More Resurrection

When our family cow died in August, I wrote “Burying Clover,” describing what that was like, and reflecting on resurrection. Following here are further thoughts about resurrection, bodies, desire, and homecoming:

Most of the people in my small-town New England congregational church get off the Jesus Train long before Resurrection Junction. Christmas is a much bigger deal than Easter; Baby Jesus gets a lot more love than the Risen Christ. Is this because we all know what a baby looks like, whereas a spiritual body (understood in Paul’s terms) confounds the very ground, the very basis, of reason? That would be my guess, but I really don’t know.

I do know that my gnostic and other non-Christian friends have a Thomas Jefferson-like, post-Enlightenment distaste for resurrection. For my gnostic friends, John’s picture of the Cosmic Christ, existing as God’s Word from the very beginning, is the only acceptable gospel picture. No messy bodies here, no physical limitations, to get in the way of a clairvoyant knowledge of the higher worlds. The Synoptics never get a reading.

My re-incarnation-believing friends similarly bypass the body: souls persist from incarnation to incarnation, advancing towards or retreating from enlightenment according to merit. While I am a resurrection guy, I find reincarnation to be attractive. It makes a lot of sense; it’s an eminently reasonable philosophy, square and plumb and watertight enough to shelter a human life.

Then there is what my 87 year-old boatbuilding mentor says is his dad’s definition of immortality. “My dad’s definition of immortality,” he says in his salty voice, looking straight at me, “is the influence he has on your grandchildren.” There’s still no hint here of death as an ending that breaks continuity, but…. But unlike the various forms of gnosticism abroad in our land, and in contradistinction to individualistic pictures of salvation, Keith’s dad’s definition of immortality involves blood connections: his dad’s life, passed through him to me, and then on to my son and daughter, and then maybe even on to their children.

There’s blood here, but still no bodies. There’s connection, but no touch.

Perhaps resurrection is so hard for us to believe, not because it confounds reason, but because to believe it without being able to verify its truth, opens us to the most profound disappointment possible. Conceivably, Paul knew as much when he said, “If Christ has not been raised, then… your faith is in vain”. As soon as we begin to imagine how sweet it would be for the bodies we have loved and lost to come to life again, like Jesus did, at the very same time we begin to open ourselves to doubt. We stand there with Thomas: “Could it really be you? No way.”

But we do imagine– or at least I do. What if I could actually, once again and for all time, wrap my small child’s hand around my grandfather’s thumb, feeling the strength of his body in mine; what if I could once again rub my soft cheek on his scratchy whiskered chin and hear him say, “Chris, my boy.” As far as that image goes, it is merely particular and merely personal– the emotional power of the image is merely mine. That’s only to be expected: bodies are particular and personal, so resurrection will always have local color– a particular flavor, a particular smell, a particular resonance. However, because the ground of resurrection is love– and not just any love, but the very love of God that holds us not only to God but to one another, beloved and belonging one to all– resurrection transcends what is merely particular and personal. Resurrection brings you and me, and our neighbors, to where we want to go: home. All the way home: the place where we are known and understood, yes, but more importantly the place where we are warmed and held.

Clover the Cow’s body is disintegrating in the earth; sometimes I imagine a Georgia O’Keefe-like cow skull emerging, decades in the future, from the frost-heaved ground. Whoever is there to pick it up will be standing in grass fertilized by a body that is now but nameless bone. That’s how nature works.

Could it be that the resurrection we see in natural processes on earth is only a copy, a facsimile, of the great resurrection promised in Christian scripture?  When all that is and was love– all that held love, spoke love, drank love– will be renewed and restored in the bodies we knew? God, I hope so.

Burying Clover


Clover, Buried

A small cow is still a big animal to bury. One man with a shovel might spend a full day or two or three at it, depending on how deeply he dug the hole, or how many rocks he hit. With a medium-sized tractor and backhoe, the same man can do the job in half a day– which is a mercy, because a dead cow is not a pleasant sight, and there’s no prospect of the situation improving over time.

Clover was our family cow, and she died last Friday, 36 hours after having her second calf.

I grew up in suburbia, with no connection and little understanding of natural processes, so that my apprenticeship year on a small farm in England, in my early 20s, was a continual epiphany. Chickens lay eggs according to daylight: fewer and fewer as the days shorten; more and more as late winter moves through vernal equinox towards summer. Who knew? Not me. I learned this, and a million other things, in my year on the farm.

I learned resurrection, too. I don’t mean that I learned to believe in a doctrine of resurrection; I mean that I formed the habit of seeing resurrection everywhere, and that I began to inhabit the resurrection rhythm: life rising from death–death taking life down into the earth–earth giving rise to life again. Living through the moons and seasons on a small, human-sized farm is a good way to become rooted in the fundamentals.

My wife and I wanted to raise our children to know where food comes from, to learn the responsibility of farm chores, and (hopefully) to have their character developed by daily contact with what is close to the earth. Clover was part of this life we chose for our family, and she played her part well: the children fed her hay on bitter winter mornings; they mucked her stall; and now they– we– mourn her death. She was a gentle, good cow.

The problem with the kind of resurrection that nature practices, is that the life that comes from death is not the same life as before. Clover’s body will nourish new grass in the field, but I want my cow back, not fertilized grass. My grandfather used to joke that one day he’d be “pushing up daisies,” but it’s him that I want alive anew, not a bunch of flowers.

Maybe the resurrection we see in natural processes on earth is only a copy, a facsimile, of the great resurrection promised in Christian scripture?  When all that is and was love– all that held love, spoke love, drank love– will be renewed and restored in the bodies we knew? God, I hope so.

A Cost of Breaking Taboo

Deaths in Action, and Suicides– US Military, 2012

The number of US military suicides received continual attention through the second half of 2012. As many sources have reported, the year total for suicides outnumbered the year total for combat deaths in 2012. The chart and graph above are from a story that  The Guardian ran last Friday.

Last summer we reviewed Karl Marlantes’ book What It’s Like to Go to War. While post-traumatic stress disorder is not related to all military suicides in 2012, it is related to many of them, and is also related to many of the suicides of veterans. As Marlantes explains (drawing from deep and painful personal experience), being intimately connected to killing and destruction puts the human psyche into contact with powerful forces of life and death– powers which we have traditionally labeled as “taboo” (Emile Durkheim) or “holy” (Rudolf Otto). In the sense intended here, “holy” does not mean “really really good; saintly”; rather, it means “having qualities of the divine.” While our bourgeois sensibility may recoil at the thought of killing and destruction as being “holy”, it is, in this sense: the giving and taking of life falls into the realm of those qualities we attribute to a god, or gods, or God.

There is always a cost to be paid, for being in contact with these powers of life-making and life-taking. No one enters the Real Presence of the Holy– and according to Marlantes, combat is like that– without being marked forever. As a culture, with our myths of mastery and control, we don’t get this. Consequently, many soldiers– mostly young men– get sacrificed for our disregard for even the most basic respect for divine power. The god of our Civic Religion has no power to shape a hopeful future, because it has no power to walk with us in the valley of the shadow of death.

Here is the link to the Guardian story:

Last year, more active-duty soldiers killed themselves than died in combat. And after a decade of deployments to war zones, the Pentagon is bracing for things to get much worse….

via US military struggling to stop suicide epidemic among war veterans | World news |

Memento Mori

Pointing to Good Friday-- And Beyond

The balance that religion can give, if we’re doing our job, is to remind this culture of what we frantically deny: limits, diminishment, and death. The authentic prophetic voice is not a voice of doom, but a voice of truth. Any memento mori is prophetic because it is true.

Those of us following Jesus will speak a further truth: that death is not the end. However, the good news of Easter is gibberish if we can’t even acknowledge the preceding Friday. A robust Christianity is unflinchingly realistic about death. There is no abundant life in worshiping perpetual youth; nothing truthful in avoiding the transformations from which none are exempt.

A robust Christianity also understands the cost of a hope worthy of our trust. A trustworthy hope cannot be hope in our own powers, because our own powers will fail; by faith, we trust a God whom we cannot see, and the cost of such trust is giving up the comfortable illusion of control.

None of this is easy. Every day, though, we get another crack at it.

via Kyle Whelliston’s Notebook.

Things Change; Give Thanks for the Day

Yosemite Valley

Part of the balance that religious realism gives us, is the reminder that life is transitory and fragile. There are, still, only 168 hours every week. This is a helpful reminder to princes, paupers, and all of us in between– a reminder to be humble and thankful for the gift of daily bread, for the gift of human and divine forgiveness, and for the gift of any intimation– no matter how small– that the Kingdom of God is here now already, if not yet in fullness.

Religion in the Balance will be taking a 10-day break, out to San Francisco and Yosemite. In preparation, I loved this somewhat dark–yet realistic–assessment of dangerous trees, from the National Park Service:

While the National Park service seeks to identify and remove threats due to hazard trees, trees without apparent defects also fail and tree hazards cannot always be immediately identified and mitigated; several catastrophic tree failures have left visitors seriously or fatally injured in Yosemite…. Be aware of your surroundings, especially away from developed areas, and keep in mind that some trees may fail at any time. (emphasis added)

Give thanks for the day.

Osama bin Laden Is Dead

The security apparatus of the state– intelligence and special operations forces– has done what it is supposed to do: find and kill the enemy.

In a brief interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC, the daughter of a 9/11 victim said something interesting as she attempted to describe her feelings. While acknowledging the satisfaction of justice being done, and the accompanying sense of closure, she stopped herself from using the word “joy” to describe how she felt.  While she didn’t have the chance to say more, perhaps she had the sense that the payment of death for death, while just– and in this case welcomed and necessary– is still no cause for joy. At least not for me.

I grieve tonight– for all the loss, death, and destruction of 9/11; for the existence of evil; for innocents who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan; for post-traumatic stressed servicemen and women and their families; for cycles of violence and victimization that are always justified and therefore very difficult to end. Bin Laden’s death satisfies justice, but it does not mean peace.

via Osama bin Laden dead: officials – Americas – Al Jazeera English.

Life Sunk Deeply in Death

The dark sacred time-space of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday is largely lost in sunny American optimism and happy consumerism. While we are broken and pained enough, as a culture, to appreciate tragedy, we work overtime to avoid it. Cue the chocolate bunny and the painted eggs: who needs resurrection if there is no death?

I like American confidence and prosperity, as do many from around the world who seek to live here; a “can-do” attitude is better than desperation. However, there’s a difference between confidence and bravado. Increasingly, we’re full of a bravado that looks confident and hopeful, but which in reality only masks our fear of the dark. Anything that has the faintest whiff of loss or diminishment is hidden off-stage, at great cost to our ability to reckon with the bedevilments of our age, political and otherwise. Religion is often complicit in making the mask.

True religion unmasks our denial, and points us to the dark sacred time-space of Gethsemane and Calvary. These are places of loneliness and agony that we already know deeply, but try to forget. What would be helpful is for us to acknowledge their presence; and most helpful would be to acknowledge their presence in some form of communal observance. (All of ancient Athens gathering to watch Sophocles’ drama of Oedipus comes to mind.)

Life is tragic– not ultimately tragic, but truly so. Any confidence worthy of the name needs grounded in the rich soil, the life-giving soil, that exists only through the mystery of death.