Roots

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As a young boy, my grandmother would often tell me, with her full blown mid-western Michigan accent “pick up your feet.” I would often turn around, look at her, my face becoming flush with embarrassment that I did not in fact “pick up my feet.” It was such stupid advice, common sense. A person cannot walk unless they pick up their feet. I am not sure if I was a lazy walker, wore shoes too big, or as many children was just prone to not watching where I was going, but my grandmother was correct on more than one occasion. I had stumbled many times, in her presence or otherwise, and the stupid, easy, solution to avoid it in the future was “picking up my feet.”

There is nothing like the wisdom of grandparents, and nothing like their passing, and our aging, to make us appreciate their words. Now, at 38 years old, I hear her words echo in my heart, “Nathan, pick up your feet.”
Back then, she was concerned about my physical well-being; today, her words dig a little deeper.

This week, I found myself as many of you have at least once in your life, on a narrow walking trail. It was one of those windy, bumpy, spider web riddled trails that tempt you to question why you made the walk in the first place. I have been on many of these trails, no more than 1-2 feet across, weeds infringing on the path, trees toppled over as their large root systems leave a gaping hole where the path once was. I used to walk them with my grandfather and father. I have walked them with friends. This one, I was walking alone.

This was a new path (here’s an analogy we can all sermonize over), one traveled by many but never by me. I decided to follow this trail because I needed to listen. I am not sure what I was listening for, but I needed to listen.
The path is on the property of a retreat center, a place where intentional space is crafted and fostered in order to provide the silence one needs to hear God. One of the mottos here is: Here God is in the Silence; Hear God in the Silence. The retreat space is replete with holy reminders of an All-Other that seeks to speak to us if we can be still and silent enough to listen. I had suspected earlier in the day that my soul was ready to listen, but I did not expect all I would hear.

I made my way upon the entrance to the path, and followed a steep trail down worn out wooden steps, over rotting supports that provided steps in the dirt, and through bridges slowly deteriorating. The dirt on the path was smooth and soft beneath my feet once I made it to the bottom. It was a rich, dark, top soil, that had been pressed down as smooth as pavement, and giving off a wet, earthy, mossy smell. At one point, I stopped to notice an earthworm that was crawling across the moist earth.

As the trail progressed, I came to a flat bottom just a few feet from the river. The sun was piercing the canopy of the trees, a butterfly had flown across my path, and I could hear birds sing their choruses in the swaying branches. I was almost entranced by the natural beauty of the forest, allowing myself to be lost in its system of life, until my foot hit a familiar obstacle: a root. I noticed that on this part of the trail the path was riddled with roots. With each intentional step, it seemed I had to play hopscotch with the forest root system. Some were large, some small, and some multiple, but none of them were going to move on account of me.

Suddenly I heard my grandmother say, “Nathan, pick up your feet.” A smile came over my countenance. There, in the woods, I stopped. I began to listen.

I heard a still small voice say, “In life, we can be so attentive to the good things of the world, of creation, the good things we are doing, that we can still stumble, even on a path clearly worn and already traveled…a path left for us to follow.”

Roots may be a fact of forest trail exploring but sometimes we wish we could curse them the way Jesus does the fig tree that refused him lunch. The last thing we need is harmless forest foliage to deter our progress.

I was on this trail being intentional about taking in EVERYTHING around me, not wanting to miss the voice of God, but I still had to watch where I was walking! Stumbling along the path of life can happen even as we engage in good things. The lesson was this: never take your eyes off the path, even when you have your eyes rightly on other tasks. There is a destination calling to all of us, but even as we are doing our best to get there, we can still stumble along the journey and prolong our final arrival. There could be a pesky root, sticking up in a well-worn path, waiting to break your toe even as you think you are making a full stride.

The smoothest of trails and most beautiful scenery can still be filled with silent treachery.

After having my moment, my theophany of the root, and I began to press on, thankful that I had allowed myself to be attentive. The path eventually began to wind back up the hill and along-side a small waterfall. I had made my way through the flat surface and its occasional roots without scuffing my shoes or tripping over myself. Now, as I made my way up a small ravine, the roots were larger and more damaging to the path ahead. Some of the path was clearly not a path at all. It was more a less a used to be, washed out path, that was now a hazard for elementary age school children.

I pressed on through the lost trail and noticed something different about the roots.

In the first half of the trail, the roots were hazardous. The roots were rises in the smooth path that led down a steep ravine and through a flat forest bottom. Those roots could have caused me to stumble, fall, and perhaps ruin my best pair of jeans (or worse). But then as I began to walk back up an opposite side of the hill, I noticed I was using the roots as steps. The roots here were still roots; they were still hard objects, jutting out from beneath the soil, but their incidental function was different. These roots were not hazards; these roots were helpers. The path, being severely washed out in places, didn’t have formerly man-made steps, but it did have roots that would become steps. There very things that could have once caused me harm, were now helping me get to my destination. Hegel would call these roots dialectical; I’ll just call them paradoxical grace.

Roots became helpers, coming along side me on the path, acting as stepping stones. These roots allowed me to move forward along the path.

Just two weeks ago, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. This was an unanticipated transition for me even a few short months ago, but in January, at the very strong leading of the Holy Spirit, I felt compelled to enter this new path. I was raised in the Nazarene Church, and therefore come from a low church evangelical background. I was dedicated, raised, baptized, educated, and ordained in the Nazarene Church. My roots run deep.

At the pre-confirmation meeting, the Bishop of East Tennessee met with all future confirmands and blessed our presence in this new congregation. He noted that many of us, including himself, come from other rooms in the house of faith. He equally noted, however, that something had brought us all together and was about to make us a part of a deep Anglican tradition: another strong root system. But before we would join, he said, we need to acknowledge and bless your roots wherever and whatever they are. The roots from which you came matter because they had provided grounding heretofore in our lives and they would further function as the foundation upon which this new Anglican tradition would be grafted.

In other words: roots can become obstacles, but they can also provide support for the journey ahead.

At times we may want to curse our roots, or a root system, that would just assume have us fall as have us arrive. At other times, though, we would be stuck in the bottom of some of life’s deepest ravines without the steps provided by our roots.

Roots are powerful extensions of beauty that simultaneously have the power to give life and the power to make a once well-worn path a travel hazard. Where there are deep, muscular roots, prying open a sidewalk or pressing through a forest trail, one is acutely aware that these roots are what they are because they have survived and thrived. By extension, so too has the tree connected with them.

This week, I was walking along a forest trail, uncertain of what I would find or what I would hear. I was trusting that God was here in the silence and that I would hear God in silence. I discovered that the path upon which I stood didn’t just lead me beneath a beautiful forest canopy and through the playground of cardinals and squirrels, but it was indicative of the path upon which I now travel, a path that I will only be able to walk because of my roots.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Lent as Re-Membering: Reflections on Luke 4

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Luke 4 is the traditional text that comes to mind when we consider the beginning of Lent: the 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday (Sunday celebration days withstanding) in which we reflect upon the journey of Christ into the wilderness and the temptations he encounters while there. During the season of Lent, we Christians embody some form of practice that allows us, however weakly, to walk with Jesus into the wilderness. This takes the shape of denying ourselves of something significant in order to participate in the self-denial of Jesus during this wilderness period. We, as Jesus, must rely on God to sustain us, just as we must rely upon God to save us. Lent becomes the acting out of our finitude within the context of God’s infinite redemption revealed in Easter. Thus, this is a season in which we focus on Christ’s movement toward the events of Easter and we rely upon God to carry us through the parched arid land of the wilderness, to the pinnacle of Golgotha, and toward the tenebrosity of the grave.

The wilderness period of Luke 4 functions on many levels textually and canonically but two things should be immediately noted: it connects the ministry of Jesus with the wilderness wandering of the people of God for 40 years and, consequently, connects the ministry of Jesus as the one who exits the wilderness in order to redeem the world, bringing the world safely to harbor in the kingdom of God. This is the episode upon which the Gospel of Luke moves the readers from Jesus, the one born of God, called, baptized, and properly vetted in the wilderness, into the full-blown son of God, prophet, and harbinger of the Kingdom of God. Jesus exits the river and, after a brief genealogical postlude, heads straightway into the wilderness. The wilderness, in a sense, prepares him (and us) for the ministry ahead. Ultimately, it prepares us for the Paschal events.

The biblical account of the actual time in the wilderness is short, however. The text does not tell us what happened or of the trials encountered by Christ. We learn he was tempted, but we do not know what that means or by what means. Perhaps we are to imagine similar temptations encountered by Christ as were encountered by Israel as they wandered about a lifeless, foodless, waterless landscape in the Book of Exodus . Indeed, for such a significant moment in the life of Jesus, (which is also embodied in the liturgical time keeping of the church) precious little is made of the 40 days; it gets 2 verses in Luke. The text is abrupt,

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan [where he was baptized] and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry. And the devil said to him…”

The most salient feature of this text is the contention between Jesus and the devil. Luke himself gives this aspect of the story the most attention. In the process, however, readers often conflate these 3 final temptations with the sorts of temptations, or the very temptations, Jesus was encountering in the wilderness. The wilderness period itself is overlooked by Luke, either unavailable to him or simply unimportant for his story.

Clearly, Jesus experiences something in the wilderness that is unavailable to us, and he survives with flying colors this period of personal wandering, emulating the wandering of the ones to whom he has been given by God. At the end of the wilderness period, after he has survived this Spirit led sojourn into the jaws of the devil, the devil arrives one final time to take advantage of the vulnerability of Jesus’ humanity.
The devil comes to Jesus and tempts him to forget the perils he has been through in the wilderness, as if to attempt one last-ditch effort to derail the ministry of Jesus. Will Jesus be like the people of God, the ones who came to be delivered through the Reed Sea yet on the other side make a golden calf to worship? Will he buckle under the weight of wilderness exasperation?

Unlike a host of prior biblical characters (many of whom are in the genealogy of Jesus listed in 3.23-38), Jesus passes this test of the devil, quoting scripture in response to temptation and remaining resolute despite his human longings for food. Jesus does not fail this test. He lives into the reality of his baptism and is apparently strengthened by this tribulatory episode. He is now ready to pursue his calling and he doesn’t waste any time causing a stir in the synagogue on the sabbath further in Luke 4.

Whoever this one is who has come out of the wilderness victorious, he is something totally other than any character to yet emerge from the annals of Israel’s history. Of course, Luke wastes no time in identifying Jesus, if not as Christ, someone like Elijah that had been prophesied from the Isaiah Scroll. Jesus emerges from the unforgiving wilderness, surviving the devil, only to be threatened with death by his neighbors. If the devil can’t single-handedly take down Jesus, it seems the characters in the story are eager to pick up where the devil left off. See Luke 4.14-30.

The exegetical issues in this text are many. There is a myriad of ways in which the scholar can move around in the text in order to capture the full scope of what is being communicated in this strange wilderness text, with very few details, and the odd verbatim discussion between diametrically opposed forces: Jesus and the devil.

Admittedly, I read this text and often come away with as many questions as I do answers, yet I always leave this text feeling more comforted. When a season of life tempts me away from who I am, or who I was baptized to be, I read this story and I am reminded of what the writer of Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4.15). Luke 4 demands much of readers, and our imaginations, but it remains a classic example of overcoming temptation in the face of insurmountable need and desperate relief. Despite its brevity, it remains the classic Lenten text of initiation.

But what of these final 3 temptations, the ones that we often consider as happening in the wilderness to Jesus, when in fact these happen after Jesus has exited the wilderness? As if often the case, it seems we survive times of tribulation, and then once the pressure begins to subside, we let our guards down and are defeated by things that have no business defeating us. Why do we do that? We are people that can run 25 miles of the marathon, yet the last mile finds us failing, even with the ribbon in sight. To say it biblically, we can travel the wilderness for years, and remain faithful, and then as we near the promised land we find ourselves getting mad like Moses, succumbing to temptation, and being kept from the Promised Land indefinitely. One of the many morals of Luke 4 is: be like Jesus, not like Moses.

While there is much to be said about the contents of Luke 4,  I want to focus on the progression of these final words of the devil to Jesus. Temptation is rarely linear, or to say it in Lenten perspective, self-reliance is rarely linear, but it can progressively move to higher stakes. First, the temptations Jesus experiences happen because he has already rejected temptation. He already defeated what was trying to drag him down in the wilderness…yet it still hangs around, talking to him after the wilderness period! Would that the wilderness critters stay in the trees rather than follow us home! Jesus is hungry. The text says that “when they had ended…he became hungry…” “They” refer to the days in the wilderness. The wilderness is over, Jesus is emerging, done. Temptation is still near, that stray dog following close behind, brushing up against the heals of Jesus.

The first thing to notice, then, is that these 3 famous temptations come to Jesus only after he has proven himself. He has nothing left to demonstrate, yet it seems something larger was not yet decided in the wilderness. Secondly, we should note that the temptations have a progressive nature to them. Jesus exits the wilderness period hungry, because he had been fasting for 40 days. The devil comes to Jesus at this point of departure first, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus has already gone without food for 40 days, what’s one more afternoon? Jesus replies with the same wisdom he surely used in the wilderness fasting and he quotes Deuteronomy 8.3, a reflection upon the 40 years wandering in the wilderness by Israel, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Jesus being undaunted, having come through much worse, deflects the devil’s stupid suggestion and holds fast to being sustained by God.

Next, the devil raises the stakes. If Jesus cannot be tempted with a primal need, perhaps he can be tempted with a primal urge: power. The devil led Jesus “up” (perhaps suspending him in order to view. The text does not clarify the “up” from which the two looked together) and showed him the kingdoms of the world (political power) and offered him dominion of those powers if Jesus would worship him. Here, Jesus is tempted with power, admiration, and possessions, all things that most humans work their entire lives for! But one who would be led by the Spirit into a vast wilderness and was baptized by one who also lives in the wilderness, has little need for such things. If a hungry Jesus won’t even turn a stone into food (recall that Moses made water come out of one) there is little chance he’ll be enticed with power. The opportunity to worship the devil falls flat in the face of Jesus’ commitment to God, the Lord of Israel.

Finally, in an act of desperation, the devil decides to move away from primal urges and focuses on the last thing Jesus has left: his identity. If Jesus cannot be tempted to feed himself or with power, perhaps he can be tempted to prove he is as good as he thinks he is, perhaps he can be tempted to prove his identity! If the devil cannot tempt Jesus away from his ministry, perhaps he can immobilize Jesus by calling his being into question. Ironically, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem (the very symbol of God’s presence with the people) and gets right to it, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” The devil knew he needed to use scripture against Jesus because Jesus would use it against him, and surprise, Jesus returns the scriptural favor with Deuteronomy 6, “it is said, ‘you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Wilderness period of no avail, final temptations handily dismissed, the text says the devil then leaves Jesus until an opportune time. Jesus has withstood a personal assault by the devil and is now ready to boldly perform his ministry. The result of surviving satanic onslaught is a Jesus of whom the text says returns to “Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” The powerful thing about the wilderness is this: if we can survive…we come out stronger. Jesus survived. The same spirit that descended upon him in baptism was the catalytic power that would animate his ministry.

This wilderness episode is intriguing. It is cataloged in all 3 synoptic Gospels, with Matthew and Luke sharing the most similarity and Mark simply mentioning the event with 1 verse. Under the category of multiple attestation, it would seem that this is an event so thoroughly connected with the historical Jesus that it is highly likely Jesus did in fact receive baptism by John, and then, as if to make pilgrimage with the historical people of God, purposefully went into the wilderness to experience that same journey. The event must have been so well known among the early followers of Jesus that to omit from accounts of his life would have been likely impossible, and it must have been so formative for Jesus, that each Gospel author except John found it impossible to tell their story of Jesus without including it. Such universal inclusion and divine parallelism must indicate that this is an episode in the life of Jesus that should not only be read, but pondered, deliberated, and prayed over regardless of the brevity or absence of wilderness detail. For reasons we can deduct from the text, and also reasons lost in history, the wilderness retreat of Jesus prior to his ministry must have happened and was of necessity.

Let me suggest, however, that this pre-ministerial event in the life of Jesus, and our inaugural Lenten text, gets part of its primary importance because of its ability to re-member the story of God with the world, with his people, with us. One of Luke 4’s theological tasks is to re-member two realities in the life of Jesus, and so to the life of us. First, it puts back together the historical memory of Gods people; it recalls God’s initial saving activity from Egypt. Jesus is a part of that story, a continuation of it, that will find its denouement in Easter. Secondly, it puts back together the memory God has of us, collectively and individually. The temptations themselves are curious and major parts of the story, but it is the re-membering that happens in the wilderness that is of primary importance. Before Jesus can remake history, it must be re-membered by him, in him and through him.

Consequently, this is what Lent does: it re-members for us parts of the story that have been torn asunder, parts of the story that connect God to world, God to people, God to us, our story to Gods, creation’s story to it’s Creator. Our world has forgotten its stories; they are strained and fraying from connections barely visible yet still present. In lent, we re-member them; they come back together in order to remind us who we really are, who God is in Christ, and who we can be when we put those stories back together.
It is this re-membering that Jesus does in the wilderness. The temptations matter because, ultimately, the temptations of the devil are about dis-memberment; the temptations are the devils means of having us forget our story.

First, Jesus literally remembers the Exodus with his body. He experiences the first season of Lent, so to speak. What he did those 40 days is lost, but he did it, rehearsed it, and relived the arid landscape of those who he came to serve. Unlike Moses, he will go into the wilderness AND come out of it, entering the Promised Land of new creation. Thus, Jesus lives into a biblical liturgical calendar in order to place his ministry within the context of God’s call from the land of slavery, death, and futility.

Secondly, and less conspicuously, Jesus re-members his identity in the wilderness. The wilderness was a time of introspection, recollection, rehearsal and through those things a time of re-membering what led him to the river, what happened to him in the river, and where he was being called once emerging from the baptismal waters. This stop in the wilderness was the place Jesus surely found is identity in God, solidified it, and his mission became central. Through fasting in the wilderness, he learned to rely upon God for sustenance and learned to subdue his body. With each passing day, Jesus learned his body was Gods and surely wrestled with all his inner demons that tried to make him doubt his identity and mission. The temptations of the devil at his emergence from the wilderness is the icing on the cake of an already intense time of personal spiritual questing.

The final temptation Jesus faces in Luke, after having already survived parched soil, is the temptation to forget. The devil, not able to move Jesus with primal temptations, tries to get Jesus to forget who he is, even though who he is is precisely what he would have learned in the wilderness for 40 days! Jesus did not become who he wasn’t in the wilderness. The wilderness did not make Jesus Jesus; Jesus was “made” via his sending from above and called out in his baptism. The wilderness was the time of reminding, re-membering his identity in God and identification with God’s people. One could protest that Jesus needed no re-membering at this point in his ministry, that he needed nothing to re-purpose him.

True as that may be, there is nothing that will challenge a person’s faith as fasting from food, true removal from society in order to come face to face with one’s inner demons. When Jesus decided to experience what the people of God experienced, he agreed not only to do what they did, paralleling a Sinai experience, he also agreed to be subject to the same temptations that would have been distant thoughts emerging victoriously through the Reed Sea.

It is easy to be faithful to the God that is destroying our enemies; this God is easily worshiped as Egyptian chariots sink in freshly made mud. It is quite another thing to wander the wilderness for an indefinite period, apparently led there by God, placed there because of God’s victory, but given nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, and no map for directions. A faithful people can become forgetful quite easily as a simple stroll through the Old Testament will easily attest.

Likewise, we are naive to assume that Jesus, emerging from the waters of redemption like his for-bearers, would not also be tempted in the wilderness on the other side of the water. Jesus did not become someone new in this experience; he became what he already was, God re-membering in Jesus what the human Jesus may have been tempted to forget…but a temptation he needed to experience before serving the children of those recalcitrant people. We hear silent foreshadowing echoed in the words of the Devil, “If you are…the son of God…”

It is in re-membering that we find the temptations of the devil most significant because it is precisely forced forgetting that is the goal of the devil. If you don’t like “devil” language, we can appropriate the Gospel of Matthew and call it “the tempter.” The wilderness is the place we are most likely to be tempted to forget who we are and who we are called to be (has anyone read Numbers lately??!). Ironically these temptations only come to us as people who have already experienced God’s living water of forgiveness/redemption. We cannot be tempted to leave something we have never had in our possession. We cannot be tempted to forget something we have never experienced or never been.

Enter Lent. If there is a time when we will lose our way, it is in the nothingness of nothing while relying on a God we cannot see for sustenance we never knew would be enough.

In other words, if we are going to forget who we are, it is during Lent; ironically, if we are going to find ourselves, it is also in Lent. Lent does not make us something we are not; it re-members what God always holds together in his own memory about us. Re-membering is the process of putting back together what God already knows about us, for us, and calls us to live into. Lent is the process whereby we allow the spirit to re-member in us God’s predestined naming of us.

In the wilderness Jesus re-membered; In Lent, we are called to re-member. The Devil tempts us to forget our names, our identity, our mission as those baptized, forgiven, called. In Lent, God helps us remember our identity in Christ; in Lent we discover our true selves even as we are tempted to forget.

Lent is a time of preparation because if we participate in it to the extent that Israel wandered in the Sinai, and Jesus wandered in the land beyond the Jordan, then we are doing the heavy soul searching that is necessary to come out of the desert alive. Not just anyone can survive the wilderness. The biblical narrative is full of persons, examples, that entered the wilderness never to return. If, however, we place our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves in the hands of the creator, we will discover not only our true self during Lent, but that our true self is never divorced from the identity God gives to us. “Let us make mankind in our image” writes the author of Genesis. God knows and re-members that image; Our identity is grounded in God. In Lent, we are invited to re-member our names.

 

God Can’t: A Review

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“We don’t need the bible to know evil sucks,” writes Tom Oord, who has now taken off the gloves in his forthcoming work, God Can’t. In what might be his most transparently honest work to date, Tom goes after the Golden Calf of Christian theology: the idea that God Can do anything. Hang on tight because this is a ride you do not want to miss.

For people of faith, there is little more polarizing than the statement “God Can’t.” In fact, those words do not make much sense. Isn’t part of what makes God God that God can do anything? If there is something God cannot do wouldn’t God be barely more than us mere mortals? Many people of faith hold to their faith precisely because the God they believe in can do whatever he needs to, when he needs to, to make their life better or save them from peril. This idea is the great security blanket of believers, for even though God may never do the many things ascribed to “him” it is comforting to know that he could. We may never meet a divine superman, but its good to know he’s in the building just in case.

But what do we do when we run head up against the inexplicable evil of life and superman doesn’t show up? When we pray, hope, trust in God, yet nothing changes, or  worse, further bad things happen?

Does God become nothing more than the ultimate fudge factor by which we give reason for our suffering? Rather than God becoming a deliverer from our suffering, God becomes the cause and excuse of it, the way we rationalize it (“everything happens for a reason” or “God’s ways are higher than our ways” they say).

Yet, how does one make sense of God’s love, or the idea of God as a loving God, while also contending that God restrains his power to allow evil to happen to us for some “higher” purpose?

What higher purpose could come from the family whose child suffocates in their car from heat exhaustion, or drowns in the pool because the family lost track of 2-3 minutes, or allowed someone to be sold into sex trafficking and abused for a decade? Are these genuinely evil things really a part of God’s plan? Are these things that a loving God would allow if God had the power to change yet for some reason higher than human reason does not intervene?

Tom Oord’s recent book, God Can’t, tackles these tough questions with an emphatic answer: Genuine evil happens to us and there is absolutely nothing God can do about it by himself. It’s not that God chooses to not intervene or has limited his power in some way; it’s that God is metaphysically incapable of physically intervening in the world to prevent these random acts of evil. It’s not God’s choice to refrain from acting, God is limited by his nature and essential characteristics. To use Tom’s language, God is the God of Uncontrollling Love. God loves us but that love is never demonstrated in coercive ways, either for good or ill. Tom’s not letting God off the hook for bad things, he’s simply saying God was never on the hook to begin with.

In other words, there are some things God simply can’t do, but don’t lose heart because the acknowledgment that “God Can’t” do some things opens a whole host of things God can, and does, do to work in creation, it just looks different than the Godly superman we have all learned to adore.

Foremost, if one has become an atheist or left the church because of inexplicable suffering or evil that was glossed/excused by their pastor or by those who tell us “everything happens for a reason,” the goodnews that Tom presents is that you can still believe in God and love despite your suffering. You can still believe in God because God is not the source of all your suffering. You don’t have to abandon belief or faith. In fact, God suffers with you in your suffering and wishes the evil that happened to you had never occurred.

Tom’s starting point theologically, is Wesleyan, and as such his assumptions about God do not begin with the traditional categories of omnipotence, omniscience or Thomistic Simplicity. Unlike many theologians, Tom’s presupposition about God could be best labeled omni-altruistic: God is at all times, and all places, acting in love. And this is how we know where God is acting: God is present where love is found and incarnated, where creation flourishes anywhere in the universe love is found. Further, as creatures we can know what love is and need not be mystified or chalk up to mystery trying to understand evil that happens to us as God’s means of loving us.

While this may sound radical, it is a radicality grounded in experience, reason, scripture, and yes, even tradition. This radical rethinking of traditional ideas of God is staged in the Introduction as Tom illustrates for us the tensions found between believing in God while simultaneously witnessing the horrific suffering of hundreds via the recent Las Vegas shooting tragedy in which 58 people were killed and 851 others injured. Tom frames the problem like this

“Many people think God had the power to prevent the Las Vegas shooting, its deaths, injuries, and resulting trauma. They think God could have warned officials, temporarily paralyzed the gunman, jammed the rifles, or redirected every bullet flying 400 yards. They assume God has the ability to do just about anything…After the shooting, some “explained” why God failed to stop the tragedy. “There’s a higher purpose in this,” they said. Others appealed to mystery: “We just can’t understand God’s ways”

This, of course, begs the obvious question: If God is loving, and if God stands against violence and evil, and God also has the power to stop it, why doesn’t God stop it? It is little wonder many have become atheists over these questions.

What is at stake is nothing more than the morality of God.

Tom divides his argument into 5 ideas. They are necessarily disclosed in chapters but what’s really happening is the argument that God Can’t is presented in 5 clear ideas, each building on the other, until the reader has a coherent view of the Tom’s picture.

Idea 1: God cannot Prevent Evil. Tom illustrates why God can’t, rather than won’t, prevent evil and demonstrates the advantages to understanding God as one not responsible for evil as opposed to being a co-conspirator with evil.

Idea 2: God does not cause our suffering for a higher purpose or reason; God suffers with us. God does not create our suffering and God wishes it had never occurred.

Idea 3: God is working to heal us. So what of divine intervention if God Can’t? Miracles are the result of the right conditions for healing and God is always working at even the smallest cellular level to heal us and the world, but God does not singlehandedly change our biology because God’s love is Uncontrolling. You need to read this chapter.

Idea 4: God squeezes good from bad. God does not cause bad things to happen in order to bring good things about, but God can squeeze some good out of a bad situation. Many stories illustrate this.

Idea 5: God needs our cooperation. If God were all powerful in physical ways, we human creatures would be afterthoughts, hamsters on a wheel simply living out a foreordained divine play. However, since God’s love is Uncontrolling, God needs us to use our bodies to help him work in the world. The apostle Paul famously says something similar when he calls the Church the “the body of Christ.” In other words, we matter.

Of course, this thesis requires some heavy theological/intellectual lifting. God Can’t is not a heavy academic piece. It is the culmination of 20 years of theoretical work that has now taken practical shape. God Can’t is written to be widely read and is practical in its approach to the problem of suffering and evil.  Therefore, Tom’s argument in this book will not please everyone because the theoretical space from which this argument is made is enclosed in the corpus of Tom’s work for the last 20 years.

From his earliest writings nearly 20 years ago, Tom has been working on the problem of evil because it too was the problem that for a short time turned him into an atheist. Thankfully, Tom continued in his theological journey and concluded that belief in God is more probable than not. This is how he describes it,

“I realized that if a loving God did not exist, I could not make sense of my deep intuitions about love. Without God as the ultimate love standard, I could not explain what love means and why I — or anyone else — ought to express it. These and related issues led me eventually to think it more plausible than not that God exists. But I did not and do not know this with certainty.” (198)

My first encounter with Tom’s work began in his essay “A Wesleyan Process Theodicy: Freedom, Embodiment, and The Almighty God” in the book he co-edited with Bryan Stone, Thy Name and Nature is Love: Wesleyan and Process Theologies in Dialogue. In this essay, we see early on that Tom was wrestling with the problem of suffering and evil, and beginning to re-conceptualize how God works in the world if one holds that a.) God is love and almighty yet b.) suffering and evil still occurs. This begs the questions: In what way is God Love and how is it expressed? How is God almighty if not in coercive power?

In that essay, Tom began to develop what has taken practical form in God Can’t but he had not quite come to his thesis of an uncontrolling love. At this point, he had set out the idea of essential free will theism in which creatures are essentially free (free in their essence) and God does not work in the world via coercive power, but via the bodies of others and through persuasion.

The academic theories behind these sentiments were the process theologies of David Ray Griffin and Charles Hartsthorne, the open theology of Clark Pinnock and the historical theology of John Wesley. Tom went on to express this same thesis in a book he edited for Nazarene Publishing House, Philosophy of Religion, in the essay “Divine Theodicy.” From here, the essays and books continued to take shape and be produced. Of key importance to his thesis in God Can’t is his more academic work, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific and Theological Engagement, in which he provides theoretical grounding for his larger thesis that God is a God of uncontrolling love, and therefore Can’t do some things. Of course, all of this work was brought together in his 2015 publication, The Uncontrolling Love of God. In addition, Tom has done exceptional work in the Wesleyan Theological Journal since the early 2000’s and his assorted essays here are must reads before one can engage his thesis in God Can’t with any modicum of credibility.

While there will be no shortage of critics looking to read the title of his recent release and discredit it for lack of theoretical justifications within its pages, they only do so as armchair theologians who have not engaged the entirety of Tom’s work. Their knee jerk attack will demonstrate their own amateur efforts.

Thus, what we have in God Can’t is not a knee jerk publication, a theological shock jock looking to be radical, but the practical import of years of theoretical work. Tom has produced here what all good academic work should eventually become: an honest attempt to make sense of the world around us and then offer that academic work to the every day person. Tom is not writing for the academic; he is writing, in his own words, for all of us:

“I wrote this book for victims of evil, survivors, and those who endure senseless suffering. I wrote it for the wounded and broken who have trouble believing in God, are confused, or have given up faith altogether. I’m writing to those who, like me, are damaged in body, mind, or soul.”

Upon release, this book deserves to be widely read, both for its clarity of presentation and for the ideas that could literally give someone back the God that bad theology has taken from them. It is a scary premise that maybe God Can’t, but it is also a premise, that if entertained seriously, may allow someone to believe in the God that never intended their suffering and has been weeping with them all along. I am certain there is no shortage of people who need to hear this goodnews.

Thinking Death, Suicide, Life

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Imaging myself climbing into the casket and being buried with it was the last thing I had ever conceived. But there it was, the casket, my lifeless father, and suddenly an intimate closeness with death. After all, my father had just experienced death, how hard could it be? How bad could it be? Is it easier to die than to live? What did it feel like? What was his final thought? Did it hurt? Where was he now? Have you ever felt so much pain that you can’t scream loud enough, wail long enough, or shed enough tears to give purpose and sense to the rage of sudden loss? I never knew sudden loss before but I now know I hate it. I hate what it is, what it does, and its unshakable results!

The canopy of the sky caved in and the earth swallowed me whole. Surely anything must be better than feeling as if the entire world had just imploded; the once sturdy structure of certainty interrupted by the true fragility of human existence. Sitting in a room while people come and gaze at the corpse of your father, paying respects but confirming hell, makes one question their existence. Nothing has made me want to throw my strength to the wind quite like death and death has literally stolen most of my strength.

All my striving, all my love, all my work, all my energy, will one day find itself in the same situation: lifeless, cold, alone, and buried.

God that’s a depressing thought but its also the human condition.

Three days earlier I could not even pick out the casket, and today, I can imagine getting in it myself and having loved ones stand 4 feet above me on the earth that covers me. When I go to the cemetery to visit my father I no longer simply pay respects, but I also speak to the ground near him, the ground that will one day hold my lifeless body, and I wonder what sort of earth this is that will only be moved when I move my last, staring at the space in which I will lie much longer than I have lived.

Speaking of death, I had always wondered how a person could commit suicide, how depressed, lost, lonely or mentally jaded one must be to perform the ultimate act. I have often thought to myself that I could never kill myself no matter how bad life got, yet life is full of seasons and seasons bring forth change in people that what was once unimaginable becomes imagined.

Many suicides are done in the dark days of melancholy or in moments of utter despair. As a society we have accepted that depression leads to suicide and many secular thinkers even argue for the virtue of self-annihilation (I am not begrudging anyone who has been tempted with suicide for a myriad of reasons, from bullying, to sexuality, to mental disease). I begrudge no suicidal for doing the deed, but I can’t help but believe some people, for whatever reason, have become comfortable with death and have thought through what killing themselves would mean.

History is full of melancholic or depressive suicides, but it is also full of suicides that happen by fully cognizant folks. Comfort with death doesn’t happen in a moment, but it happens. There are moments of lucidity wherein someone decided this act, this final act, was friendlier to their being than being a person could be any longer. Surely not every single suicide that happens is the act of malady, madness or despair (though surely one that decides to finally kill themselves is steeped in despair). There must be someone out there for which suicide was a logical alternative to living. It may not make sense to many, but it made sense to that person, at that moment.

When my father died I think I slowly saw behind the curtain of suicide, what makes it possible.

Suicide becomes imaginable when staying is more difficult than dying, when the idea of death becomes more comforting than the idea of living, and death has the allure of a comfort life refuses us. What had once been a distant association was now close and personal, inviting and strangely warm. If one can imagine their own dying, their own nullification and non-existence, then one is 1 step closer to the reality. All that is left is the act. People who Stay alive do so because they can imagine no other, but those that peer into the darkness of life can sometimes find in death a friend that will never leave; it will hold them forever. If we can imagine it we are that much closer to doing it.

Not that my father’s death tempted me with suicide, BUT it did make suicide imaginable and imagination is the first step to actualization. I had never imagined it as a possibility, not even remotely, but there is nothing that makes death seem friendlier than having someone you love so deeply enter its corridor and not return. There is nothing that makes death seem closer than one’s invitation into its foyer, peering around its house without entering any of the rooms…all of which are only a few feet (or heartbeats) away.

I had never imagined dying or what it must be like to die. I never had to. I had never met death in any significant way. I had lost grandparents, cousins, people I loved, but I had never had death impolitely intrude into my life, not asking permission, just shoving its way in the door and turning me into an instantaneous nihilist. Sometimes imagination happens without our approval…

And this, THIS, is the problem with death: it is itself. It ends. It forces a new reality onto us.

This has been the biggest challenge in grief: finding meaning after coming face to face with that which crushes all meaning, and eventually crushes all of us and our attempts at meaning. Death is so stark, so deep, so dark. It is so intrusive when it isn’t welcome that it has the power to place meaning in its hand and crumble it like a Ritz cracker: what constituted the whole becomes bits and pieces of something now unrecognizable.

It is just pure shock: that one moment you can love someone so deeply and the next moment they can be gone without a goodbye, not only leaving you behind, but everything they loved and enjoyed remains, remnants of their life. I stared at me, at the stuff he left behind, at my dead father.

It reminded me of what Jesus says in Luke 12, “You fool! This very night your soul will be required of you and now who will own what you have prepared?”

Nothing matters if all that matters quits mattering. In an instant, your loves and your hobbies become pointless distractions of our ultimate end: death. Work becomes something to do till you die. Eating becomes something you do to stay alive, the opposite of death, but its meaning is found in its juxtaposition.

Death becomes animative and omnipresent, a day not going by without considering your own demise. How tiring to constantly be aware that you will die, to think this thought tens of times through the day, and to hate that this thought is not only a thought but a future reality.

To live, then, is to contemplate death. To face it, be aware of it, live with it. One is not truly living if their life is one not comprehending death. To live absent the comprehension of death is to be caught up in frivolities and to be angered by the waitress that brings you a Coke, when you wanted Sprite! What foolish things upset us and portend to be our ultimate concern.

Much of life melts away at the face of death and certainly most of what people bitch about pale in comparison to the unimagined tragedy of the death of their spouse, their parent, their child, themselves. These are things that cannot be imagined; they can only happen. I pity the fool whose last act on earth was getting pissed off at a cashier, acting a fool and throwing their cheeseburger over the counter, only to storm out of the restaurant and be killed in a car accident.

Who wants to be that guy? How foolish!

Surely this has happened to someone and their final act on earth was bitching about the first world problems of no mayo, add mustard.

Thinking death makes you rethink everything else because everything else is now done in the context of when you will die…and honestly, that kinda sucks.

Imagine being aware, constantly, that every breath your take, every heartbeat you experience, brings you closer to your last. Imagine how omnipresent those feelings are and imagine the life you would live if you really believed this was the case.

Before I lived through death I too had participated in stupid conversations and complaints about life. Facebook rants, complaints about others, complaints about the weather, complaints of homework, complaints of work, complaints ad infinitum. Now, when I hear someone complain or bitch about something, I often think “seriously, does this person not know life is fleeting? We are complaining, essentially, about being alive…” I can no longer take much human dialogue seriously because too many humans do not consider the fact that they are alive seriously.

Sure, lets complain how hot it is, in the summer, in July.

Would you prefer the alternative of being dead and not feeling the heat?

Sure, lets complain about our spouse or our kids or our job.

Would you prefer the alternative of being dead and having none of these worries? Can you not be thankful that you are alive and able to experience life?!? As Camus says, there is no replacement for 20 years of life!

Sure, lets complain about Donald Trump or Socialists.

Would you rather be dead and have no concern of either? Do you want your final act in life to be a Facebook post, politically ranting, only to find your car wrapped around a tree? Was it worth the rage?

Can we not be thankful we are alive and find meaning in living rather than locating meaning in what we are against or dislike??

A question that often animates my actions now is “if this were the last act of my life would I act in this way?” or “if this were the last post I made on social media would I post this?” or “If these are the last words I spoke, last time I saw this person, would I say/be this way”

It is living toward death because whether we like it or not we are.

Death is a nearby attendant, one that shuffles its feet behind us as we stroll about through life oblivious to its caring arms waiting to catch us when we fall out of life. Yet the irony is that unless we can hear the shuffling of its feet and feel the breeze of its cloak brush up against our beings, we are doomed to be stuck in the eternal now and living like it is an eternal present… a condition that is much worse than death or suicide because it is a condition that could not ponder either because it is not even aware of its own life.

This is the magic of death: it can make everything you think matters cease to matter instantaneously. I cannot describe it. I cannot help you see it. This can only be experienced…but it is real.

There is at least one thing the resurrection stories of Jesus teach us: one cannot find life if one has not found their death.

Alterations of Death

The image of a blanket, woven with various patches, filled with stitching, and mended with quilting, is not one uncommon when we describe our human experience. Often have writers invoked the image of a patchwork quilt to describe the many pieces that constitute our lives.

Many of us have quilts made by mothers, or grandmothers, to which our mind immediately races when this image is invoked. We may even go to our closet, pull out those quilts, and gently pass our hands across the patches, the stitches, and the signature where our loved one’s hands had once been. Even as they made this quilt, and this quilt is a thing itself, it is not hard to imagine that that quilt can be an analogy for our lives: we are all nothing more, or less, than pieces of a whole that has been placed together by the relationships in our lives.

We are a whole quilt, but we are not whole without the many parts that make us who we are.

Any quilt, however, no matter how well made or how many times stitched, will eventually become worn if it is used. Quilts can remain pristine if we keep them in a closet and never use them, but the quilts that are used will eventually need to be repaired; they will need to be altered.

But what happens when our quilt is altered without being worn out, when something happens that rips the quilt into 2 pieces or pulls the stitching out and destroys two patches? What happens when the quilt cannot be turned back into what it once was and it has now become something that cannot be repaired? It just can’t. It has become something else.

This is what death does. Death alters the quilt and it alters it to such a degree that this quilt cannot be fixed. It turns the story of your life into another story even as it is the extension of the same story.

Some will come by and say that “the quilt gets easier to use” and that “missing piece will one day be a spot for a new piece” but all of that is crap. The quilt doesn’t get easier to use with time and it never becomes what it once was. Even if you try to repair it it can never get back to its originary state. It can be functional but even in that function it’s destruction is clear.

But why? Why can’t we repair the quilt and move on?

Because using the quilt forces one to continue looking at what it isn’t. If the quilt is in fact your life then being alive is a reminder of the part of the story that has taken an unexpected, and unnatural, turn for something that is not part of this quilt you’ve been unintentionally weaving.

Death alters our quilt; it alters us. The only way it doesn’t is if a.) that part of your quilt didn’t mean much and hence finding a new piece to fit into the torn spot isn’t too difficult or b.) we sedate ourselves from our own materiality with the allure of not death (I”ll fly away O Glory). Response “A” means that that part of your story was not consequential and response “B” means that perhaps we have not rested with death long enough to realize what it is: Death…the cessation of that which makes us alive.

It is hard to describe how death alters a person or changes our quilts beyond repair. All deaths are not equal.

I am not special. Many people have had death visit them through their family. In my immediate family, I have lost a cousin at 19, all of my grandparents have died within the last decade (I lost my first grandmother exactly 10 years ago this week), and I have experienced the untimely and sudden loss of my 65-year-old father. Going through the death of my cousin, and grandparents, did not prepare me for losing my dad; not even close.

All deaths are not equal but that does not mean we do not love all those that die. We can love them and say goodbye to them. We can see their contributions to our quilt and come to a resolution that this part of the quilt is finished but it is not destroyed. Our quilts can stay intact. But sometimes death visits in such a way that your life literally changes after it happens. Sometimes the quilt is mangled beyond repair.

We have all been to funerals, paid our respects, left, and then went about our daily lives as if we had never attended the funeral. We have all been to funerals of grandparents we mourned, yet we understood that 89 years of age is an honest age and it is part of the human condition to live, and die, in time. We hate it but accepting it is not an impossibility. We go to the church for the funeral, have dinner, good conversation, and then go to our homes…business as usual.

This doesn’t mean we are bad people; it just means that there is a season for everything and when things happen in season it is easier to accept.

When it snows in January we are fine; it’s the snowstorm in July that shakes us up.

THEN, there is that death that after it happens your life literally changes. It is not the same afterward. You cannot go back to business as usual. It alters you, sometimes physically. It destroys the quilt and there is nothing that can fix that loss. That patch is not made anywhere else and even “moving on” or “recovering” or “getting better with time” does not make the quilt what it was. It’s just irreparable.

People who have never had a loss in what I call “out of time” have no idea what I’m talking about. I have experienced “in time” and “out of time” loss and the latter is torture in its immediacy. There is something especially tragic about premature, sudden, untimely death. In this kind of death, you have the benefit of not seeing your loved one suffer, but you carry the eternal burden of no final words, no more moments, no more embraces of love. As quickly as you blink that person is gone…without warning. Depending on how interconnected your life was will determine on how this moment presents itself to you.

The quilt changes; its not the same and taking advice from people who have never had their quilt destroyed beyond repair…or living in a culture that just replaces quilts…leaves no room for the real-life PTSD that can follow death.

Death, the kind of death you feel in your bones, alters you. The quilt is never the same and it is hard to describe if you’ve never lived through the kind of death that is only beginning once you put your loved one in the ground.

I said at my father’s funeral that his death would change history. Probably not world history, but my history, my family’s history. Like Back to the Future an alternative 2017 was created when my dad died, and we have been on that alternative timeline ever since. Unlike Back to the Future, I am unable to go back to that time in history and make it right.

When I consider the alternative history, it is shocking how much has changed even though so much has stayed the same. My quilt is jacked up but places I take it are still familiar.

What alterations have happened?

For starters, and sadly, it has now been long enough for my little girl to begin forgetting her grandad. My daughter is 2 and when my dad passed those 2 were just beginning to develop a relationship. Her personality was coming out and my dad always loved the babies. He loved how the babies would be captivated with him and reciprocate his childish demeanor. First it was my 3 boys, then my sister’s girls, and my little girl was next to be the apple of his eye. But now…he is a faded memory. For a few months after she would mention that “grandad was sleeping” because that is how I described him at the funeral home.

But now? She’ll see him in a picture and ask who he is. He died just 2 weeks after her 2nd birthday. Their relationship has been altered.

My boys were 11 and 9 when my dad died. They did a lot with him when they were younger. My dad loved his boys; they were, after all, the first grandkids and twins to boot. As they got older my dad would wrestle with them, take them four-wheeling, and toss them around in the pool. He would bring them home pizza, share his A&W Root Beer with them, and teach them Karate. Two of my oldest boys have autism so they did not always reciprocate affection to my dad as he would have liked but that’s not because they didn’t love him; it’s because they have autism and relate to people around them differently than the norm. My dad struggled to understand that as my boys got older.

Now? They have no grandparent to do that with and cannot learn to develop the kind of relationship with an active grandfather that would have been so pivotal for them.

In business, changes have been drastic. After getting a crash course in self-discovery of all the things my dad never showed me, I became chief executive officer. Don’t let the title fool you; it really means I just get to do more work. My sister and I split up the office work, but I believe I may have taken any stress on myself that my dad used to carry. My work weeks went from a standard 45 hours to 60. My focus went from strictly operations to wearing all the hats one needs when running a small business. I now find myself in the sort of job that will not get done even if I work 16 hours a day 7 days a week. When you own your own business there is always something to do and you bring work home with you every day. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t have to think about when he was here. Now…I get to be concerned with all of it.

As the CEO and CFO of our company, my dad was the gatekeeper. All of the family, and even employees, could come to him in confidence with any item. Now that privacy was over. What was once hidden became transparent as I know needed to have that knowledge.

Familially, my mother, who had been married to a man that owned his own business, suddenly had to rethink her relationship to myself, my sister, the business and what it means to be a widow at only 58. She is still struggling with that transition and experts say widows can take up to 5 years to adjust to the loss of a spouse. My dad was kind of the intermediary between all of us in the family and since his death we have had to renegotiate how we relate to one another, and in many instances, discovering we do not know one another as well as we thought.

Academically I have had to put on the brakes. I had just begun my 2nd year of a Doctor Of Ministry program and was doing some intriguing research when my dad passed. Suddenly, I had 0 motivation to write and no inspiration to do so. I found myself questioning the very academic enterprise itself. If life could be snuffed out without warning, then what am I doing wasting my life writing papers no one will read and reading books that I can discuss with maybe 5 people? When I am dead I doubt anyone will recall the articles I’ve written or the books I helped edit. Most likely some poor student will come across them incidentally but for the rest of the world my meager academic contributions will be swallowed by the oblivion of academic prose.

Death caused me to question the value of everything. Those that know me know academics was a big part of my life. I love to learn, write, do research, teach. I was not a smart kid in High School but in the liberal arts I had found my passion. Suddenly my dad’s death made me question my motivations and how I spent my time. What once had supreme value became almost meaningless. I had to take an “incomplete” in the class I was taking at the time of my dad’s death and it took my 9 months to write the last two papers I needed to finish the course. It seemed like a monumental task that beforehand would have been chump change for me.

Recently I received emails about registration for classes and I had to be honest with my advisor that I am still not in a place where I can meet my own expectations. I believe I can do good work and I want to finish. My thesis project is novel and would be a fine contribution, but now I have business responsibilities that take precedent over my passion for learning and working in the faith. If my dad had not died, I would be starting year 3 of my Doctor of Ministry and probably have a few chapters of my thesis written. I would be 1 year from graduation. Instead, I have completed 1 year with nothing but academic ambiguity lying in front of me.

Personally, one of my main hobbies was powerlifting. The night before my dad passed I was in the gym prepping for a power meet in the late spring. I was weighing 180lbs at 5’7 and deadlifting 450lbs, doing sets of 315 for 10-15. My lifts were strong. I would spend about 4/5 days in the gym, getting workouts in when I could depending on work. My goal for my meet was a 400lb squat, 500lb deadlift and 330 on bench. Even if I had to hit the gym from 11pm-after midnight I would get it in.

Since my dad has passed, I am lighter than I have been in a decade. I stopped eating nearly half as much and found minimal time for the gym with my added responsibilities and lack of mental focus for heavy weights. I weigh 150lbs and have lost most of my strength gains. I have went from benching 315 lbs to having a max of 230. Now I can’t pick up 400 lbs and I used to be able to just bend down and pull that for 5 reps like it was nothing. Spending hours in the gym is no longer appealing to me. The killer mental focus I used to have for weight training is gone and I am unsure if it will ever come back.

Basically, none of my clothes fit. I went from needing XL T Shirts to now being able to wear Medium shirts I haven’t worn since 2010.

Lastly, his death altered my view of things. Things I used to enjoy buying, like vintage baseball cards, have lost appeal. The problem is that when he died all his stuff stayed here. Stuff that he loved, like his car and some of his coin collection, just sits to be eaten by moth and rust. We all know we can’t take it with us but when someone leaves suddenly, and the things they loved are left behind just taking up room, we realize that so much of what we “enjoy,” or pursue, is worthless in the end.

In addition, things usually only mean something if you can share them with others. It’s no fun to buy a car, a new ring, or even an Al Kaline rookie card if you have no one to show and share it with. Our relationships make things matter but in the end the thing is nothing more than a token that deepens the relationship.

There used to a bumper sticker that read “he who dies with the most toys still dies.” Its cliché and when I read it back in the day it seemed obvious…but when I really learned that lesson it changed how I think of things and how I spend my money. Stuff is just stuff; it is meaningless. So why do I work, if not for things? If not to have more money to buy more stuff?

Now I work for my family and for those that work in my company. I don’t work to have things; I work to make my company the best it can be to provide for my family and be the best it can be for my employees. A job well done means more to me than any money I can make from the job because that is how I will be remembered when I die.

No one will care what I had in my house, but they will remember how I treated others and handled my business. My family will remember how I put them first.

Death that you feel alters you. You don’t have to seek it out. You won’t have to wonder if this death is an altering death. You will live it and it will change you. It won’t leave you alone; you won’t get over it; you’ll basically learn to live with it even though you’ll suck at living with it most days.

The trouble with deep death is that it alters the quilt we’ve been working on and not time, a trip to Hobby Lobby, or looking forward to the final eschaton will make that better. The quilt is just jacked up and that’s kind of not fair because the ones that die don’t have to deal with death like us.

This is where death gets tricky. Only the living experience death. The moment of death is felt by the dying but only those left behind get to live through death. Those that die are relieved of that burden. The only way to live past death and avoid it is to die ourselves. Ain’t that some crap?

Death is full of irony, dialectic if you will, in that death is the only release from death; it’s the only way to save the quilt. For us unlucky ones that get the quilt destroyed without proper wear and tear we are just stuck with the reality that death alters us, the quilt will never be or feel the same, and the journey toward remaking that quilt is one that will most likely end only in the death of ourselves.

 

Considering Books

Several weeks ago, in passing, I read an on-line post wherein a friend of mine mentioned they had gotten rid of their theological library. This person, at one time an active teacher and writer in the field, had for assorted reasons, moved on. I imagine, he, like myself, would wander into the room where books lay dormant on shelves and think to himself, “what am I ever going to do with all these books? At one time they mattered, but now, they sit idle, seemingly mocking me with each passing glance.”

Of course, I cannot speak for him; I can only speak for myself. I confess I have projected a little here, but his post began my pondering of the same question, “Why do I have this library? What purpose does it serve? If I am not chiefly making money through its use, then why allow it to take up room in my house?”

My library and I have a love-hate relationship. My love affair with books began in college, when I was 18. Prior to my freshman year, I had been a genuine product of public education and had managed to read less than 5 books, in their entirety, by the time I entered the university. To say that the University was a baptism by fire…was an understatement. I had literally gone from a place where I could get by without reading, to a place in which not reading would prove disastrous (and not to mention lead to a profound waste of money).

I recall a class I took in the Spring of 2000, titled “Biblical Exegesis.” Prior to this class I had read only 2 novels cover to cover and one of them I had read in the 6th grade. My record with books and reading was dismal. I came from a home that didn’t discourage reading, but certainly didn’t encourage it. My parents had no book shelves or books, the Bible withstanding. I say that not to disparage my home, but to say that books were foreign objects to my parents who were concerned with the practicalities of everyday life.

As a fledging theology student, I stridently walked into this class desiring to learn but not yet exposed to the manner of learning. The course had its usual introductory fare: greetings, syllabus review, brief lecture and assignments for the dearly departing (or so I felt). Our first assignment was to read Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise, in its entirety, and write a 6-8 page response to the book…ALL IN 1 WEEK! I had only read 1 book completely through in the last 6 years and now, in less than 7 days, I had to read an entire adult novel AND write a 2000-word response.

Baptism by fire.

At the time, I did not appreciate the method, but looking back, I am thankful for the results because this class is where I learned to love books. The class taught me to read, taught me to engage, taught me to passionately strive with texts, both biblical and secular. In sum, it was the class where I began to learn to think and it started with this book, placed into my hands, by one of my dearest teachers who has subsequently become one of my dearest friends in the many years since Spring 2000.

From Biblical Exegesis came many more classes and many more books. At first, my library grew as anyone else’s: composed of texts used in classes, proverbial Deuteronomic stones set on my shelves to remind me of the waters we had crossed together. Slowly a strange thing began to transpire, I began to buy books out of will, out of a desire to learn, to engage, to have my worldview expanded with information and imagination. I was no longer the person that bought “what I had to for class,” as I became the person that bought books for the love of reading, the love of learning.

My library grew to mainly include books on theology, philosophy and biblical studies. When I entered seminary, my library began to shift and I began acquiring texts on economics, linguistics, psychology and sexuality…as well as continuing to purchase texts in the prior areas. As I matured, I began to appreciate the role of fiction and history, and so my library grew to include these sorts of texts. Now, my library includes a healthy array of books across all these categories, and while it is not as prolific as many who have taught me, my humble library can boast a thousand or so texts, maybe more.

This library, however, has not become what I thought it would when its collection began. It has not been utilized as I thought it would. I have 2 degrees: a BA in Religion and an MDiv with a focus on academic research. I am not a fulltime pastor (though I am ordained) and I am not a full-time teacher (though I am published in a few places and enrolled in a DMin program). I do not use my library to wield my trade, at least the trade that supports my family. For many years I have balanced church freelance work with secular part time work. The goal was to eventually be one who trades in intellectual property and shapes minds or one who stands in a pulpit and shapes lives…yet I do not do either of these in the way that is conventionally accepted. My library was built with this intention, yet this library is not used in this way.

As my friend rid himself of his theological library, I too have thought of ridding myself of mine. I get it; I understand what it is to stare at something that seems to be holding you back even while at one time it was symbolic of that which propelled you forward.

As life has taken me to this place, I have struggled with what to do with these books that have at various time acted as an albatross slung about my neck. My books have challenged me, pressed me and comforted me. Equally, however, they have made me angry, their very presence a reminder that I am not “where I should be.” They have been symbolic of an occupation not fulfilled or of a passion unrealized.

Since 2015 I have taken liberty to rid myself of some books. In fits of frustration I have decided that some of these books are of no “use” to me so I have expunged them. Truthfully, this was an act of despair and simultaneously an act of logistics: I needed more space and some of these books were simply taking up space. While the process of ridding myself of books may have been instigated through depression, the result has been a little more space (that I have probably already filled with more books).

Those who know me well can most likely not divorce me from books, or at least not divorce me from the learning process associated with books. Books, and the wise people who placed them in my hands, turned the lazy teenager who had never read anything into a man that has matured because of what he has encountered in the thoughts and words of others. Books have been that which lay battle to the atrophy of mind that our culture so easily thrusts upon us.

Considering books, I often consider my own. I wonder why I keep so many. I wonder what purpose they serve.

My day is filled with running a business, communicating with clients and employees, paying bills and organizing marketing. My day is filled with being a PR and HR representative, engaging our community, helping organize our office and offering supervisory support to our several locations that often involves driving 300 miles round trip multiple times a week. I am busy with the practicality of a secular job and do not have time for the trivialities of theories published in pages that most of the world has already forgotten or the conjecture of a theologian who apparently has nothing better to do with their time than ponder what God knew and when did God know it. Life doesn’t afford me the luxury of determining whether God is so powerful as to even be able to create a rock that even God could not pick up.

So, I consider books and I wonder why I keep so many. I wonder their role and their use. I do use some of my books but there are others that will rarely be used again. In this regard I imagine my library is not so much unlike the library of others: landmarks of studies done, concerns resolved, classes developed.

Why, if these texts are not a means to an economic end, do I keep them around? Why can I not, like my friend, rid myself of them?

The answer is simple: their presence keeps me humble, but it also keeps me hungry.

It keeps me humble because they are a constant reminder of how small I am, how finite my intellect is, and how unrealistic it is to think I can know everything of anything. I am reminded of how provisional most of my knowledge truly is as my ideas and opinions could never begin to usurp the sheer mountain of text that a library represents. Whenever I bemoan my inability to read all I want or know all I desire, my library represents my inability to do so and it humbles me, enabling me to give thanks for what I am able to do, be, and know, even while I recognize there is a world of knowledge that will always lay beyond my grasp.

It keeps me hungry because even as I am confronted with my liminality I am also driven to overcome it. Books are an endless quest that contain endless worlds that are only a page away. Books are the key to knowledge, knowledge to power, power to influence, and influence to persuasion. If I am to be a person of persuasion that can influence the world, and others, for good then that process begins with reading and being informed; it begins with speech and speech is rehearsed in texts. Books keep me hungry because their presence keeps me from settling even when settling is exactly what I want to do.

If I live I am a person who is being shaped, who is hopefully growing, maturing, and living into the calling of my life…and books remind me that life is not done with me even though at times I feel down with it.

Books have kept me mentally spry, witty, well informed, imaginative, engaged, and not to mention drastically improving my vocabulary through these last 18 years.  Were it not for books, my writing would be akin to the musings of a dim-witted fool (though I do not object that could still be the case). Books are not only interesting but the most interesting people in my life are those who have also wrapped themselves in a world of books (the Good Book as well).

But this is not the whole. Books do keep me humble and they do make me hungry, but there is more: I want my children to see a house full of books.

In an age of glowing screens, I want my children to see their father read; I want them to come by and ask me questions about a book I have been pouring over or walk past a shelf and wonder what “theology” is or who “Slavoj Zizek” was. As they grow up and begin to ask big questions about history, science, faith, love, and the ultimate meaning of it all, I want them to have resources to engage and explore. I want my house to be a house of inquiry. Though I may never pick up some of these books for study again, their presence marks a place I once traveled and it offers a path by which anyone who lives under my roof can follow when they begin to wrestle with the sorts of questions that keeps us humans up at night…and that wake us up in the morning.

Thus, I cannot act as my friend, and rid myself of these things. I must keep them here and there, as reminders of a life I have lived, and of a life that continues to call me even though, at times, I’d rather not listen.

Considering books…I often consider reducing them to capitalist instruments, set to be burned if they do not contribute to my bank account. Then, however, I reconsider, and I wonder where my life would be and how weak my mind would have become, if I had not had such tragically inspiring codices in my house all these years.

The Ground Before Me

Here I stand, at the foot of my Grave
Staring at the Ground before Me
Sun drenched grass, Heaven stretched skies
Staring on the Ground before Me

All roads lead here, no matter how far
Staring at the Ground before Me
My eyes grow dim, my heart grows faint
Staring at the Ground before Me

Haunted by this hill, a vault for my mind
Staring at the Ground Before Me
My feet may leave, but my heart remains
Staring at the Ground Before Me

Peering over my world, a world unrecognizable
Staring at the Ground Before Me
All I love and All I have wanted
Staring on the Ground before Me

The Pages of life all lead to this place
Staring at the Ground before me
Before me it was and after me it is
Staring on the Ground before me

What is calling, purpose, infinity of soul?
Staring at the Ground before me
All humans alone as we peer down this hole
Staring at the Ground before Me

Unwelcome friend is Death
Staring at the Ground before me
I hate you for bringing me here
Staring at the Ground before me

What torment, what humility, what nagging nihilistic embrace!
Staring at the Ground Before Me
I want more, more is less
Standing on the Ground Before Me

My hands pressed down, against this earth
Staring at the Ground Before Me
From this I come, to this I’ll go
Staring at the Ground before Me

Quaking Mind, Tremoring Resolve
Staring at the Ground Before Me
Beckoning to me, Siren of the Soil
Staring at the Ground Before Me

Here I stand, at the foot of my grave
Staring at the Ground before Me
O How I wish I had never, found this place
This Ground that is ever Before Me

 

 

 

Leaning Into Death: An Alternative Reading of Acts 2.42-47

buddha death

Preaching from Acts 2 this Eastertide, it dawned on me this familiar passage was saying something much simpler, yet more profound, than providing fodder for theological arguments between Pentecostals and, well, every other Christian.

The early portion of this chapter (tongues of fire, upper room, etc.), gets most of the attention in the chapter, and rightly so.  It’s bizarre, unusual, and produces a proclamation that had never happened before.

In Chapter 1, Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples go to Jerusalem (to the Upper Room) to wait, for something unaware.  Chapter 2 continues the action answering the proverbial, “so what now?  If Jesus isn’t here, what happens and where are we going?”  The tongues of fire episode is the first part of the answer.

But the tongues of fire is the easiest part of the answer.

I mean, who doesn’t like a religious experience?  Plenty of people thrive on experience, feelings, euphoric highs that charge our life.  We have all been witness to the power of religious experience, perhaps even experiencing something religious ourselves.  The two fastest growing segments of Christianity in the world are the two that offer an experience, a doing, with God: Pentecostalism and Catholicism.

Ok, so you’re not religious and don’t like that analogy?  Do you like sex, the experience of sex?  Or is it better to think and talk about sex as opposed to having sex?

Do you enjoy the experience of cheering for your favorite sports team, cheering for your child, experiencing joy?  If you’d rather go to Disney World than talk about it, you prefer experience because participating in something powerful makes you feel.

Thus, we understand how powerful, and preferable, great experiences are.  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that we humans LOVE to experience FEELINGS.

It is little wonder Acts 2 and an experience of the Holy Spirit gains the traction it does.  Its powerful, it’s refreshing, it’s renewing.

Yet, the early portion of Acts 2 is not the end game.  The end game begins when the experience of the first part of this chapter takes a form of life, a form of life in Acts 2.42-47 that is a daunting reminder/request.

Acts 2.42-47 is a troublesome text that offers a vignette of life in the early church while simultaneously making the rest of us nervous at the consequences.  It reads:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

There’s just something about the implication that we should fellowship, commit ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, pray, break bread and praise God that seems like too much work.  And lest we get too comfortable, let’s not forget this idea of “holding all things in common and selling our possessions” in order to provide for those who have need that makes us spiritually wriggle and physically convulse.

While this list seems odd to us, it is not uncommon for Luke to give us these summary statements about life in the early church, brief portraitures of how they organized their communal living.  He does so in several places throughout Acts, such as chapters 4, 6 and 9.

In so doing, Luke is not only telling us how the early church lived, but he is gently nudging us to go and do likewise.

The trouble with these summaries, however, is that they are often lifted out of the chapters in which they occur.  These summaries, like Paul’s lists of “dos and don’ts” that keep people out of heaven, are summarily read and rehearsed with little regard to the stories preceding and following them.

While debates about religious experience and the political ideology of Acts 2 are intriguing, I have a different question: Why does this summary occur here, in this part of the Acts 2?  What larger narrative is at work behind this summary?  And why does the Lectionary ask us to read this text at this point in the Easter Season?

The problem with reading Acts chapter 2 is that it is read as two separate texts.  We have a 2.0 and a 2.1 version: a Pentecostal experience and a purview into life in the early church.  We preach an experience OR we preach a political obligation.  Rarely do we seek the coherence of this chapter.

Simply put, Acts 2.42-47 is impossible apart from Pentecost.  This is a way of life that cannot be lived apart from the Spirit.  The episodes of this chapter are episodes but they must remain a singular chapter, parts of a larger whole.  But let’s not stop there.

Acts 2.42-47 cannot happen apart from the Resurrection in Luke!  The Resurrection of Jesus in Luke, the Ascension of Jesus in Acts 1, and the Giving of the Spirit in Acts 2 are three stages of a singular event in which Jesus is glorified and given back to creation.

If Christ be not raised, then living in the kind of community discussed in Acts 2 is laughable.  If Christ be not ascended, then there is no giving of his presence to the Church.  If there is no giving of the Spirit, there are no tongues of fire, no empowered proclamation, and no Church.

Therefore Acts 2 is part of our Easter readings.  At first blush, one would surmise we should read Acts 2 during the season of Pentecost, but if we understand this larger movement we see that Acts 2 is not describing a Pentecostal community; it is describing an Easter community empowered through Pentecost.

It is because Jesus is raised, and the end of time marked by the outpouring of the Spirit, that those who believe on Jesus are compelled to live a life in which they sell their things, hold all things in common, break bread together, worship, and commit themselves to the apostles teaching.

Easter has empowered this early group of believers to not hold so tightly to life and empowered them to grasp more tightly to one another.

In a world without Easter, we cling to our life.  In a world with Easter, we grasp our death, and through death find life.

The early church knew how to grasp their death.  They understood it to such a degree that they lived their life toward death, leaning into it.  They leaned into to such a degree that they held loosely to all that was theirs and committed themselves to one another, anticipating that the end that had started in the Resurrection of Jesus, and been confirmed in the giving of the Holy Spirit, would overtake them all soon.

The early church took Joel 2.28 seriously,

“After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions.”

Here is the kicker: only people who are convinced that in Jesus’ Resurrection the end has begun can live according to Acts 2.42-47.  Only people who have received tongues of fire to proclaim the ridiculous message that Jesus is raised and that we can share in his resurrection can live as Acts suggests.

Moving one step further, people who believe this, and have experienced the outpouring of the Spirit, can do no other than live as Acts 2 suggests because they understand they are living toward death, living toward the end that is God.  People who know the end is near have no time to be consumed with grasping to a life they will lose so they lose the life they have.  The Apostle Paul insinuated something similar when he proclaims, “I am crucified with Christ.”

In the debate between paradox or dialectic, in this instance, we side with paradox.

One may believe this end will come in the clouds with Christ, or believe it comes at the time of our own death, either way, we must lean in toward the end.  This is what the early church does and why Acts 2.42-47 is odd; it’s a way of life that doesn’t grasp life.

I call this a hermeneutic of loss, a hermeneutic grounded in the death of Jesus and the loss of the world.

As such, Acts 2.42-47 really functions as more of a reminder of what matters than a dictum to be followed.  The texts job isn’t to exacerbate our failings, but to remind us that this is how people live who live toward the end: People who believe the end is now in the Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Holy Spirit of Christ.  When we forget life is found in death, we live life for life-sake and when death comes we wish we’d lived toward death, because we will regret living as if the end wouldn’t happen.

But this reading shouldn’t come a surprise.

I have never known a hermeneutic of loss, or read scripture as texts toward death, until I lost my own father nearly 12 weeks ago.  After suddenly losing him, scripture has just as suddenly become a new land.  I see in it things hidden before; I feel in it things I never knew to feel.  Eerily, parts scripture make more sense now because it too was born out of a series of traumas that led to life in/through loss.

After my father’s death, all I wanted to do was do these things in Acts 2 with him.  I wanted to sit in his Sunday School class one more time, hearing the apostles teaching.  I wanted to eat with him again, break bread.  I wanted to fellowship more, visit his house after work.  I wanted to pray for him, with him, share in the simple pleasure of hearing him pray one more time before dinner.  I wanted to be thankful more, enjoy life more, not let the trivial things of life irritate me when I was around him.

When he died, he left behind all the things he loved and enjoyed.  His family, his hobbies, his business: it is all still here.  Yet, my father lived as one who never held too tightly to these things.  He left them behind, he knew he would, so he spent his days doing as much of Acts 2 as he could.  If you knew him, you lived Acts 2 with him as well.

Acts 2 reminds us that at the end of our days, either at the appearance of Christ in the Clouds, or in the face of death when it comes for us, we will not regret anything except that we had lived more like the picture given to us in Acts 2.42-47.

My suggestion?

Discover the resurrection of Jesus.  Discover death.  Lean into it.  Find life.  Find Freedom.

My Final Gift to my Father: This Burden

 

IMG_0023

My Dad at our home on 2/11/2017 for my daughters 2nd Birthday Party, Minnie Mouse themed.  16 days before he passed

 

Unsuspecting subjects of the fates is what we become.  Persons wandering the land only to be shackled by a yoke fashioned in the randomness of life.  Living life, free, free of this burden, the world a place of solace and comfort, then suddenly, that world dies.  There is no more freedom, not from sin, not from death, not from your thoughts, not from this burden.

When I was younger, naïve people in church who meant well would often implore us to ask God to burden us with something: those lost to Christ, those children dying of hunger, that ministry God needed you to do.  Lord, give us a burden for you.

What poppycock.  As if a burden sought through voluntary prayer can become something other than voluntary.  As if a burden we choose to receive can change our inner core.  This sort of “burden” was an act of piety to get us to feel something, move, and do something.  It was a faith seeking a burden in order to make that said faith relevant.  Without the burden, the faith seemed empty, not to mention selfish.

Yet, the burden to seek our faith in the first place was not something sought so flippantly, nor voluntarily.

Something about God’s prevenient grace questing after us, unrelentingly, seems to ring more of a bell than a faith so easily chosen.

The most precious things in life are not chosen by us; instead, they enter without our choice demanding our attention, until we can choose no other.

This is what a burden is.  It is not something we choose; it is something hoisted upon us.  It is that which we cannot choose to discard.  It stays with us.  It doesn’t leave even after we ask it to do so.

It is a tortuous refining fire that makes us suffer with it.

It is a real burden.  Those are not simply prayed for, nor are they prayed away.

On 2/27/2017 this year I was given a burden.  It is one that showed up uninvited.

On this day, my father, a 65-year-old man in good health, collapsed, suffering cardiac arrest.  No warning. No signs.  No medical history.  And, of course, no goodbye.  As we stood by his bedside where his dead body lay, saying goodbye to him after the ER had done everything they could, we hugged his warm body until it turned cold.

The burden found me then though I didn’t realize it.  And God, I wish it hadn’t.

What is this burden?  What is it that I now carry with me, the burden I owe to the death of my father?

My father died young, in good health, and he died suddenly.  As we would all wish our loved ones to die when they must, even as we wish death for ourselves someday, my father died that way.  Fast, quick, and painless, with dignity.

He did not have any pain.  He did not suffer.  He never grew old.  He never grew sick.  He never experienced the deterioration of his body that would make his loved ones prefer death for him over life.  My father did not experience dementia or Alzheimer’s and he did not have to fight cancer.

He did not become the waste of a human person that so many of us will become, spirits trapped in flesh that steal our humanity from us.

My dad didn’t have to do that.  He had a good death.  A clean death.  A painless quick death that he most likely didn’t know had happened.  He died as we all hope to die.

Yet, his good death gives me a great burden.

For my father to die as he did, I will necessarily carry the pain of sudden loss, of regrets, of the goodbye never spoken.  Here one minute, gone the next, he was raptured from our life.

I will not have the closure experienced by people who get to say their “I love you’s” and “thank you’s” and “I am sorry’s” before their loved one’s pass.  I did not get the final hug, kiss, or hands held tightly that I would have wanted.

In order for me to have had closure, he would have needed to grow old, grow sick, give me time to expect his death, say our final words, and then say goodbye when the season of goodbye had arrived.

In other words, for me to feel good about his death he would have had to have felt pain, loss, and the realization of his own pending death.  He would have had to experience his own dehumanization for me to experience grief without so many rough edges.  He would have had to suffer greatly so that I could suffer less.  My father would have had to experience what I would never want my father to experience.

My peace would be his hell and then he would die.

Yet, this is not how it happened.  The irony is that my father gave me what he would never want to have given me in order for him to die as I would have wanted him to die.

In the end, the burden that I must suffer his death when he was young, and without a goodbye, is the final gift I can give my father even as I’d rather not give it.  It is the burden I have to give him because he gave me the death I didn’t want to experience even as it was the death I would have wished for him.

This is the trade-off.  This is the gift I can give to my father.  I must carry the burden of his sudden loss so that his death could be the kind of death I would want him to have if he had to have it.

I hate this burden.  I hate that I must carry it.  I hate the pain and shock that accompanies it.  I did not pray for it and I certainly didn’t need God to give it to me.  Yet, it found and forced itself upon me.

I will hate it until I meet my own death.  I hate that he left too soon.  I hate everything about it.

Yet, 8 weeks from my father’s passing I find I love this burden because it is the last gift I can give my father in order for him to die the death I would have hoped for him all along.

For him, no matter how heavy gets, I will carry it through tear stained pain and with a heart of gratitude for the man I am proud to call my father.  I will carry this burden because my dad deserves nothing less.

 

Death asks Questions. Ecclesiastes Answers.

ecclesiastes whats the point

Sudden, premature, Death is the great equalizer.   Both for those who die and those they leave behind.

For those who die, suddenly, everything they were, or weren’t, did, or didn’t do, is finished.  Their dreams, their opinions, their loves, their hates, their things and their family, all stay behind.  The prince and the pauper meet the same fate.  None is greater than the other and the earth swallows both. 

For those who live, suddenly, everything that meant something now means less.  The world stops.  Priorities change.  Things that didn’t mean so much, like small conversations, hugs, “I appreciate yous” or the game of golf you skipped for work…now take precedent over work, money, or any problem you thought mattered before your loved one passed away. 

Death makes us all equal and it equalizes all things.  It crudely displays the valueless nature of our system of values and the value of things we once took for granted.

Here, at the arrival of my father’s death, two main questions began to emerge. 

First, how can something this unjust happen to someone who didn’t deserve this fate now, given all the work he still had to do?  How can I process such an unjust death?  It simply isn’t just and there are no theological jumping jacks that can make it so. 

My dad had no vices, relatively healthy, in good shape, and no medical history of cardiac issues.  The very thing we never thought would kill him did, while people who abuse their bodies, cannot move due to obesity, and are walking diabetic laboratories get more time on earth. 

My father’s death is a miscarriage of cosmic justice.

Some people say it’s because God has timing that we can’t understand.  I heard this from many folks during the weeks following his death.

Me?  I call that stupid.  If it sounds stupid when you say it, it probably is. 

God had nothing to do with my dad dying.  He was human and had an unfortunate internal chemistry that led to a tragic event.  These other people that are alive and shouldn’t be?  These walking diabetic laboratories or people who have abused their bodies with vices for decades…these people?  They are just lucky.  Somehow, I don’t think God kills the good ones and leaves the negligent ones as if to reward their abuse of creation. 

And if God does do that?  Well, when I get to the pearly gates I’ll say “thanks but no thanks” because I couldn’t stand to be around a being that capricious for eternity.  When Ecclesiastes tells us that it rains on the just and the unjust that is simply what it is.  There is no reason for it.  Its life, even in a world created by God.

The second question I asked, however, was concerning meaning.  It is almost laughable how death turned me back toward those foundational questions of religion and philosophy: What is the meaning of life and what is my role in it?  Furthermore, how do I know my answer to these questions is true once given?

Before my dad passed, I thought I knew the meaning of life; I thought I could give someone a satisfactory answer to the question if they’d asked.  Afterward…immediately afterward?  I was left without a good answer.  What meaning is there?  Where is meaning to be found if in an instant death can rupture creation and render all meaning endowed with life meaningless?  We give the world meaning by what we invest in and love, yet all our investment and love can come to an abrupt end without warning!  In an instant, the meaning maker that is the human being can be made meaningless.

Through my father’s death I came face to face with the meaninglessness of meaning.  When he died, suddenly, the meaning I had endowed with work and the problems at work were whisked away. The meaning I had ascribed to my education, my fitness, my calling, my professional life, etc., all mattered no more than a pile of manure.  Human resource problems, customer complaints, goals for the new year, my to do list for the week, papers I wanted to write, pursuing my Doctorate of Ministry, reading any books, caring about ministry, having fun, etc., etc., it all disappeared and didn’t matter. 

Everything that I thought meant something…now, meant nothing, thus leaving me to ask, “Did it all mean anything to begin with then?”

I know, I know, some people will say this is grief, depression, the low water mark of dealing with loss.  To an extent, I agree. 

However, as I have now had nearly 8 weeks to contemplate the sudden death of my father, I have come to realize that it is not simply his sudden departure that makes me feel this way.  It’s not that my melancholy leads me to these conclusions.  Rather, it is the revelation that just as he died, so could I, and without notice, and in that moment, all the things I am doing become meaningless.  All my cares, worries, , loves and accomplishments can be just as suddenly buried…and within months or years my family will move on without me…living.  Within days, most of the general public will no longer care I am dead.  

To pass away is to be dead to the world, our terminal condition revealed for what it is.

This is what death is: it is the cessation of existence in time, the loss of consciousness, the death of what makes us an “I.”  To echo Robert Jenson here, to think otherwise is to cheat and think death as not death…in which case it isn’t really death we’re thinking and I’m not sure what we are thinking about death if we don’t truly think of it as being dead.

This is what makes the ant hill of human civilization and society meaningless: that all our striving and loving all ends the same and could do so without a warning. 

How does one get excited about anything knowing this Grim Reaper lingers so close, even closer than those of us in our youth care to imagine?  How can one invest time reading complex theory or engaging in banal political or theological discourse knowing that none of that can change the place we are all going?  How can we be stupidly consumed with sports and entertainment when it all mounts to nothing more than a distraction of our pending death?  It’s as if we are simply wasting our time to simply pass the time until it is our time.

As I have pondered both these questions (the injustice of my father’s death and the meaninglessness of life), I have found myself in Ecclesiastes.  Like the Psalter, prior to my father’s passing, Ecclesiastes was a book to be studied, something to be understood with the mind, not felt with the heart.  I could ascend to what the author says by simply knowing what the words and phrases meant…yet after this tragedy I now realize I didn’t know then what I know now.  Now, I get it. 

Myself and the Preacher are blood brothers. 

We all know the famous phrase the Preacher uses, “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.”  The message is simple:  one day we will die and all our toil is for naught.  Everything turns out to be as a vapor, here for a moment, and then gone.  Human life is no exception. 

There is no better time to read Ecclesiastes than after a tragic loss because the Preacher is saying what many of us our thinking, and thankfully, his piety doesn’t keep him from saying it or our forefathers from making it Scripture.  

Thus, as I revisited him I began to know for the first time what he was saying and I began asking him, “Then why do anything?  If all is vanity, why act at all?”

Then, I came to chapter 9.  He paints us this bleak picture:

For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.2 It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. 4 For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. 6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.”

In this passage, the preacher and I are speaking the same language.  I get it.  This makes complete sense.  In the face of complete hopelessness there is simply more hopelessness, especially with death the fate of all, the fate of the one who tries their hardest and for the biggest slacker on the planet.  For the Holy man and the indulgent sinner.

What I find most amusing is that one of the most famous passage in Ecclesiastes, the kind of verse that make its way on desk ornamentations and in Pathway Bookstore pictures, Ecclesiastes 9:10, isn’t near as cute as it seems.  In an apparent betrayal of how it is used, however, we find the answer to complete meaninglessness and vanity.

9.10 reads, “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.”  This is usually where the verse stops and we like to use it as encouragement to do our best for God, you know, gird up that Protestant work ethic and work hard.  If God wants anything, it’s a hard worker.

In fact, when I had shared about how sudden death had made life purposeless and meaningless, I was told by one person, “well, that’s one way to look at it.  The other way is to see that life is given meaning by doing everything for God.”  I get it.  I understand the sentiment and why you need to tell yourself that…but that didn’t suffice for me.  It didn’t sit well with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes either.  I needed an earthier answer. 

Why should you do with all your might everything your hands find to do?

 The answer is in the second half of 9.10, “for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.” 

No wonder the whole verse isn’t sold at Pathway.  Verses 11-12 further impress the message:

I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all. 12 Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them.

When read in context, the flowery passage of doing with all your might what your hands find has a very dark connotation: You will one day die and then you can do nothing.  Further, even if you do heed the advice of 9.10 it really doesn’t matter, for the battle does not always go to the one who does it with all their might.  Life is fleeting.  Random evils overtake us all.  Use your hands while they can be used because your righteous life will end just an evil life.

My father did not know he was going to die.  I suspect he never knew what happened to him.  When he stood before God he was probably as shocked as anyone to find himself there.  He was hit so quickly by an unknown force he could do nothing to stop it.  Like Ecclesiastes says, “Man does not know his time…time and chance overtake them all.” 

The night my father died he was that fish caught in a net, unsuspecting, yet still caught.  Living life, swimming, yet death was lurking in the shadows.

Where is meaning in this?  Why care?  Why go on?  Why learn, why act, why be, when Ecclesiastes (and life itself!) teaches us that righteous men and evil men have the same fate…and the just are done unjustly while the unjust are dealt justice?

Why?  Ecclesiastes answers: Because to not live, to not do with all your might what your hands finds to do, is to already be dead.  We are alive.  We are creatures.  We must do with our bodies the most that we can because one day our bodies will do nothing.  We should live because we are alive.  There is plenty of time to do nothing when we are dead. 

Our doing is our protest against death.

Yes, we are stuck in a universe that is random.  We are blips on the universal screen, here only momentarily, yet we are here.  We are alive.  We are not uncreated but God thought it worthwhile to create even if every created thing also has a created end.  For only something alive can “fear God and keep his commandments.” (12.13)

Scripture says that death is the final foe; it is not a friend.  It is not something we should run toward but should deny as long as possible by engaging in life vigorously and unabashedly. 

I know many of us look for grandiose answers to our simple questions, but sometimes, the answer is just as simple: Live now for when you are dead there will be no activity.  Embrace life while you can embrace it.

There is no feeling like suddenly losing a loved one without any preparation.  It is a special kind of hell.  I never understood how a tragic event can suddenly render the world obsolete until now.

Ironically, however, in losing one world I have gained another.  I have been given a new love for my family.  I deeply hurt over the loss of my dad and I hate that he is not here.  I literally hate it.  I still go back and forth between acceptance and denial.  Waves of grief still hit when I think of all he’ll miss, of moments when I want to talk to him, of time I wish I had been a better son.  I hate that I did not get to say goodbye. 

But now, I cherish my family more.  I hug them more.  I kiss my kid’s goodnight more often (even though a couple are 11).  I let my 2-year-old girl drag me around the house and play silly games that I really don’t have time to play because I really don’t have the time to not play with her.  I am more kind to people.  For the few men in my life that are my best friends, we tell one another we love each more frequently.  I am not as angry and frustrated with work as I had been before his death even though work has now become more daunting.  I am reprioritizing my life around what I value the most when all values lose value.  I am making an effort to be more loving, more empathetic, more understanding.  With the help of God, I am trying to be an incarnation of love to those around me and I am trying to give myself to others, my friends and my family, because one day I will be dead.  I am trying to live as if tomorrow will not happen…and if it doesn’t I want to leave it all on the field, so to speak.

I am trying to do with all my might what my hands find to do because that is all I can do as a creature and as one that with each moment alive must tell death, “not yet.”