Living Into the Promises of Faith: a Reflection on Death and Resurrection on Easter, 2016

12919743_10156734709950346_1456414332091388585_n
Crucifix on the altar of All Saints Episcopal Church in Norton, Virginia on Easter Sunday.

As I write, it is now the evening of Easter, 2016. I am holed up in my attic which also serves as my makeshift home office and writing space. It’s been quite awhile since I have written anything that I have felt that I needed to share publicly, and as such, this blog has mostly gone without being updated. It isn’t that there hasn’t been a lot on my mind. Far from it. In fact, the thoughts and emotions I have been dealing with for the past few months extend far deeper than anything I have ever faced in my twenty-nine years, and articulating much of what I’ve been feeling into coherent language has proven a challenge, though not for lack of trying.

 

Let me start off by saying that I have to make a confession. Although I am currently attending seminary, Easter has often been challenging for me. I want so badly for the message of Easter, on which the entirety of the Christian faith hinges, to be true. I want to believe in the empty tomb. I want to believe in angels in white, bearing witness. I want to believe in the reality of Eternal Life. I want to believe in the dead Jewish rabbi who has become the Risen Lord.

Most of the time, like many people, both religious and secular, I have a hard time believing in the literal truth of this claim. In my experience of dealing with death, no matter how much we mourn and grieve and cry out against the loss of those we love, the dead stay dead.

10917045_10155130943280346_7582143535876716393_n
One of the last photos of taken of my Dad and I together, eight months before he died.

I lost my father unexpectedly in August of 2015. He died just six days after I turned twenty-nine. He was only fifty-seven. As much as I was grieving, and as much as I still am, in the days and weeks that followed my father’s death, I felt a peace beyond anything I had ever felt. It wasn’t an emotionless peace. Far from it, I felt love and joy and sorrow and pity for all of my fellow human beings beyond anything I have ever felt, and yet, at the same time, a serenity of mind overcome me, a feeling that, ultimately, all was well with everything. God’s presence was an ever-present reality that was not only undeniable but self-evident.

It may sound odd to say, but nothing brings out the beauty in life quite like death.

Dad’s death was the most intensely I had ever felt this state of mind, but this wasn’t my first rodeo with the Big Sleep. Death has been a constant, unwanted companion in my life and in my consciousness for the past eight years, ever since my younger cousin, Stephanie, was killed in a car crash. Her father, Dad’s younger brother, followed her in a separate car accident, just over a month after she died. My great-grandmother followed the two of them about a year later. The events of 2008 and 2009 had left me mindful of my own mortality and deeply anxious and fearful about my own impending demise and the eventuality of losing everyone I loved.

My emotions following my Dad’s death were different. I found that I no longer feared death at all. I had faced it at its bloody worst, having watched my own father die of an internal hemorrhage. The thing about hemorrhages is that, at least in my father’s case, the blood didn’t stay internal. Transfusion after transfusion was bled out from the inside, pouring from his mouth and into a tube that poured into a clear bucket behind the hospital bed. I must have watched the nurses carry at least a dozen buckets of blood that had passed through my father’s veins out of the intensive care ward at the veteran’s hospital.

 

In Dad’s final moments, I prayed over his dying body. In his medically induced comatose state, I don’t know if he heard my prayer, but it is my deepest hope that he did. I didn’t beg God to spare my father. I didn’t beg my Dad to stay with me. I prayed instead, to my own father’s Heavenly Father, that it was my will that His will be done, telling my Dad that if he needed to go, he could. That he had given me all the tools I needed to be my own man, with the most important one being faith.
In that moment, I can honestly state that I had no fear of death whatsoever. And as my dad went into cardiac arrest, I remember a still small voice within me saying, “the years between now and when you see your father again will fly by faster than you can imagine, and when you see him again, Rance, you’ll both be young again.”

12316424_10156291074085346_4150247502442999715_n
My Dad (left) as a young man with his brothers, John (center), who died in 2008 and David.

In that moment, I was living into the promises of my faith, releasing my father’s soul to the care of God and trusting completely in the promise of resurrection and eternal life. Though my soul had never known such sorrow as it did in losing my kind and gentle and unconditionally loving father, the reality of Heaven and the presence of God had never seemed nearer. There are still occurrences that I think back on in the days that followed my Dad’s death that seem to me to be more than coincidence, as if I was receiving messages and winks every day that my Dad was fine and was happy.

Now, though, it is seven months out from that day in the ICU, where my entire world seemed to take on the quality of a Renaissance-era religious painting. Though I am enrolled in seminary studies, and while I pray and attend church regularly, the world doesn’t seem as meaningfully filled with the Spirit of God as it did in the days and weeks after my father’s death. Life is normal again, and I am once again just a normal man facing the same struggles and trials and temptations and doubts that many of us face every single day. Dare I say it, heaven no longer seems so near, and life is once again mundane and routine. Working, paying bills, saving money, keeping up with my studies and trying to balance those responsibilities with my responsibilities to my family and my community take up most of my time.

 

I can even say that over the past couple of months, I have slipped into a mild state of restless depression. Not a sadness, no, the sadness has mostly departed, but an emptiness remains.

When even our sadness in the wake of a death leaves us, it is hard to believe in resurrection. It is hard to believe in eternal life. It is hard to believe in hope.

But I wonder sometimes, what would happen if I started to live as if I did believe in those things? How would I live differently if I believed that a man had risen from death? How would I live differently if I believed in the same unconditionally loving God that my own Dad did? Would I think differently? Would I feel differently?

Since enrolling in seminary, my faith has been tested, many, many times. I often feel, in my heart, that I am “not good enough.” Not good enough to serve. Not good enough to teach. Not kind enough to reach people. Not strong enough to meet people in their darkest moments, to carry the weight of their baggage and my own.

I’m too angry. I’m too bitter. I’m too cynical. I’m too fat. I’m too lustful. I’m too poor. I’m too filled with darkness.

I’m too empty. I’m too much of a sinner.

 

But today, listening to the softly singing voices of older ladies in the choir and eating the Eucharist, drinking the blood of Christ, I decided that I am going to try, God help me, to live into the promise of my faith.

You see, my faith promises me that there is no darkness that is too dark for God to shine His light into, including the darkness of a tomb. There is no sin that is too egregious to cancel out God’s unconditional love. Even as Jesus was crucified, his words cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” There is no doubt that cannot be answered by faith and grace and there is no emptiness that cannot be filled by God’s love and no death that cannot and will not be ultimately overcome by Christ’s resurrection.

People often make the mistake, I think, of trying to “prove” or “disprove” an article of faith, as if faith is about a simple intellectual agreement with a propositional statement. But faith is about much more than that. Its true call reaches into the deepest and darkest corners of our being and unites us with the Being that is beyond all time and space.

Ultimately, faith is about trust. Faith is about hope. Faith is about moving forward when we don’t even know where the destination is, let alone have the route traced on a map. But above all this, faith is about love. It’s about loving the unlovable elements that you find in other people and maybe, most importantly, it’s about letting go of your guilt and your bitterness and your anger and your sadness and seeing and loving yourself and others as God sees you and as God sees them.

With unconditional love and acceptance.

That, to me, is grace. That, to me, is the promise of faith. And that is what Christ in his resurrection offers each of us. The possibility of a better and more compassionate world and the hope of eternal life, lived without fear.

11891148_10155977474210346_7291437913122335138_nAn hour glass, which was going to be my father’s birthday to me.  My step-mother gave it to me the day after he died.  It is surrounded by smaller “egg-timers,” which my Dad bought me as a little boy.  This gift was a great comfort to me in the days after Dad’s death and still serves me as a reminder of his love and the preciousness of life and time.  

Saturday Night. 8 PM

It is Saturday night, 8 PM.  I am sitting in my living room and the house is quite comfortably warm and cozy on this February evening.  The light from the kitchen is giving off a soft glow and there is a faint buzz of electricity about, along with the whimpering of our puppy, currently in time out in her kennel for trying to chase our two cats.  We have to set boundaries.

My father and step-mother came to visit us earlier.  My father and I spent a considerable amount of time talking about our mutual faith, our relatives, our lives.   He has decided to give up drinking beer altogether, and is trying to live a healthier lifestyle.  He is also wearing a nicotine patch and has curbed his smoking of cigarettes considerably.  At fifty-seven years old, these changes are not easy for him, but I am very proud of him for making them nevertheless.  Change is never easy.

My wife has been in an angry mood today.  I have been in angry mood over the past week.  But we have not been angry with each other and we seldom are.  I am thankful for our love.  It has sustained me through the darkest of times and over the past six years has been a source of strength and of joy for both of us.  Both of us have been spending considerable time reflecting on the injustices that so many of our human family are currently facing.  The killer of a transgendered black woman had whose bond was set at a thousand dollars.  A close friend got ripped off.  A former coworker was screwed over by a big bank.  All over the world, we see the evidence of a system and a way of life that for so many people is causing such suffering and such a sense of separation and anxiety.  I myself have felt this separation, this anxiety, this sense of something-being-off many times.  So have many other people. Lord have mercy.  Kyrie eleison.

And yet, though these feelings seem to be common to the human condition, what is also common to the condition of humanity in modern society is that we shouldn’t really talk about these things or dwell on them too deeply.  To admit our own insecurities about those things which trouble our spirits seems to be definitely frowned upon.  The West in general and America in particular wants success stories, feel-good stories, rags-to-riches, American Idol, destruction, delusion, and ignorance.  Even the things which gain considerable attention among the masses are not the Real Thing.

What do I mean by this?  Understand as you read this, if you read this, that this blog post is in no way meant to spark a discussion of policy nor is it meant to solve a problem.  I am writing this in a rather stream-of-conscious matter and I have no intention to go back and make corrections or try to build a coherent argument after the fact.  This is a blog, not a college thesis.  This is a journal-made-public, not a news article.  I am just some guy, not an authority on anything in particular.

But in my role as just-some-guy, an everyman in every sense, I suppose I have a sense of empathy for all the other just-some-guys or just-some-women or just-some persons in the world.  I have faced my own multitude of struggles:  spiritual, existential, financial, physical.  I am far from perfect, though innate perfection is not something I desire.  “Perfection.”  Oh, how we obsess over it, how we desire it.  How it is projected into our lives at every moment, an unattainable ideal in which all the bills are paid, the body is without blemish, the soul is without suffering, the spirit is without doubt, the bank account runneth over, the Caribbean awaits on vacation.  But how many of us live that reality?  Not many.

Most of us work for a living after all.  We have our doubts about how well we are doing our jobs; how well we are engaging in our various relationships, both personal and professional; how well we are making it financially, spiritually, mentally.  We look in the mirrors and we do not see the perfect bodies of a Hollywood royal.  Our houses are not McMansions.  Our energy is not boundless.  We have our human limitations.

Christ Buddha
And it is in these limitations that we most deeply encounter our humanity, and therefore where we most deeply approach something that could be called Divine.  Examine Christ on the cross, bloodied and suffering.  Examine Buddha beneath the tree having put himself through every suffering imaginable and coming across the other side with that famous enlightened grin.  In both we see humanity in terms of its limits, not its boundless possibilities.  In both we encounter a form of divinity that suffers with us and through us on the most basic and primal of levels.  We do not here encounter boundless power or boundless energy or even boundless understanding.  Instead we encounter a set of limitations that speak volumes as to the human capacity for compassion when faced with the suffering and wisdom of others.  For it is in that otherness that we can truly learn, truly expand, truly become more alive to our own possibilities.

Humanity, you are great.  You are strong.  You are good and noble and should be proud.  But yet you, and when I say you, I include myself as part of that you, you walk as if one enslaved with your head bowed down.  You throw yourself over to your fears and your anxieties and you feel as if you are less than those around you, that they are not struggling with the same anxiety of being human.  But this is a complete fallacy and a complete fraud, a completely delusional falsehood perpetrated by your own self-awareness concentrating too much upon its own egoistic fear. . . . and pride.

Humanity, you have a responsibility.  You have a deep responsibility to love and to show and to share that love to those around you to the best of your ability, for the ones you see as other, they are really you in disguise.  From a strictly materialistic and scientific view (which I don’t subscribe to but nevertheless) they are born out of the same process of beautiful evolution.  Their atoms were forged in the same stars, those stars were born out of the same cosmic Bang.  From a Judeo-Christian perspective, they are creations of the same Father.  From a more universally spiritual perspective, they are a part of the same creative energy.

And the key to take away from this, both for myself and for anyone who happens to read it, is that it is perfectly OKAY to acknowledge all three of these things simultaneously.  It is okay to recognize the other as yourself.  It is okay to feel compassion.  It is okay to let your heart run over with love.  It is okay to let music move you to tears or to let out a big belly laugh or to howl at the moon or to do whatever you damn well please as long as you are not hurting another, which is really just hurting yourself, by your actions.

It is okay to let other people know how beautiful you find them.  It is okay to let them bask in your love, and it is okay to bask in their love.    It is okay to be a human being with all of the myriad complications, imperfections, and straining and growing pains that being a completely human, human being entails.

And what’s more, it’s okay to feel angry when you see something that doesn’t sit right with your sense of how other people ought to be treated.  It’s okay to feel deep rage at injustice, wherever we find it.  It’s okay to feel as if injustice offends some moral principle to the universe, or to God, because injustice is just that.

Of course, popular thought would tell you that to talk about love, peace, and nonviolence is just so much “hippie-dippy-shit” and to speak of injustice too much or too loudly is revolutionary or radical or worse.  I have no grand point to make in my final paragraph because to go on any longer would be to ramble too self-indulgently except to say that it is been too long since i have updated this blog and I will be doing so far more often in the near future.  I am writing this, very thankful for my wife and my family and the friendships and faith that have carried me for my past twenty-eight years on this planet.  I hope that if you are reading this, you can find something in your life to be thankful for as well.

Love Will Always Bring You Down, and That’s All Right

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.”
–Matthew 7:13

 

“Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
–John 18:36

 

“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
–2 Corinthians 4:4

 

“Love is all you need.”
–John Lennon

 

I took the day off today.  Completely.  

In spite of the fact that I was supposed to be in class.  In spite of the fact that the mountain of work that my final semester in college has put on my shoulders.  In spite of the fact that I should have been staying busy, busy, busy all day today just to maintain some semblance of staying on top of things.  

Instead, I put it all to the side.  I spent last night hanging out with my fiancé and some of the closest friends I’ve ever had.  I spent today hanging out with them as well, and this afternoon, I accompanied my fiancé to a local tattoo shop where she got a new tattoo and I redid a piercing in one of my ears.  I consider this a good day, and I consider the occasional shirking of responsibilities a noble act, in the right circumstances.  

And in what circumstance would that be?  When we have the opportunity, in whatever small way, to strengthen the relationships that we have with those we love.  Now, obviously, we can’t do this everyday.  We can’t even do this as much as we would like.  

But I do often notice that we live in a world where people to seem to be increasingly busy, increasingly hurried, and increasingly anxious about their situation in life.  I suppose this may be nothing new, but it does seem that for some people the priority list in life seems to be career and ambitions first, then personal health including physical, spiritual, and psychological, then relationships with friends and family.

You see, the people you love will always bring you down.  They will.  They will always take your precious time, time that could be spent being productive and reaching goals and force you to give that time to them.  And you will.  Because that is what love is.  Love is the giving of the most valuable asset that any of us possess to another:  time.  And of course, we see this time as finite, because from our perspective, it is.  

As a child in Sunday school, I never understood what was meant when we were told that “The Devil is the god of this world.”  When we were told that “God’s Kingdom is not in this world.”  When we were told that “narrow is the way to salvation.”  And while many a Christian has brought themselves to believe that all this is referring to some otherworldly fate awaiting people after death, we must live that eternity is now if it is anytime, and that when we ignore those whom we love (and if we call ourselves Christians, as I do, then our mission is to love the whole world while not being a part of it, more on that in a minute) then we are denying an essential part of what it means to grasp at the divinity of Christ.  We can only serve God by serving those we love, and we are to love and forgive all.  This is stark contrast to the self-help, get-her-done culture that the Western world has developed in which the rugged individual and his or her (usually his) success is praised and worshipped above all else; where we idolize the constantly busy and successful CEO or movie star; where we are told if you dare to be poor and happy, you are a failure or worse, a leech on the rest of society that is bringing everyone around you down.  

And while career ambition is a good and lofty thing to have, it isn’t the be all end all of what our brief lives in this world are to be about.  And while I believe it is perfectly fine to own things, we must never allow ourselves to be in the frame of mind that allows our things, our wealth, our material goods or even our physical bodies, to own us, to own our will, or to own our souls.  And I write this knowing that as the Apostle Paul wrote, I am certainly chief among sinners, for I have allowed all of these things, at one time or another, to own me.  

Planning on having a kid?  Kiss that perfect body and those nights out goodbye.
Planning on getting married?  You’re going to be sharing nearly every spare minute of your life with another person, forget about all those hours you’ve spending binge watching “House of Cards.”  Unless you’re marrying a fellow “House of Cards” fan, in which case, carry on.
Friends coming over for dinner and drinks tonight?  Forget about working on that novel, pal.  There goes a life of fortune and fame.  

Yes, all that important work we should be doing to further ourselves, or hell, even those quite plans for relaxation we had planned, particularly important for a natural introvert like me (I’m very extroverted in my daily life, but it’s come with great practice over many years) go right out the window when the ones we love desire our time.  But last night, while I was sitting in my living room, accompanied by my several of my closest friends, it hit me.  I need not worry.  As long as I have these people, I’m already wealthy beyond measure.  Are they taking away from my productivity?  Yup.  Are they keeping me from my studies?  Yup.  Are they draggin’ me down?  Absolutely.  

But I wouldn’t have it any other way.  

Let us always be mindful of what is truly important and realize that if we aren’t living for love, then what’s the point, anyway?