Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Sweet Reunion

I'm sitting in my bedroom, having just received word from my husband P that he arrived safely in Michigan for a work trip he's taking. I'm a big baby about him going out of town, so this is the day I have been dreading since pretty much the last time he went out of town. It's funny, because when I was single I probably would have laughed at myself missing and pining over somebody like this. I've grown a lot since then, and have come to realize that the beautiful vulnerability involved in loving another person is also gut wrenching and terrible, but the solution to the gut-wrenching-ness of it all is not avoiding loving fully, but to embrace it. And so here I am, waiting for Friday night when he flies back, when I can pick him up from the airport and hug him and kiss him and feel the sweetness of being together again.

It's fitting that today, the first Sunday of Advent, I find myself in this position. Advent is the time of year when we remember the anticipation of the coming child-savior, and also where we savor the waiting for the day of Christ's return and that ultimate reconciliation. That, my friends, is something easier said than done. I'm currently reminded of the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, where so many hearts are broken right now because of pervasive, systematic violence that has taken place against the black community there and around the country. Like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writing from Birmingham jail, they are tired of waiting for equality and peace. Our hearts are weary from injustice, there and worldwide. Our hearts are weary from the pain of crime, the pain of addiction, the pain of family brokenness... and here we are once again being told to wait.

It's frustrating. Do you remember circling the tree as a kid on Christmas morning, waiting for the family to gather? Has there ever been such agony as the minutes ticking by while your brother stumbles around finding pants or your sister simply must take a shower before appearing? The kind of waiting we do now--for good news from a doctor, for word of a ceasefire, for change in legislation--that kind of waiting is tinged with a different kind of agony, and lingers longer still.

But there is a sweetness in the waiting, too. Like waiting for a spouse to return from a trip, we look forward knowing how beautiful that future day will be. Hope is that which sustains us by promising that joyful reunion. For our hurting world, the culmination of that advent is reconciliation, wherein those without power are made strong and those who are powerful become servants. Reconciliation is where our bodies no longer betray us, and resources are abundant, and lions and lambs rest in the shade of trees with leaves which are for the healing of the nations. That future is where we feel God's embrace fully, face to face, and the only tears are of joy.

I suppose this is not my usual exegetical expose because as I sit here waiting, I understand the need for encouragement in the midst of your waiting, more than analysis of the biblical precendent. We don't need Bible stories to understand what that kind of unresolved tension feels like. What I really want to do here is to tell you that you are not alone in this. Christ is here, not just in churches but tangibly, visibly by your side as you wade through this river of discouragement and grief and whatever else you are facing. The only thing I know to do is to remember the sweetness of Christ's promise, holding to the hope that the last thing will be the best thing. As I sit in my pajamas missing my spouse, thinking of his grin and his adorable accent and all the little things about him that I love, I am trying to be grateful for the promise of his return and what it means that I have him in my life. I am holding to the wonder of our love and the playfulness of our relationship and the absolute mundane intimacy we share about our daily lives.

Mostly, though, I am practicing patience, knowing that even though the waiting for the time of equality and healing and wholeness and being reunited with those we have lost is far more painful than missing my beloved for a few short days, that the fruition is that much greater than even the sweetest kisses. And in this way, we too, can hold not to what we lack but to what we have; bread and wine and community and powerful voices working for peace and justice and wellness. We can hold these things knowing that Christmas comes every year, and the grave always ends up empty. As much as we may try to ignore or avoid the pain of that waiting, we know that fully embracing the discomfort of not yet is the only way to reach someday. And we will reach it; and Christ is with you while you wait.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Living through Death

I have been thinking a lot lately about the nature of suffering and evil in the world because of my work. It's impossible to overstate the sheer amount of human pain and tragedy one can witness in the hospital, from the agony of a long illness to the accidental death of a young child. If I hadn't believed in evil as a force before, I certainly would now. That's not to say I believe in a devil-with-pitch-fork type of character with little horns and a pointed tail. Real evil is far scarier than this. But the fact of the matter is that the more I find myself standing in the midst of tragedy, the more I am reminded of the sacredness surrounding us all the time.

Not my idea of evil.
Robot Devil

I read a truly exceptional article called Why God Will Not Die this morning, and I was really struck by it as I read, particularly thinking about atheist/secular humanist friends of mine who struggle with similar questions that I do, and whose life philosophy, though starting at a different point, ultimately converges with mine. The article talks about the author's young attempt to find meaning and purpose in his life, which in his 20s he framed using a Bertrand Russell quote that can be summed up much less eloquently through the phrase: "Life sucks, then you die." (Something my father was quite fond of saying in his younger years.) But as he got older, he began to see that his grasping of that idea was his (rather immature) attempt to find some sort of simple closure to the ongoing question which is being human.

The question is most often: "Why?" and "What?" Why are we here? Why did God/evolution/the Universe/chance create us? What purpose do we serve? Why do bad things happen to good people? What laws govern the universe? These are questions that humans have been pondering since we had the cognitive ability to ponder them. Wisdom literature wrestles with these questions in profound ways. Isaiah wonders: "What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?" (Isaiah 8:4) and Job asks the unknowable question to God, "Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness." (Job 30:26) And we ask it: Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? Why do we keep killing each other? Why isn't there enough to eat? Why why why.

Slum in Mumbai

My view is that whatever happened at the fall of creation disrupted the natural order of God's world and introduced the power of death into our world. Ultimately, the root of most evil we commit to each other is committed out of the knowledge of our mortality, and the chaos of death is so ingrained in us that in permeates even creation where decay, illness, and natural disasters happen to us. And then there is this figure which stands up and says: "I AM the resurrection and the life!" Jesus says this defiantly, and acts defiantly against it by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, driving out demons, and fighting the inequality which kept people impoverished and outcast from those who would care for them. In a very real way, Jesus' ministry was spitting in the face of the power of death and the structures which lead to it, and the fear of it which binds us. 

This is why the gospel is so foolish, as Paul says. Because we live in death every day, watching our bodies grow weaker and older, watching our loved ones die off, seeing starvation and terrible disease, and witnessing atrocious acts of violence and war. And yet in the midst of it we have a story of this one figure who defies death one hungry person at a time, and then who himself dies only to rise. In the same way that Job came to realize his bigness to God through the smallness of being told: "Who are you to question me?" we realize our power by understanding our fragility.

Mother Teresa defying starvation

I said to a friend of mine that I believe we can "give the finger" to death through the act of living. By doing all the things we do, breathing, eating, thinking, we defy the death that surrounds us. And the irony of the gospel is that by our constant awareness of our finitude, we are empowered to cultivate life. Our despair actually has the power to give us hope when we start to see not how beholden we are to death, but how actively we can choose to fight it through service to our hurting world. Christ empowers us into this service, in the same way that he empowered his less than perfect disciples, so that through our dying we might live and live for others. And in knowing that we tiny humans can defy the tide of death a little, we may get a glimpse of the grandeur of God's ultimate victory over it.