February 19, 2018

On Resurrection and Eternal Life (4)

As a hospice chaplain, my work revolves around supporting the dying and their families. I officiate many funerals. I deal with questions about death and what happens after people die. I am asked regularly about mysteries beyond our human experience in this life.

On Mondays we are delving into this subject, considering what Gerhard Lohfink has to say in his excellent new book, Is This All There Is?: On Resurrection and Eternal Life.

The final two chapters of part one, which gives an overview of various perspectives on what happens to human beings after death, explore how some have concluded that people die and become a part of Nature, taking their part in Nature’s eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

I am only a wavelet in the ocean.
The wave comes and goes.
The ocean remains; it is forever.

or

we’re the people who walk the fields
soon we’ll be people under the fields
and will all become field and oak
yes, we’ll be proper country folk.

From proponents of certain Eastern religions, to pagan pantheists, to those who track the natural biological processes by which the atoms from which we are made separate from us and move on to new associations, to sentimentalists who “see” their deceased loved ones in the flowers, wind, and rain, there has always been a stream of thinking that has longed for dissolution of the individual into the oneness of the cosmos.

Every day I look deeply at everything around me; the trees, the hills, my friends. I see myself in them all and I know I shall not die. I will continue in many other forms. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

One of the poems I see regularly on funeral folders and hear recited at memorial services is this piece by Mary Elizabeth Frye:

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Whatever truth or comfort may be found in us taking our place in nature’s cycle, Lohfink will have none of this in the end. Not only Christianity, but even the processes of evolution teach us that the movement of life is not from the individual to dissolution, but from simpler to more complex, definitive individualism:

When I look at this whole mysticism of dissolution, which (supposedly) is happy that we can flow into trees, mountains, and meteors, I ask myself: Didn’t human biological and cultural evolution develop in precisely the opposite direction? — namely, to a more and more powerful awareness of the self, freedom from mere instincts and compulsions, emancipation from the dominance of the collective, becoming persons, a more and more intense understanding of the irreplaceable nature of every individual? (p. 45f)

And, as Gerhard Lohfink concludes this first section of the book, he argues that the desire for immortality rather than mere extinction or dissolution into the natural elements has always been a dominant human desire.

Easter Vigil 2014

The question of what comes after death was proposed with the fullest intensity millennia before Christianity; we need only think of Egypt. …And it has not been silenced even now. It emerges in the most varied forms over and over again, often hidden and in dubious guises. It belongs to the nature of humans, who reach for infinity in everything they do.

Therefore we may and must ask: What happens to us in death? What happens to our life, our “I,” our consciousness, the history of our life? Is it all over for us? Is death followed by profound night, eternal sleep, and absolute nothingness? Is our self extinguished forever? Or is it followed by the life Christians describe in that worn-out but irreplaceable phrase as “eternal bliss”?

But not only that: we may and must ask about the history of the world. What will become of the countless people who have been degraded, tortured, raped, murdered? Will the injustice, lies, manipulation, suffering of billions of innocent people never be uncovered, revealed? And in turn: Will the endless efforts to discover truth, to ease the sufferings of the downtrodden, to improve the conditions of society ultimately lead to nothing, because not only do individuals die but whole nations and cultures vanish, and inevitable destruction awaits everything in the end? Or will there be a revelation by God of everything that has ever happened throughout history, and with it the resurrection of all history into God — into the love of God that creates justice? (p. 55f)

Lent I: Love for the Wilderness to Come

Sermon: Lent I
Love for the Wilderness to Come

Mark 1.9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

• • •

The Lord be with you.

On Wednesday night we looked back to last Sunday’s Gospel, which told the story of Jesus’ transfigura-tion. I made the point that this was the start of Jesus’ and the disciples’ journey to the cross. They were about to set on a course that would be dark and difficult, and to strengthen and sustain their hearts, he gave them a vision of great light and splendor, showing them for the only time something of his true glory as the beloved Son of God. This was light for the dark journey to come, a journey we will join them on during this Lenten season.

Today’s Gospel text takes us back to the beginning of Jesus’ journey of ministry. This is when God sent him out for the work he was called to do — proclaiming the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, and demonstrating that through powerful words and acts of love and mercy. This is the traditional text we read on the first Sunday in Lent, and just as the story of the Transfiguration showed how Jesus prepared his friends for the darkness to come, so this story tells us how God prepared Jesus for the wilderness and temptation that was to come as he went about his work.

As we read this text, you may have noticed something similar to last week’s Transfiguration story. In both cases, the heavens were opened and God’s voice was heard from heaven, affirming that Jesus was the beloved Son of God. Immediately after his baptism and this divine affirmation, Mark says, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, there to be tested by the evil one, to be beset by the wild beasts, and to experience the comforting ministry of God’s angels.

I want to suggest to you today that this story shows us how Jesus was prepared for the difficult journey of ministry he took. It was through his baptism and through the affirmation of God’s love for him as his beloved child that Jesus was strengthened and would be sustained in the days and years to come.

And so, if the Transfiguration was meant to give light to the disciples for their dark journey, Jesus’ baptism was meant to put God’s love firmly in his heart for the lonely and tempting journey into the wilderness he made.

Mark spares us the details of the temptations Satan subjected Jesus to. It is enough to for him to tell us that he went into the wilderness for forty days. This is a clear allusion to the story of Israel, who were delivered from Egypt and became God’s sons and daughters at Mt. Sinai, where they received the word that God had chosen them to be a nation of priests, called to bring his light to the whole world. When they left Mt. Sinai, they travelled into the wilderness and faced temptation after temptation, test after test. In the face of those challenges, they let go of God’s word of redeeming love and failed those tests by failing to trust that God was with them to help and sustain them.

However, unlike the Hebrews, when Jesus went into the wilderness, he held on to God’s word that was given at his baptism, clung to his identity as God’s beloved Son, and trusted God when he was tested. In baptism, God had reinforced his love and calling for Jesus in a powerful, memorable way. Jesus remembered that, and it sustained him.

But that’s not all. Mark includes a message for followers of Jesus here as well. There is an interesting detail in Mark that is not found in any of the other Gospel stories of Jesus’ temptation. Look at v. 13 — “He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

Folks have wondered why Mark added this detail about the “wild beasts.” Let me tell you why I think it’s there.

The traditional view is that Mark was associated closely with the Apostle Peter, and that his Gospel reflects Peter’s point of view. Peter, of course, was identified with the church in Rome, and it is said that Peter died in Rome as a martyr under the Emperor Nero during a particularly intense period of persecution. Commenters think that Mark may have been written as a pastoral Gospel, designed to strengthen and sustain the Christians in Rome who were going through that persecution.

If that is the case, then Mark’s mention of the “wild beasts” here would be very clear to those first readers. It would have a special significance for those called to face the wild beasts in the arena. It would say to them that their Savior faced the same kind of testing and the same danger and difficulty they did.

It would also remind them to find strength and sustenance in the same way Jesus did, by remembering their baptism, when God’s word affirmed them as his beloved daughters and sons, and by knowing that God’s angels were with them to minister to them no matter what they had to endure.

And so, Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation is meant to be an encouragement to all of us as well. The journey of discipleship is filled with challenges, obstacles, and pitfalls. It can be like the wilderness — lonely and dangerous. We face trials without and temptations within. Sometimes it seems as though we are at the mercy of the wild beasts of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Here is my encouragement to all of us today — let us remember our baptism. As we walk through each day, which can sometime be a wilderness, let us remember and hold on to the fact that God has washed us clean and claimed us as his own beloved children. Let this affirmation strengthen and sustain us.

And as we face whatever “wild beasts” of adversity may threaten us, let us rest in God’s accompanying presence and the ministry of God’s angels. We are his beloved children, and nothing can ever separate us from his love. Amen.

The Saturday Monks Brunch: February 17, 2018

PRESIDENTS DAY EDITION

THE PRESIDENTS’ PERK — CAMP DAVID

Intriguing photo essay at The National from a book marking the 75th anniversary of the presidential retreat at Camp David in 2017.

During his first two terms, President Franklin Roosevelt retreated on the presidential yacht, the USS Potomac. But WWII changed everything. Security officials feared that the yacht could be sunk by German U‑boats or attacked from the air, so they decided that it was just too risky to use. In March 1942, officials from the National Park Service were tasked with looking for a location that could serve as a presidential retreat.

They chose an old WPA site from the 1930s in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, that to this day is very difficult to find. Camp David’s official name is Naval Support Facility Thurmont, and it is commanded by a U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps officer and staffed by a team of sailors, marines and other military personnel under the White House Military Office (WHMO). The retreat was named for President Eisenhower’s grandson.

Today, absolute privacy is the gift Camp David continues to bestow on presidents. Press access is extremely limited, and photography is rarely permitted. Unlike at the White House, where every moment is observed and recorded, at the camp, it is possible to close the door and draw the curtains, shutting out the nation for a precious brief time. It’s a place where presidents can breathe.

Here are a few pictures from over the years, featuring most of the presidents who have enjoyed respite at Camp David.

YEAH, THIS IS GOING TO GO WELL…

From RNS:

The founder of a Kentucky creationism museum will appear at an Oklahoma university, after all, after the student body president initially canceled the event over objections of female and LGBTQ students and their supporters.

Creation Museum founder Ken Ham and the University of Central Oklahoma announced Thursday that the event will happen March 5, as planned.

HAIR TODAY, MULLET FOREVER!

From The Daily Telegraph:

A Hunter Valley town, which some claim is the Australian home of the mullet hairstyle, will host a festival to celebrate the cut which arguably epitomised toughness and sexuality in the 1980s.

The inaugural Mullet Fest in Kurri Kurri will centre around a competition to award the best mullet in five categories — every day, grubby, ranga, ladies and junior mullet and publican.

After the winner in each category is announced, the person with the “best mullet of them all” will be crowned, said hairdresser and festival host Laura Hawkins.

I hope those who are participating realize that wearing a mullet requires maintaining a lifestyle:

SPRING TRAINING REPORT…

Why I love Chicago Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon.

GLASS GETS IN YOUR EYE

From Bloomberg:

The centerpiece of Apple Inc.’s new headquarters is a massive, ring-shaped office overflowing with panes of glass, a testament to the company’s famed design-obsessed aesthetic.

There’s been one hiccup since it opened last year: Apple employees keep smacking into the glass.

Surrounding the building, located in Cupertino, California, are 45-foot tall curved panels of safety glass. Inside are work spaces, dubbed “pods,” also made with a lot of glass. Apple staff are often glued to the iPhones they helped popularize. That’s resulted in repeated cases of distracted employees walking into the panes, according to people familiar with the incidents.

AN UPDATE ON THIS WEEK’S WORSHIP…

THE SURPRISING HUMMINGBIRD

You MUST check out this set of amazing interactive videos on hummingbirds at National Geographic. New advances in camera technology allowed researchers to record these lightning-fast creatures and observe their behaviors in speeds the human eye can discern. Yes, the picture above shows the hummingbird’s tongue.

THIS WILL NEVER BE ME…

Last week we were watching the tear-jerk episode of This Is Us when it shows how the dad, Jack, died. He went back into the house for the family dog and also brought out “the family photo album.” Remember when we had “the family photo album”? THE family photo album. I looked at Gail (this being shortly after we had moved) and said, “Yeah, I would have had to carry out 20 large boxes.”

MORE SPACEX NEWS

From The Washington Post:

SpaceX is preparing to hit another orbital milestone with the launch of a pair of experimental satellites on Sunday that are designed to beam an ultrafast, lag-free Internet connection down to Earth.

The test satellites, dubbed Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, are a part of a years-long plan by chief executive Elon Musk to create a fleet of orbiting devices to blanket the globe in wireless broadband connectivity. SpaceX ultimately intends to put about 12,000 broadband satellites in low Earth orbit, and Sunday’s payload will mark the company’s first attempt at realizing the dream. The initial satellites in the network are expected to come online next year.

FINALLY, MORE NICK DRAKE

This may be the prettiest song Nick Drake (our Lenten muse) ever recorded. This is “Thoughts of Mary Jane,” from his first album, Five Leaves Left [LP].

Enjoy, and happy Saturday.

 

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The Saturday Monks Brunch: February 10, 2018

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