Salvation by Pain

This month we commemorated one year of Covid-19 lock downs.
We experienced collective pain and grief over the deaths in Atlanta.
And endured even more hardships daily in this season of Lent.

In a book I started reading this Lenten season, I came across a reference to The End of Suffering by Scott Cairn where he tells about a monk, dying of cancer, who said, "Paradise is filled with men and women whose cancer saved their lives."

This passing allusion stopped me in my tracks. How could cancer save a life?

Cancer is an acute reminder of the fundamental truth that affects all of humanity: that we are mortal. Remembering our mortality snaps us out of our delusions that we are invincible or made for success. The Lenten refrain punctuates this season: "Remember that you are dust" (Ecclesiastes 3:20). And this awareness calls us to back to real life. Life that matters. Life that gives life to others. We are saved from the false life of power and achievement by remembering our common dust-ness.

In a year of prolonged waiting and daily reminders of our pandemic vulnerability, we have been forced to reckon with our individual and collective weakness. C.S. Lewis, in trying to make sense of pain, stated it this way: "Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

The pain we're experiencing is calling us to attention. We must attend to it. We wish that the world was not shaped by injustice and racism. We wish we could continue running full steam ahead building our own Babel Towers to greatness. But our good God will not allow us to delude ourselves forever.

Scripture recounts how our Sovereign God utilizes wicked nations, natural disasters, severe famine, deathly disease -- anything and everything to call his people to attention. Pain is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world, reminding us that we are not who we pretend to be. We are not invincible. We are not victorious. We are not God. We must contend with the reality we try to hide and ignore: that sin and its effects are still deep and present in and among each of us. When the daily whispers and hints, the explicit calls from a familiar pulpit, regular requests from friends and family... when all of this fails to get our attention, pain may be the way to save our lives -- being forced by suffering to slow down from our mindless forward "progress" or "success" and take hold of what life actually entails.

As the Lenten season nears its end in Holy Week in anticipation of the Cross and Resurrection, it is my hope that we emerge from this prolonged period of suspended hope with a greater awareness of the life that Jesus gives us and calls us to enjoy.

Oh Lord, teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Amen.


Advent 2020: We Wait

In this Advent Season, we are reminded that all of creation longs for things to be made right. Everything is not right and longs to be set right. The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Romans that "creation waits with eager longing... to be set free from its bondage to corruption," and we know that this freedom will come when Christ comes again to redeem, not only his people, but the whole world (Romans 8:18-25).

This past year has revealed to us how broken we really are. Sin is entrenched deeper in our hearts than we imagined. The pandemic has revealed selfishness and self-preservation over the love of one's neighbor. The moral and social evils that are interwoven with the structure of society are difficult to untwine and undo.

In Advent we dare plumb the depths of our depravity
because we know our depravity is not the end.

In Advent we can name our evils without fear of being overwhelmed
because we know our hope has already overcome the world.

In Advent we know that even if we despair,
we have a God who can lift us up out of it. And we wait on him.

In Advent, we wait.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, drawing upon the practiced testimony of Israel and the proclamation of the prophets, articulated the message of the prophets in this way:

This is what the prophets discovered. History is a nightmare. There are more scandals, more acts of corruption, than are dreamed of in philosophy. It would be blasphemous to believe that what we witness is the end of God's creation. It is an act of evil to accept the state of evil as either inevitable or final. Others may be satisfied with improvement, the prophets insist upon redemption.
"History" from The Prophets by Abraham Joshua Heschel (emphasis mine)

All our efforts to redeemer our world have failed. Many times all seems lost. But God has not given up. There's something good and true in our longing for a redeemer and in our conviction that evil is not the end.

The Gospel tells us that God has come -- Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is with us in our brokenness to the utmost even to a gruesome death on the cross. He knows our frame and remembers that we are dust. But out of this dust he will once again create life. And so we proclaim with all the church through the ages, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus!"


So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

Today is Halloween, or as the church has historically recognized, All Hallow's Eve or All Saints' Eve -- the day of preparation before All Saints' Day. The church has had a rich history with death and what it means to those in Christ, but it is lost to many of us today. Since death seems nearer to us in these past months of pandemic, I believe we can draw richly upon the witness and testimony of the church that has lived out its faith through the observance of All Saints' Day.

When I first watched Pixar's Coco, a film about Día de Muertos ("The Day of the Dead," which is concurrent, perhaps not coincidentally, with All Saints' Day), I was surprised that the portrayal so accurately captured aspects of our Christian hope associated with death. The observance of this holiday typically takes the form of celebration, rather than mourning -- acknowledging that death is not the end and those who left this earth before us have not left us completely. In the story, Miguel Rivera, the main protagonist goes on a journey between the land of the living and of the dead and discovers a richer understanding of himself, his family, and the beautiful and storied inheritance he has as a member of his family. While it is unlikely that Disney/Pixar would put an explicitly religious backing to their films, we in the faith know that it is because of Christ, the living and the dead are not forever separated, and we live out our faith "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12).

In the Apostles' Creed, we affirm this in the line, "I believe in... the communion of saints," which confesses the truth that both the living and the dead share a fellowship in Christ that cannot be broken. Our practice of communion (The Lord's Supper) touches upon this truth every time we partake; we do not partake alone, but with all the saints present, past, and future. At the table, every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we do it with all the saints -- including those recently departed -- proclaiming the death of our Lord until he comes again in glory.

I know for many of us, there are many whose presence is sorely missed. As the holidays approach, the heavy presence of empty chairs in our homes is a weight we'd rather not bear; the idea of observing All Saints' Day seems too painful in light of our grief and fresh wounds. For some of us we'd rather keep feeling that pain, because we think without that feeling, we'll lose what we have left of those who died. Sometimes we only dare to take sips of our grief for fear we'd be overcome with despair and spend all our grief at once and then forget. In Pixar's Coco, Hector, a character from the world of the dead, explains the conflict to be resolved when we says, "If there's no one left in the living world to remember you, you disappear from this world. But you can change that!"

But the gospel that proclaims the communion of the saints gives us a better promise and hope than Hector's. The lives of those we have loved do not exist based on our keeping of them in memory; surely there may come a day when we will adjust to our grief and "move on" in some form or another. The gospel gives us confidence to mourn and grieve deeply because it is Christ who remembers our names and knows each of our souls better than we know ourselves. Because of Christ, we can mourn deeply and fully, not worrying if we will drown ourselves in our grief or expend all our sadness at once because we are completely sustained by the grace of God.

I invite all of you to observe All Saints' Day. Not to focus primarily on our friends and family who have passed, but to turn that longing-for-their-fellowship to worship of our loving and gracious Savior who sustains our communion. In both the Apostles' and the Nicene Creed, we affirm the resurrection of the dead/body and life -- full and vibrant life -- in the world to come. Our Savior and fellow saints cheer us on in faith. "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith."