Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Have you ever smelled a sheep?

Have you ever smelled a sheep?

Familiarity with sheep reek is not as common as it used to be but it’s a helpful clue that good shepherding is harder than it looks.

As with many animals, sheep lose their cuteness a few months after birth and very quickly become too heavy to carry on your shoulders. There is no biblical record that Jesus ever did, nor does it seem likely that walking behind a fetid flock would inspire him to hoist a sheep. The ubiquitous portraits of Jesus with a cute, fluffy lamb around his neck are best viewed with artistic skepticism in air-conditioned vestibules. Do not try it at home.

But the metaphoric relationship of shepherds to sheep is just what we need to understand our relationship to Jesus. And the fact that Jesus lived in an agrarian culture suggests he didn’t compare us to sheep because of our precocious sweetness. There are less pleasant ways in which sheep behavior reminds us of ourselves.

According to the ever popular Sheep 101 website, sheep gather in flocks and have an almost irresistible instinct to follow a leader. In 2006 in eastern Turkey, 400 sheep plunged to their death following a ram attempting to cross a 50-foot deep ravine. That in itself reminds us why our parents hoped that when we faced moral decisions we would not succumb to peer pressure.

Another sheep habit that reminds us of us is the drive to over-consume everything in their path. The ravenous appetite of one flock kept the White House lawn trimmed to overbite level during World War I, when President Wilson devised ingenius ways to cut grounds keeping costs.

It’s also evident that gregarious sheep and moody cows do not get along well in the same field, and farmers determined to produce both dairy and wool will need a lot of acreage to do it.

You don’t have to be a rancher to know that the juxtaposition of sheep and cows brings out the worst in us humans, too. In the late 19th century, as we have seen in many classic westerns, wars were fought between sheep ranchers and cattle dealers over grazing rights. The cowboys saw the sheepherders as invaders and destroyers of public grazing lands. Between 1870 and 1921, in over 120 gun battles, scores of humans were killed and over 100,000 sheep were slaughtered. If the cowboys ever saw a painting of Jesus cuddling a lamb, it didn’t prick their conscience much.

The more we know about sheep, the more we see the aptness of Jesus’ poetic metaphor. Both sheep and humans tend to follow the leader, succumb to peer pressure, and occasionally assume grazing rights where they don’t belong and where they are not welcomed.

But there is a major difference between us and sheep. Unlike us, sheep appear to have little awareness of the vast differences within their species. They have no sense of the “other,” no xenophobia, no classism, no racism, no sexism.

This is a good thing because there are more kinds of sheep than any other species, more than a thousand distinct breeds. There are fine wool sheep, long wool sheep, medium wool sheep, carpet wool sheep, hair sheep, fat-tailed sheep, short-tailed sheep, rat-tailed sheep, and no-tailed sheep.

But lest this staggeringly interesting information distract us from the metaphor at hand, let us return to Jesus’ own reference to varieties of sheep:

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:14-16)

The allegorical reference to the good shepherd is clear, but the rest of the phrase has provoked more argument and conjecture than all the other verses in this chapter.

What did Jesus mean when he said he had other sheep? And who were they?

Speculation is rife and the phrase is often quoted in an interfaith context. By “other sheep,” did Jesus mean followers of other faiths?

Bible scholars tend to dismiss the notion. More likely, they say, he was referring to his own followers who had reached different conclusions about him. The disciples knew there were other schools of thought about Jesus' identity.

“Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist, but others, Elijah, and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’” (Luke 9:18-19).

There were also admirers of Jesus who didn’t hang with his entourage but dropped his name anyway:

“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, do not stop him, for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.’” (Mark 9:38-40)

Other theories about the identity of “other sheep” tend to be ecclesiocentric. We Baptists are sure the other sheep must be everyone who is not us. Catholics had the same thought when they saw Cerularius, Luther, Henry VIII, and Calvin bolt the fold to form their own divergent flocks. When viewed from the perspective of the Vatican, Jesus’ statement can sound like a veiled threat to the others: “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

Within the last century, the ecumenical stress on church unity has made it less likely that Presbyterians will regard, say, Lutherans or Anglicans as “other sheep.” Even so, there are vast differences in the ecclesial styles and beliefs of Christian churches. Some churches make gonads a condition of ordination, some invoke Jesus’ sacrifice by ingesting grape juice and Wonder bread, some sprinkle, some dunk. It would take a gigabyte of hard drive to track and classify all the “other sheep” out there.

One of the most appealing brands of Christianity is also one of the oldest. The Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church trace their origins to A.D. 52 when the Apostle Thomas came to Kerala. Thomas, popularly known as “the doubter,” reportedly preached to a Jewish enclave that converted to Christianity.

When it comes to authorities on other sheep, few churches speak with greater credibility than the ancient St. Thomas Christian community in India. India is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism and hosts the world’s largest numbers of Zoroastrians and Baha’is. Christians in India have interacted with other faiths for centuries, and they have accumulated vast stores of wisdom about interfaith relations.

Several years ago I was among a group of ecumenists invited to meet a senior Metropolitan of one of the St. Thomas communities. He was tall with a long white beard, crinkly eyes, and a gentle smile. He wore a long pink frock and probably didn’t know that church journalists called him “The Pink Panther” behind his back. In contrast to his magnificent vestments, his bare, bony feet were festooned with tattered flip-flops.

The Metropolitan spoke softly to us American ecumenists as we balanced tea and biscuits on our laps. He made generous comments about the churches in the United States and the gracious welcome they had given him.

“We come from churches that are so different in so many ways, and yet we are all the same family because we all call on the name of Jesus,” he said soothingly. “And, dear brothers and sisters, when at last we come into his heavenly presence we may find that he is called by many other names as well.”

The metropolitan spoke with such quiet authority that most of us overlooked the radical possibilities in his words. Afterwards, on the drive home, we argued about what he meant. What other names is Jesus called?  Was the metropolitan raising the same questions as Tim Rice, lyricist for Jesus Christ Superstar, who lets Judas ask the age-old questions:

Tell me what you think
About your friends at the top.
Now who’d you think besides yourself
Was the pick of the crop?
Buddha was he where it's at?
Is he where you are?
Could Muhammad move a mountain?
Or was that just PR?
Did you mean to die like that?
Was that a mistake or
Did you know your messy death
Would be a record breaker?

These questions will endure as long as we live, and so will the debate about the identity of the “other sheep.”

While we are waiting to discover what, if any, other names Jesus is called, we can take comfort in the fact that we already know the most important answers.

For one, we know Jesus the Good Shepherd is not a rejecter of any sheep, regardless of who we are or what we believe. “I lay down my life for the sheep,” he said. He could have added: “No questions asked.” God sent Jesus to save all us sheep, regardless of whether we agree with each other or even like each other. God doesn’t worry about our differences. God loves us all – Zoroastrians, Muslims, Jains, Lutherans – all of us. And Jesus died for all of us.

Even so, we still wonder. Was Buddha where it’s at? What is the eternal relationship between Mohammad and Jesus? For Baptists who have for centuries been consigning Buddhists and Muslims to hell, these are awkward questions.

But we can waste a lot of time debating how God plans to save the other sheep, because God is in no hurry to tell us. And those of us who have been saved by our faith in Jesus Christ are not being asked to consider other paths to salvation.

But we cannot ignore the fact that God loves those who have not chosen our path, not can we disregard Jesus’ instructions to love those sheep as much as we love ourselves.

Presbyterian pastor Dr. Bryon E. Shafer writes “that in my dialogue with persons of a differing faith, I as a Christian encounter insights that bring me to a fuller and more dynamic understanding of God's truth. And indeed I have had such experiences.”

From Hindus [Shafer writes] I have re-learned what many Christians have under-emphasized, neglected, forgotten or even rejected-the truth and actuality of the incarnation as opposed to just its theory, the truth that God actually did come to live among us, in flesh.

And from Jews, I have learned what it means for a community to trust in the goodness of God-even in the face of such incomprehensible communal suffering as that which European Jewry experienced at the hands of the demonic evil of Adolf Hitler.

From Muslims, I have learned the value of practicing the presence of God in the everyday routines of life.

And, yes, I have in fact learned something from Buddhism as well. I have learned the importance of freeing myself from the dominance of ego and of getting in touch with my interior world.

So, I, as a Christian, do have God's truth to share with others. And I also have more of God's truth to learn from others.

Once we understand that, we can suspend our frustrating debates over the identity of the “other sheep” and focus on the ovine metaphor that assures us God will not rest until all us sheep are safe.

“So Jesus told them this parable: Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulder and rejoices.” (Luke 15:3-5.)

Given the malodorous reality of sheep, the ultimate message must be that God loves all of us more than we can possibly imagine.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Remembering Chuck Colson

Charles Colson’s death at 80 on April 21 unlocked a lot of memories for Americans of a certain age, mostly about Watergate.

Colson was a high-ranking advisor to President Richard M. Nixon, best known for a crack about his campaign strategy, “I’d walk over my grandmother to assure Nixon’s re-election.” He was the dean of the dirty tricks school of politics which, though not invented by Nixon, was employed with singular creativity during his era.

Some of Colson’s tricks turned out to be illegal and he pleaded guilty to obstructing the investigation of a break-in at the office of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers and a Nixon critic. Charges that Colson had orchestrated the break-in were dismissed for lack of concrete evidence, but he was ordered to prison in 1974 and served seven months of a three-year sentence.

When I interviewed Colson four years later, I discovered the fastest way to witness his famous red-faced sneer was to suggest the Alan Wood Prison was a country club for white collar criminals. “It wasn’t,” he hissed, glaring at me.

Whatever jail had been like for him, almost everyone knows that it inspired Colson – by then famously re-born as a Christian – to found Prison Fellowship, an evangelical organization to lead prisoners to Jesus.

I met Colson in his small Prison Fellowship office in the late fall of 1977. Sitting in the waiting room with me was Ken Clawson, another Watergate figure (best known for his plea for mercy to Bob Woodward, “I have a wife and a family and a dog and a cat!”) His presence made me wonder if all Watergate figures hung out together, or if he was seeking spiritual guidance from Colson. But Colson, in a starched button-down shirt and paisley tie, emerged before I could talk to Clawson and escorted me to a chair in front of his desk.

Except for his reaction to my country club reference, Colson was charming and soft spoken during out hour-long conversation. He was disarmingly likeable; I was so disarmed, in fact, that the article I wrote about him in the January 1978 issue of The American Baptist magazine outraged most of my liberal friends who doubted the sincerity of his conversion. American Baptist prison chaplains were incensed that I gave attention to Colson rather than to them, and Bill Cober, head of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, was furious that Colson had been quoted as saying Walter Rauschenbusch – a Baptist social activist, pacifist and saint – was not Christ centered. Colson was flat wrong on that point and I argued with him about it but elected not to include my own views in the article. Colson listened politely to my insistence that Rauschenbusch was devoutly Christ centered and shrugged non-committally.

I stayed in touch with Colson for several years, giving rise to rumors among my Baptist colleagues that he and I were buds. He once asked me if I’d like a job writing articles under his byline, which was flattering but the conversation never developed into a bonafide offer. Later, when I asked Colson to write something for The American Baptist, I got a glimpse of what the job might have been like. He quickly accepted and told me to contact his chief of staff. I called and began telling this obviously beleaguered staffer what I needed. He was silent for several moments before he drew an exasperated breath. “Shit,” he said. “Does Chuck think he doesn’t give us enough to do?”

Over the years Charles Colson drifted away from the mere Christianity of his idol, C.S. Lewis, and became associated with the Christian right-wing. His evangelical tactics also hardened to the extent that some of his critics suggested “Colson would walk over his grandmother for Jesus.”

But for a brief period years ago, I had nothing but the friendliest of feelings for the guy. My admiration – for better or for worse – is all too detectable in my editorial of January 1978:

Chuck Colson and the Social Gospel

A secretary had just told me that Mr. Colson would be delayed, and I settled in my chair to relax a few more minutes.

This is really strange, I told myself, listening to my friend Fred Rhodes as he bantered reassuringly. It wasn’t so long ago that I was a student protesting the Vietnam War, and casting helpless glances at the Nixon White House. I had been told about the men inside, about their callous indifference to the suffering in Vietnam. Sometimes I had nearly wept with frustration because the men in the White House wouldn’t even listen to our pleas – had, in fact, called us bums.

One of those men had been Charles W. Colson, special counsel to the President. White House tough guy. The archfiend. One of the most powerful men in the world.

Unexpectedly, he came through the door. The face I used to imagine twisted into a perpetual snarl was smiling warmly. His hair was slightly longer than it had been in the White House days, but it was carefully groomed. His blue shirt was neatly pressed and I was surprised to discover that he is about six inches taller than he looks on television.

“Chuck Colson,” he said evenly, extending his hand. Soon I was sitting at his side, sticking a microphone in his face.
I had to get it off my chest. I told Chuck Colson about my errant youth on the field of protest, and admitted that I still felt pretty much the same way I did then.  “Is there a ground of reconciliation between us?”

He laughed. “Sure,” he said without hesitation. “Jesus Christ.” And the strangeness began to melt away.

Reconciliation. People who have read Chuck Colson’s best-selling book, Born Again, are familiar with that theme of reconciliation. It is one of the remarkable distinctives of his testimony. Here was the White House “hatchet man,” the Nixon functionary who was supposed to have said (he never did) that he would run over his grandmother to assure Nixon’s re-election. The story has now been told time and again how Colson, sensing the emptiness of his life, invited Jesus Christ to take it over, how that new life in Christ had led Colson to deep fellowship with former Senator Harold Hughes and Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns – men who had been his enemies The story includes countless occasions when men and women who had been an opposite political poles from Colson had rallied to his side when he needed to be “Christ’s Man” and accept a prison sentence for his Watergate misdeeds.

Few people in public life have symbolized God’s power of redemption and reconciliation more than Chuck Colson. And I would have to confess that I was slightly moved to be sitting in Colson’s office. The former student protestor who Had been immobilized by a sense of powerlessness and insignificance; the former White House aide who had been intoxicated by his sense of power and position. And we were easily exploring a common, familiar ground against which all other differences fade: Jesus Christ.

In fact, I found it a bit disquieting to find myself in such agreement with Colson. I had gone to Washington at the invitation of Fred Rhodes, former government official and former vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in order to do a story on the Prison Fellowship founded by Colson and of which Fred is president.

As I was asking Chuck Colson about the Prison Fellowship and its services to society, it occurred to me that he was beginning to sound a bit non-Nixonian. I pointed out that the Prison Fellowship and its efforts at reform sounded like the Rauschenbusch Social Gospel. “Will somebody someday accuse you of being a political liberal?” I asked?

“Rauschenbusch believed man could do good in his own right,” he said slowly. “He did not have Christ as the center of his life. And I think the disciples of  Rauschenbusch down through the years  have … largely been consumed by their own social concerns, but believed they were doing it by themselves, not Christ.”

He noted the other side of the spectrum, the church’s conservative wing, people who emphasize life style, soul saving, salvation.

“I come out somewhere in the middle,” he mused. “So long as He lives in me and leads me, it is Christ and not Chuck Colson. But I believe that Jesus Christ calls us to a social concern … We are commanded to love the world, and it seems to me that we are being called to a lot more than sitting in a pew, praying one hour a week, and being happy that we are saved and going to heaven. I believe that Christianity hasn’t failed, it just hasn’t been tried.”

As our interview ended, I sheepishly shoved toward him my copy of Born Again for an autograph. As he scribbled on the flyleaf, he chuckled, and asked, “Well? Am I a liberal?”

I stammered something noncommittally. But it was clear to me that there weren’t many differences on things that really mattered between the former liberal student and the former conservative presidential aide.

That may have been a small, even routine miracle for those who trust Jesus Christ. But it continues to astonish me.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Brother Ass

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things." -- Luke 24:36-48

Here it is the third Sunday of Easter and we’re still struggling with the question: what was Jesus’ resurrected body really like?

Clearly we’re not going to figure it out, not now, not in the Easter season, not ever. Not until we have our own resurrected bodies and can subject them to forensic analysis.

But we can’t get the question out of our minds because the Jesus we see moving in and out of the closing scenes of the Gospels is not the Jesus we thought we knew.

That Jesus was – how shall we put it? – a hale fellow well met. He was good company, a charismatic preacher and teller of tales, an imbiber of wines, a bon vivant. His enemies took advantage of his epicurean ways by calling him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Matthew 11:19). When Jesus was offered the physical pleasures of a foot massage or a soothing anointing by a beautiful woman, he accepted. When a fruitless fig tree denied his impulse to nosh, he cursed it (Mark 11:20).

Jesus was so into the pleasures of the flesh that he made eating, drinking and foot washing the primary mnemonics of his mission, lest any of us forget.

There are other things we know about the pre-resurrected Jesus. When anguished, he wept. When struck, he bled. When he met an obstacle, he had to go around it.

But in his post-resurrection period, so much about him is different. The dark circles of overwork have disappeared from beneath his eyes. His face seems younger, more relaxed. He looks like the old Jesus but he can make himself unrecognizable when it suits him. He somehow manages to walk through walls, but his body is corporeal enough to eat broiled fish. Even odder, the nail wounds of his crucifixion are visible, observable, touchable. He isn’t a ghost. He isn’t a zombie. Jesus’ resurrected body, which he defines in his own words as “flesh and bones,” is an unprecedented manifestation, a new state of being not seen since the dawn of creation.

We can’t stop wondering about it. We’re overflowing with questions we can’t wait to put before God. And one of those questions is, why did Jesus need a body? Wasn’t his soul’s immortality enough? Wasn’t it supremely liberating to shed his body and allow his spirit to fly free and unfettered for all eternity?

Let’s face it. The human body can be an uncomfortable burden, especially when it ages or falls ill. St. Francis of Assisi referred to his own body as “Brother Ass,” an obstinate encumbrance that led him into unspeakable temptations and had to be beaten into submission. Both Francis and St. Benedict, another mystic, punished their insubordinate bodies by throwing themselves naked into patches of thorns and writhing until they were suitably chastised and bleeding. Toward the end of his life, Francis concluded such behavior was patently nuts and began to protect his body to keep it well enough to labor, as a humble ass, in the vineyard of the Lord.

These old saints are nothing if not interesting, but you’ve got to wonder: if God placed enough value on Jesus’ scourged body to raise him from the dead, does it make sense for the rest of us to pillory our bodies with briar patches and humiliation?

C.S. Lewis, in Letters to an American Lady, said he understood what St. Francis meant by calling his body, “Brother Ass.”

Not that you and I have now much reason to rejoice in having bodies! [Lewis wrote]. Like old automobiles, aren't they? where all sorts of apparently different things keep going wrong, but what they add up to is the plain fact that the machine is wearing out. Well, it was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap. Through it God showed me that whole side of His beauty which is embodied in colour, sound, smell and size. No doubt it has often led me astray: but not half so often, I suspect, as my soul has led it astray. For the spiritual evils which we share with the devils (pride, spite) are far worse than what we share with the beasts: and sensuality really arises more from the imagination than from the appetites; which, if left merely to their own animal strength, and not elaborated by our imagination, would be fairly easily managed.

For Lewis, the human body is as likely to steer us toward faith as it is to lead us into temptation.

There is a stage in a child’s life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas or Easter [he wrote]. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began ‘Chocolate eggs and Jesus riz.’ This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety. But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer seem sacramental. And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat. They will have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life.”

The pleasures of the flesh may the succubae that lead us to sin, but they are just as likely to lead us to a more intimate experience of God. Olympic sprinter Eric Liddell preached that sermon in a single line in Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

There is no better instrument for detecting God than our bodies, even when they become old rattle traps. We feel God in the kiss of the sun on our backs, in the soothing caresses of a lover's hands on our shoulders, in the culinary pleasure of a good meal, in the relief of slaked thirst or the contentment of a good wine. As a lifelong Baptist, I like to fast before partaking in Episcopal or Lutheran Eucharist because the warmth of the wine fills my chest like a subtle indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And although our Baptist instincts tend to label rich, chocolaty desserts as “sinful,” I think of them as portals to heaven.

C.S. Lewis also believed that erotic pleasures were portals to heaven. Christianity’s embrace of sensuality – beginning with Jesus’ own fondness for food and drink – sets Christianity apart from other more ascetic religions and from  the heresies of Christians who believe God wants them to suffer, flagellate themselves or avoid earthly delights as a preparation for heavenly bliss. The body is a gateway, not a barrier to God, and the more people love one another, the better they will understand what heaven is like. “To love another person,” the chorus sings at the end of  Les Misérables, “is to see the face of God.”

But perhaps the definitive evidence that God created the body as a gateway rather than a temporary encumbrance is the resurrection of Jesus. Because Jesus’ soul, like ours, is immortal and indestructible, his eternal personality – like ours – was never in jeopardy. Mysterious as it is to us, God deemed that our bodies would be inseparable vessels for our souls and essential transoms for our insights into God’s truth.  The resurrection of Jesus seals the relationship between our body and our soul forever.

And just as important, the resurrection of Jesus seals God’s deal with us that we, too, will have the same experience.
Just how that will happen is unclear, and Christians have always wondered about it. Even in the beginning of the church, so many had doubts about it that Paul adopted a scolding tone:

How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain … For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (I Corinthians 15:12-17)

I suspect the debate in Corinth was sparked by the same notions we have today. It’s easier to imagine our souls flitting around the firmament as disembodied spirits than it is to imagine our often infirm bodies raised to a new life. There are just so many unanswerable questions: what will our bodies look like? Will they be young again? Will they be better looking? And what about the bodies of persons who were dismembered at death? Will they, like Jesus, be resurrected with their scars intact? What about the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki whose bodies were broken down into atoms that melded with molecules of dust? What about persons whose cremains are scattered in several locations? How is the resurrection to take place?

Beats me.

You can spend hours in theological libraries or on the Internet, reading tomes and sermons about each of these issues, and many of them are exceedingly clever. Some surmise that our resurrected bodies will have no gender and cite the Pauline declaration that “in Christ there is no male nor female,” while others conclude optimistically that our resurrected and improved bodies will find the sex to be spectacular. But no one really knows.

Those answers will have to wait and may depend on whether our resurrected bodies are still curious.

But what is clear today is that God created our bodies to fulfill the destinies of our immortal souls, and Jesus affirmed it when his sudden appearance scared the disciples out of their wits. It seemed ghostly enough, but he said, “It is I myself. Touch me and see.”

The resurrection of Jesus that was witnessed and proclaimed by his followers is, as Winston Churchill said in another context, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Even more so is your resurrection, and mine.

But amid all the speculation and puzzlement, one fact emerges clearly enough: God proved his love for us in “that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us … For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5: 8-10).

That’s the bottom line. The details will be revealed in the fullness of time.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Dead and Gone

I left the cops and politics beat of a small daily newspaper in 1995 to join the communications staff of the World Council of Churches. It was an abrupt transition. One day I was interviewing witnesses to a grisly shooting at a decaying trailer park; the next day I was preparing a rambling press release on a Faith and Order dialogue. My lifestyle also changed abruptly. Chasing deadlines back at the paper, I often wondered when I’d find time to sleep. During WCC Central Committee meetings in Geneva, the challenge was to stay awake.

Central Committee meetings lasted nearly a fortnight and were covered by a half-dozen house journalists who churned out news stories in their favorite European language. It wasn’t as physically taxing as racing 21-year-old photographers over active railroad tracks to get to the scene of gruesome auto wrecks, but at the end of the meeting we were tired all the same.

On the final night of the meetings, Jan Kok, head of communications for the WCC, would take us out to a local pub to unwind over steak frites and beer.

I don’t remember how it got started, but on one such evening the conversation turned macabre. One of the journalists mentioned a horrific accident scene he had covered for the Manchester Guardian. The story sparked an orgy of ghastly reminiscences as we erstwhile reporters competed with descriptions of the bloodiest, messiest death scenes we had witnessed. I contributed details of a small airplane crash I covered in Pennsylvania in which three of four passengers were killed and the pilot was slumped over the wheel. The pilot’s chest had been ripped open and his heart – a perfect, healthy, beautiful organ – lay motionless on the zipper of his leather jacket. There was no blood because he had died so suddenly. For long moments, the chief of police and I stared with wonder and respect at the heart which, a short time ago, was pumping miraculous life through the veins of this recently vital man.

A younger reporter had been listening silently to these morbid accounts. When the last yarn was spun, he shrugged and cleared his throat.

“I’ve seen nothing really bad,” he said. “Once I followed the EMTs to a body on the sidewalk. It was this woman, but no one knew how she died. No blood, no wounds, no marks. She looked like Resusci Annie,” the pale blonde manikin used for CPR training.

There was an audible gasp as we contemplated the chilling image. All of us had seen, to varying degrees, death by violent trauma, and it was ghastly. At the same time, horribly disfigured bodies sometimes made death a little easier to take because it was obvious what had caused it and clear there had been no alternative to death, no hope of rescue. A pale, immaculate body left the mystery intact and made the death seem avoidable, wasteful, unnecessary. We stared silently into our steins and tried to erase the image from our minds.

By the time most of us have reached a certain age, we have seen death and are aware of its permanency. We’ve seen loved ones, friends, and neighbors in coffins and on hospital slabs. We may not be able to define death clinically, but we know it when we see it. There is no more vitality in a corpse than there is in Resusci Annie.

When I was 16 my mother sat by her brother’s side as he lay dying of cancer. “We had been talking together,” my mother recalled, “and he was following my conversation, nodding, moving his eyes. And then he was gone. I could see he was gone.”

“I could see he was gone.” At 16, I had no idea what that meant. Was there a change in the light? Did a haze of ectoplasm float over the bed and rise to the ceiling? I thought of the death scenes in movies. Did my uncle start to tell my mother something – “My keys – the keys to my safety deposit box are in the – in the” – and turn his head against the pillow with an expiring sigh?

But the mystery is intact. He was there one moment, gone the next. And when you see it you know it.

It’s comforting, in a way, especially if your loved one has been wracked with pain for months, to know that they have actually gone away, they have left the suffering behind, they are no longer there.

But it doesn’t answer the logical follow-up question: where are they now? It’s clear that when a loved one – when anyone – dies, they are gone. Clemenza says it plainly when asked about the fate of a snuffed turncoat in The Godfather:

Sonny: How's Paulie?
Clemenza: (Cheerfully) Oh, Paulie... won't see him no more.

The sudden absence of someone, anyone, can be painful. Loved ones become such an intimate part of our lives that we continue to hear their voices long after they are gone, or we believe we catch glimpses of them in crowds, or – more dramatically – see their ghostly figures in the quiet places.

Martha and I are convinced we share our house with a gentle spirit, a friendly ghost who bears us no ill will but sometimes wishes to be noticed, a fleeting glimpse in the corners of our eyes. This ghostly entity seems to me to be a red-haired teen-age boy, almost certainly not the previous owner of the house, an elderly man who died decades ago in our living room. But I’m convinced someone or something is there. Or perhaps it’s my errant imagination.

If he’s a ghost, he’s more subtle than most of his ilk. The ghosts of England are more in-your-face. During my days as an Air Force chaplain’s assistant, I worked for Father Joe McCausland, a Catholic chaplain who spent his free time learning to fly and re-wiring his short-wave radio set that connected him with friends all over the world. Father Mac was all wires and physics and aerodynamics – perhaps unusual for a priest – and generally he didn’t believe what he didn’t see.

One day Father Mac had taken the bus home to his little bungalow in Orford, a coastal town 10 miles from the base. He got off the bus and began his short walk home (as he told the story many times). As he walked, he saw a man standing in front of his bungalow. This wasn’t unusual because airmen often came to his home where they could talk unhindered by the bustle of the base chapel. The man’s clothes seemed a little unusual to Father Mac, as if they had been pulled out of an old trunk in the attic, and his brown hair was shaggier than an airman’s. As he got closer, Father Mac studied the man’s face and noted he had rosy and slightly pock-marked cheeks. Father Mac did not recognize him, so he hastened his pace to see what he wanted.

And then the man disappeared. Flat-out vanished. Father Mac was so startled he nearly tripped over the cobblestones. He stood for long moments, gaping at the empty space that had been occupied so clearly by a brown-haired man with rosy pock-marked cheeks.

What was this apparition? Father Mac never identified the man as a ghost or a spirit. He scoffed at suggestions from his fellow officers that he had been drinking (“I never touch a drop before 1800 hours!”). But the priest told the story often and without embellishment for the rest of his tour in England.

What are we to make of this?

We see death and know it is real. And some of us see ghosts and wonder if they are evidence that life in some form persists after death.

Death is one experience we will have in common, and equally common is a tendency – especially in the United States – to put it out of our minds. Our egos struggle to accept the possibility of extinction, and we live most of our lives thinking death is something that happens to other people. “Everybody has got to die,” said William Saroyan a few days before his death by prostate cancer in 1981, “but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”

Woody Allen, whose horror of death has inspired his best work, ironically questions the significance we give to our lives and the times in which we live. “What difference does it make?” he asks. “Every 150 years we get a whole new set of people.”

Allen has used black humor to express the icy fears we all have on lonely dark nights when we think about the end of our lives. “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work,” he writes. “I want to achieve it through not dying.”

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die,” Allen says. “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” And finally, “If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, I’d like to come back as Warren Beatty’s fingertips.”

We can laugh at death all we want, and many of us wonder about the architecture of our Father’s house which, Jesus said, has many mansions and a room prepared for each us. But the mansion metaphor sounds like an apartment ad in the New York Times magazine, and none of us knows what heaven is like, so we try not to think about death at all. This doesn’t mean we’re evolving into secular humanists.

According to the Pew Forum, three quarters of Americans surveyed believe in life after death and heaven, and most of us (59 percent) believe in hell. But in the final analysis, most of us are scared to death of death, and most of us wonder what death is like. Do we go to heaven, or are some of us doomed to wander the earth, Jacob Marley-like, as eternal ghosts? And what is scarier to contemplate: hell or extinction?

Life, death, and life after death. Once you get past the lilies and pastel marshmallow peeps and colored eggs, these are the real issues of Easter. On Easter we will pray and sing and proclaim that Jesus has risen from the dead, that Jesus has conquered death. But what does that mean?

Allow me to quote a passage – one of my favorites – from C.S. Lewis’ 1950 essay, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?”

I heard a man say, “The importance of the Resurrection is that it gives evidence of survival, evidence that the human personality survives death.” On that view what happened to Christ would be what had always happened to all [persons], the difference being that in Christ’s case we were privileged to see it happening. This is certainly not what the earliest Christian writers thought. Something perfectly new in the history of the Universe had happened. Christ had defeated death. The door which had always been locked had for the very first time been forced open. This is something quite distinct from mere ghost-survival. I don’t mean that they disbelieved in ghost-survival. On the contrary, they believed in it so firmly that, on more than one occasion, Christ had had to assure them that He was not a ghost. The point is that while believing in survival they yet regarded the Resurrection as something totally different and new. The Resurrection narratives are not a picture of survival after death; they record how a totally new mode of being has arisen in the universe. Something new had appeared in the universe: as new as the first coming of organic life. This Man, after death, does not get divided into “ghost” and “corpse.” A new mode of being has arisen. That is the story. What are we going to make of it?
The question is, I suppose, whether any hypothesis covers the facts so well as the Christian hypothesis. That hypothesis is that God has come down into the created universe, down to [person]hood—and come up again, pulling it up with Him. The alternative hypothesis is not legend, nor exaggeration, nor the apparitions of a ghost. It is either lunacy or lies. Unless one can take the second alternative (and I can’t) one turns to the Christian theory.

If the Resurrection was simply a case of a man dying and living again, it would be hard to fathom. Once you’ve seen death, you understand it’s not likely to be reversed. Dead one minute and alive the next? That’s just too hard to believe. It’s no wonder that rumors circulated that the disciples had carried Jesus’ body away to enhance the rumors that he had risen.

But the miracle of Easter goes much beyond the passage from life into death and back into the same quality of life we had left behind. Why would we want to do that? “How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back,” C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, a journal of his mourning following the death of his wife.  The idea of returning to life after safely passing through the portal of death was appalling to Lewis.  “Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed to crawl back -- to be sucked back -- into it?”

But that is not the life we celebrate on Easter morning. What we are celebrating is that God, through Jesus, has ushered in a “totally new mode of being” in the universe, not just life but – groping lamely for words to describe it – a life abundant.

We shall never fully understand it until it happens, and we may never find words to express it. Christian F. Gellert tried to express it in 1757:

Jesus lives and so shall I.
Death! Thy sting is gone forever.
He, who deigned for me to die,
Lives the bands of death to sever.
He shall raise me with the just;
Jesus is my hope and trust.

For now, it must be enough to hope and trust. There is a new mode of being in the universe. And death and life as we have known them have been changed forever.