gone. And, of course, we feel guilty about that.

Grief is not simple. And there are all those spiritual and theological questions that arise. Doubt. Anger at God. Feelings that God, too, has betrayed us. Despair whispers in our ear, “Life is meaningless. There is no hope.”

But mostly there is just that ache at the hole in your life.

Grief is what comes to my mind when I hear the psalmist speak of the valley of the shadow of death. Grief is the wilderness where the devil must be fought, like Israel traveling towards the Promised Land, or Jesus after his baptism.

Paul’s purpose is to reassure. “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

The promise is not that Jesus comes floating on the clouds; the promise is that Jesus comes in the power and presence of God – this is what the clouds have always signified in the scriptures. The clouds, the trumpet blast, were elements from Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai and in the temple. Yes, Paul and the first believers may have taken this imagery pretty literally. They inhabited a world of spiritual beings dwelling in the realm of the air. But we are not being asked to share their worldview; we are being asked to share their faith. We are invited to trust the promise they trust – that Christ shall come in the power of God and gather all things to himself…whatever that may mean, however that may happen. It is a daring, life-shaping trust that “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” as Paul writes in Romans.

There is a multiplicity of images in scripture for the age to come. These are signs and pointers not tech manuals. It takes some work to weave them together as the prophet does in the Revelation to John. But even he cannot weave them all into a single narrative. And he doesn’t try. The point isn’t the details; the point is the promise. This age of man’s inhumanity is not the final word on human existence; there is healing ahead of us.

There is a world ahead of us where we have not eaten every fish in the ocean, where we have not killed every elephant for ivory trinkets, or every tiger for increased manliness. There is a world where we do not make ashtrays of gorilla’s hands. There is a world ahead of us where violence does not tear a home or a people. There is a world where compassion reigns, not greed. There is a world where reconciliation replaces revenge.

And the dead in Christ shall be there. And even those of us whose hearts are still beating shall, with them, be made alive in Christ.