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.

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Unity and Paradox

Willi Unsoeld

Willi Unsoeld was a mountaineer, educator, and speaker. His talk “The Spiritual Value of Wilderness” reflects the 1970s North American/European desire to re-unify what modernity had divided. In the context of Unsoeld’s mountaineering, Outward Bound-ing life, the division of human beings from nature was the template from which all the other divisions (man from woman; body from soul; human beings from God) could be derived.

We are the intellectual and spiritual heirs of this desire for unity. One positive development is that we speak nowadays more about “healing” than about “unity.” Unity is ecstatic and therefore fleeting and adolescent; healing is integrative and therefore enduring and hopeful.

The 1970s are now two generations ago; the times have changed. Re-unifying what modernity has divided is not our challenge and call. Our challenge and call is to live the creative tension of irreconcilables– which entails living beyond the limits of reason alone. Our challenge and call is to live the creative tension of paradox.

For example. The supreme paradox of all creation, for followers of Jesus, is his nature: fully human and fully divine. Reason cannot reconcile these two essentially different natures. However, holding these irreconcilable natures in tension points us to a way of living on this earth, now, that realizes divinity present in human vulnerability, and embraces humble, human self-giving as the way God’s power is most fully expressed. An ethic of graceful, creative living follows from this theology.

In our hot and crowded world, where we live in unprecedentedly close and often prickly proximity with people and ideas that are irreconcilably different– I’ll say it again– our challenge and call is to live the creative tension of these irreconcilables. Unity is not possible, but creativity is.

Here’s my list of the paradoxes at the heart of life– seeming opposites that, in truth, need each other for completion. I’d be curious to know what you, reader, might add (or subtract!):

life and death; male and female; liberal and conservative; Christian and Muslim; active and passive; sanity and insanity; presence and absence; grief and love.

via Willi Unsoeld – Brief Biography & Quotes.

Save Us A Vote, Mitt

I saw a hand-painted political road sign this morning– all caps, no punctuation, black lettering on a white-painted square of plywood: SAVE US A VOTE MITT. I briefly wondered if Mitt were somehow hogging all the votes, before realizing that the message was: Save USA– Vote Mitt.

Any use of the word “save” in the political arena arouses my suspicion, and reminds me of the times in Biblical history when the people of Israel cried out for a leader (divinely ordained) to “save” them. Didn’t work then, won’t work today. The story that unfolds in the Christian Bible is a story of the ultimate triumph of a power different from political power– the power of self-emptying generosity and grace, which appears to this world to be weakness and foolishness.

The Biblical account also reminds us that the saving of the USA will come in the most surprising and astonishing ways– in ways that flip our expectations and change our minds beyond any change we think is possible. As unlikely as it seems, saving the USA might come in the contemporary equivalent of a figure who is sold into slavery and then forgives the sellers (Joseph); of a figure who is not a lawyer or businessman but a poet and musician (David); or of a figure whose serpent-like wisdom confronts hypocrisy with truth, and whose childlike innocence heals enmity and brokenness (Jesus).

Natural Disasters and the Power of God

Tsunami Devastation: Did God Cause It?

Whether God causes natural disasters– or allows them to happen– calls into question the nature of God. We wonder whether God is compassionate or vengeful; we wonder if God’s power is all-encompassing, or limited.

One recent conversation turned toward the latter question: does God have control over all of these recent natural disasters? And if God doesn’t have direct control, isn’t the Creator at least responsible for making a universe in which great suffering happens? Couldn’t the world have been made in a different way?

The God who is revealed in the person of a suffering common Jewish man, is a God who is not in control– if by control we mean “having power over” another (or others). Our understanding of power ought not be limited to “the ability to control,” however. There are other ways of having power which are not about control; other ways of exercising authority that do not entail imposing one’s will on another. One truth that Christians affirm, is that in Christ is a new kind of power: the power of solidarity; the power of compassion (literally “suffering with”); the power of love (that is, agape– unconditional love) ultimately to prevail. In Christ, God’s power is revealed not in control, but in vulnerability. God’s power is the vulnerability of Jesus, because it is in vulnerability that we become connected– connected to each other, and to God. God’s power is “God with us” (Emmanuel), not “God over us.”

Such an understanding of God’s power leaves suffering unexplained. I think that’s truthful to life as we live it and know it: bad things happen to good people, and innocents suffer. We can express righteous outrage at God for that, and that expression would be faithful: the Bible records many moments of cried out anguish, including Jesus’ own cry. There is a time to cry out to God for the suffering in the world. Then there’s a time to remember God’s solidarity with suffering, as revealed in Christ– and in remembering, to reach out in imitation of Jesus, with our own acts of solidarity and compassion with those who, like us, suffer.

Here is a blurb from the Christian Century on God and disasters:

Most don’t blame God for disasters

We may never know why bad things happen to good people, but most Americans—except evangelicals—reject the idea that natural disasters are divine punishment, a test of faith or some other sign from God, according to a new poll.

The poll, by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, was conducted a week after a March 11 earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan.

Nearly six in ten evangelicals (59 percent) believe that God can use natural di­sasters to send messages—nearly twice the number of Catholics (31 percent) or mainline Protestants (34 percent) who so believe. Evangelicals (53 percent) are also more than twice as likely as the one in five Catholics or mainline Protestants to believe that God punishes nations for the sins of some citizens.

The poll, released March 24, found that a majority (56 percent) of Americans believe that God is in control of the world, but the idea of God employing Mother Nature to dispense judgment (38 percent of all Americans) or God punishing entire nations for the sins of a few (29 percent) has less support….

Most don’t blame God for disasters | The Christian Century.

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.