The Tyranny of Being “Fine”

Newcomers to this country are often surprised by how frequently Americans ask each other, “How are you?” In most other countries, such inquiries would be considered an invasion of privacy, or at the very least irrelevant to the imagesconversation. Of course, newcomers are even more surprised to learn that this query is largely perfunctory. Indeed, there is only one “correct” response to this question. No matter what is happening in our lives, there is a collective cultural expectation that we will respond, “Fine” when someone asks us how we are. We are instructed and encouraged in this behavior from an early age. Even my 21 month old somehow knows to say “Good” when I ask her how she slept. While it may seem that there is nothing wrong with this, there is something troubling about this tendency. Our collective assumption that the only thing to say is “fine” when someone asks us how we are eventually convinces us that the only way to be is “fine.” When we force ourselves to be “fine,” we lose something elemental about the human experience.

What we lose is the opportunity to grieve. Sometimes being “fine” is not an option; sometimes, when we are faced with loss and uncertainty, grief is the only appropriate response. Yet, when we assume that “fine” is our baseline, grief becomes abnormal, something we need to dispense with as efficiently as possible. We end up thinking of grief as a process, something we can “do the right way.” We cannot, however, approach grief as a problem to be solved; it is something we must experience as a fundamental aspect of who we are. Indeed, grief is a centrally important part of our lives because loss is central to our lives. Part of mystery of being human is that we have the capacity to love even what we know we will lose. Grief permits us to recognize this paradox, because it allows us to trust that even what we have lost belongs to God. The ability to grieve is part crucial component of the Christian life. The Book of Common Prayer, for instance, notes that rite for the Burial of the Dead “finds all meaning in the resurrection,” which is God’s pledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. At the same time, the prayer book notes that human grief is not unchristian: that the deep sorrow we experience when we lose someone is animated by the love we have for one another in Christ.

There are times when we are not “fine.” There are times that we experience that deep pain of loss that is a fundamental part of the human experience. It is in these times that we need to summon the grace to grieve, to admit that we are not fine, and to trust that even what we have lost belongs to God.

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The Gospel according to Roy Williams

Last week, the Villanova Wildcats defeated the Carolina Tar Heels in the championship game of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Both teams played with brilliance and passion. Indeed, it was the most exciting Championship game anyone can remember: there were countless lead changes and the result literally came down to the final moments of the game. Kris-Jenkins-buzzerbeater-jpg-300x169With 11 seconds remaining, UNC was down by three. Marcus Paige, the veteran Carolina guard, attempted an ugly, contested three point shot, which miraculously found the basket, tying the game. With 4.5 seconds left, Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono drove the ball down the court and passed it to Kris Jenkins, who launched and made a buzzer beating three pointer, winning the game and shocking millions of viewers. It was one of the great finishes in the history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, one of those moments that reminded me why I enjoy watching sports.

The most compelling moment of the Villanova victory, however, took place off the court. After the game, correspondent Tracy Wolfson interviewed Roy Williams, Carolina’s highly decorated head coach. Though these post-game interviews are a standard and often tedious part of the sports viewing experience, full of platitudes and cliches, there was something different about this one. imgresWilliams’ face was red and swollen; it was clear he had barely composed himself for this interview. As he fought back tears, he told Wolfson, “I’ve been a head coach for 28 years, and the worst thing on a loss like this is I feel so inadequate.” It was a moment of searing honesty and undeniable truth. Carolina played brilliantly. They “left it all out on the floor,” as the saying goes. They shot astonishingly well (65%) from the three point line in spite of being the worst three point shooting team in the history of the school. They even made a nearly miraculous shot to tie the game with seconds left. In other words, they did everything right! Yet they still lost the game. No wonder Coach Williams felt inadequate. He was bereft, because everything he implicitly understood about the game of basketball and about life had come crashing down. After being asked what he said to his team in the locker room, Williams mused, “I just talked, I mean…nothing, because you can’t say anything.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes his life before he had his experience of God’s grace: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul had everything going for him. He was doing everything right. He was more than adequate; he was confident that he could make himself worthy of God’s favor with his accomplishments. “Yet,” he continues, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” There was a moment in Paul’s life when he realized that in spite of all his accomplishments, he was inadequate. There was a moment when everything Paul understood about the world came crashing down. In this moment, Paul had to locate his trust, not in his own ability, but in the grace that had been made known to him in Jesus Christ.

Ironically, the most eloquent moment of the interview with Roy Williams was when he admitted that there was nothing he could say to his players in the face of their loss. With this admission, Williams uncovered a fundamental truth: when we come face to face with our inadequacy, words fail us. Several years ago, the Diocese of North Carolina released a video featuring the Right Reverend Michael Curry, who is currently the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. At one point, Bishop Curry describes what it’s like to bring Holy Communion to those on the margins of life. “What do you say to a person who is dying?” he asks. “What do you say to a person who is on death row? What do you say to a person that is addicted to a life that’s destroying them? I don’t have the words and you don’t. But Jesus does.” That is the gospel. As Roy Williams demonstrated last week, there are moments in our lives when words will fail us, when accomplishments will fail us, when our carefully constructed self-image will come crashing down. The only thing that will not fail, that cannot fail is the grace that has been made known to us in Jesus Christ.

Disruption

Sermon on John 21:1-19 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Warren_G_Harding-Harris_&_EwingThe presidential campaign of 1920 introduced a new word into the American lexicon. After years of political turmoil at home and abroad, Warren G. Harding promised that his presidency would signal a “return to normalcy” in the United States. No longer would Americans have to worry about world wars and Leagues of Nations; instead, they could return to what they knew before the world fell apart. Americans responded enthusiastically to this neologism: Harding earned 60 percent of the popular vote and 404 votes in the Electoral College. For a time, it seemed that Harding’s pledge came to fruition. The Roaring Twenties were a time of economic growth and relative domestic tranquility. Though the twenties failed to roar for farmers and racial minorities, many people assumed that Harding’s promised “return to normalcy” was a permanent state of affairs.

Before long, however, it became clear that this was an illusion. By the end of the decade, the stock market had crashed, touching off the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. Meanwhile, military dictators took power in Europe and Asia, setting the world on an inexorable path toward yet another global war. In some ways, it was actually the world’s haste to get back to normal that precipitated these crises. In the end, our collective desire to return to normalcy became part of the endless cycle of violence and retribution that has characterized all human history.

Returning to normalcy is what seems to motivate Peter and the other disciples in our gospel reading today. After years of following a charismatic and unpredictable teacher, the disciples returned to what they knew before they met Jesus. They returned their easy lives as fishermen. This is not to say that the life of a fisherman was easy in the first century: it was backbreaking, difficult work in which the line between starvation and subsistence was incredibly thin. The ease of this life could be found in its predictability. There was something familiar, almost comforting about the drudgery of mending nets, the stench of decaying fish, and the disappointment of a night without a catch. Peter and the other disciples understood how to deal with these challenges. As fishermen, they would not have to wrestle with the question of God’s purpose for them. They could live the rest of their lives governed by a predictable and timeworn routine.

Jesus disrupts this familiarity when he calls out to the disciples from the shores of Tiberias. Though they are initially excited, they become quiet when Jesus invites Peter and the other disciples to join him for breakfast by a charcoal fire. John implies that Peter and the other disciples eat their bread and fish in silence. Of course, there’s probably very little small talk to be made with someone who has been raised from the dead. There might be a deeper reason for this silence. Peter in particular may have been silent because the last time he saw a charcoal fire, he was in the courtyard of the high priest, the place where he denied Jesus three times. Peter had returned to his life as a fisherman to escape his rejection of Jesus, only to have Jesus return, reminding Peter of his faithlessness.

When Jesus finally disrupts the silence, he does it in the most revealing way possible. Fully aware of Peter’s guilt, Jesus turns to him and asks pointedly, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Jesus doesn’t call Peter by his nickname; Jesus uses the name Peter’s mother gave him. Three times Jesus asks this question and three times Peter responds. The implication seems clear: Peter erases his triple denial with a triple confession of love. While this may seem obvious to us, Peter doesn’t seem to get it. John tells us that he was hurt, that he was grieved by the repetition of Jesus’ question. On one hand, this may be a classic example of Peter’s thick-headedness: perhaps he just forgot what happened on that fateful night before Jesus died. On the other hand, we human beings have an extraordinary capacity to remember the times we failed. How often do we worry about how our relationship with someone has changed because of something we have said or done? Peter does not feel hurt because he has forgotten his failure; Peter grieves because he is apprehensive He is waiting for the other shoe to drop, he is anticipating a torrent of vengeance and righteous indignation from man he had so recently scorned. Peter wants to get these questions about love out of the way so that he can receive the judgment he so richly deserves. What Peter fails to understand, what we fail to understand is that the Resurrection is the judgment of God. What we fail to understand that the resurrection is the fullest expression of God’s love. In a way, the questions that Jesus asks Peter are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether Peter loves Jesus or not; what matters is that Jesus loves Peter. I don’t mean for that to sound glib, because it is of ultimate importance. Jesus loves Peter and all of us with a fullness that transcends all of our expectations. We would expect Jesus to punish Peter for rejecting him. We would at least expect him to require some extraordinary act of penitence. In the resurrection, however, God disrupts our assumptions about repentance and divine punishment and announces that even our rejection of God can be redeemed. In the resurrection, God liberates us from the endless cycle of vengeance and retribution and offers in its place a love that restores and renews all things.

Shepherd-and-SheepThis resurrection appearance is not just about Peter’s restoration. In his anxiety, Peter failed to recognize the true purpose of Jesus’ questions, which was to call Peter to a new vocation. Peter’s vocation changes in the other gospels, but only in its direction and emphasis.“You’re a fisherman? Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says at the beginning of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In John’s gospel, however, Jesus invites Peter into an entirely new vocation: “If you love me, take care of my flock.” In light of the resurrection, Jesus instructs Peter to shift his vocation from that of a hunter to that of a shepherd, from one whose work depends on violence to one whose work is shaped by love. What difference does the resurrection make to us? How will this redemptive and restorative love change our vocation?

Our world once again seems to be falling apart. Between war, terrorism, economic disaster, and climate change, hardly a day goes by without reminders of how fragile life is. In the face of these calamities, it would be tempting to proclaim that we would like to go back to the way things were before everything fell apart. But that is not the gospel. The gospel calls us to come to terms with the realities of our fallen world. Indeed, the Church’s vocation is not to call for a “return to normalcy.” Our vocation is to proclaim the endless cycle of death has been marvelously disrupted by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are called to lift our hearts above shame, guilt, and resentment and embrace the resurrection love that Jesus shows Peter, a love that reorders and renews all things.

Honesty

Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

FuneralI have been to a lot of funerals. Even before it was part of my job, attending funerals was a regular part of my routine. I have been to so many funerals, in fact, that I have become something of a connoisseur. While I would never want to say that there is any such thing as a “bad funeral,” there are certainly characteristics that make some funerals less meaningful than others. In particular, a funeral is less than successful when it is dishonest. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is when a funeral fails to acknowledge that someone has died. I have been a few “celebrations of life” in which no one mentioned that person being celebrated had died. It was as if they were in the other room. As a result, the congregation was deprived of the opportunity to deal with that fundamental human dilemma of mortality. There is also a more subtle way this lack of honesty is expressed, and it often takes place during the eulogies. As we all know, there tends to be an informal process of canonization that takes place as people are eulogized at their funerals. The deceased is described in glowing terms: he was the kindest, most generous, hardest working, funniest, most devoted, most patriotic person who ever walked the earth. The few flaws he had were humanizing traits that made him all the more lovable. It goes without saying that these plaudits can sometimes ring hollow. This is especially true when the circumstances of someone’s death are painful, when there is a sense that everyone is ignoring the elephant in the room. Of course, no one wants to dwell on the negative, and besides, there’s no reason to speak ill of the dead. We can choose to remember the good about a person without dwelling on their flaws. Nevertheless, this dishonesty can be deeply problematic. When we ignore very human failings of someone who has died, we deny something fundamental about our humanity. Indeed, when we choose to remember only what we want to remember about a person, we limit our understanding of God’ power to redeem all our days.

Today, as we do every second Sunday of Easter, we heard the timeworn story of Thomas and his doubt. This story is so familiar that we can almost rehearse it in our sleep. Jesus comes among the disciples (except for Thomas) after his Resurrection, wishing them peace and breathing the Holy Spirit upon them. Thomas returns after Jesus departs, and the other disciples excitedly tell him that they have seen the Lord. Thomas refuses to believe it. About a week later, Jesus returns, but this time Thomas is there. Jesus invites Thomas to place his fingers in his wounds, and Thomas falls down in worship, saying “My Lord and my God.” It seems like a very simple formula: Jesus appears among the disciples, Thomas doubts that he appeared and demands proof; Jesus appears again, and Thomas believes. Thomas seems to be the hero of a skeptical age, a proto-agnostic who refuses to believe in the supernatural unless he is offered definitive proof. It would seem Thomas’ role in the gospel is to offer us concrete proof that Jesus was raised from the dead.

This interpretation, however, fails to acknowledge Thomas’ state of mind after the resurrection. Thomas makes an earlier appearance in John’s gospel when Jesus announces his intention to visit the tomb of Lazarus. The other disciples, full of trepidation, remind Jesus that this would be unwise, since the Judeans were just trying to kill him. But Thomas affirmed, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” Thomas alone understood the danger of Jesus’ mission long before the road to Golgotha. Yet, just like the other disciples, Thomas vanishes when Jesus is brought before the authorities. Apart from Peter, Thomas is the only disciple who abandoned Jesus in spite of explicitly promising he would not. He was complicit in inflicting the wounds Jesus suffered on Calvary. Though we can only guess at what Thomas was feeling after the crucifixion, we can almost guarantee that he was a broken man, shattered by guilt over his infidelity.

All the disciples would have been experiencing some level of this guilt as they gathered in that locked room. They were paralyzed by fear and deeply aware that they had very recently abandoned their Lord and Teacher, the one who had called them friends. Yet John tells us that when the risen Christ appears in the midst of his friends, he addresses them, not with recrimination, but with words of peace. By way of illustration, he shows them his hands and his side. The wounds inflicted by the soldiers on Good Friday are part of Jesus’ resurrection reality. Christ’s dazzling resurrection body still bear the tokens of his passion. This is because the peace that Jesus proclaims is intimately connected to his wounds. Jesus does not use his wounds to condemn his disciples. He does not point to his hands and say “You did this to me!” Instead, he holds up his hands as if to say that God’s peace transcends even crucifixion, even the worst violence the world can inflict.

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasThomas seems to implicitly understand this relationship between Jesus’ wounds and the peace he offers. Thomas doesn’t simply demand to see Jesus. He does not say “Unless I see Jesus in this room, I will not believe.” Instead, Thomas claims that he cannot believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead unless he puts his fingers in the wounds of Jesus’ hands and places his hand in Jesus’ pierced side. Thomas needs to see the wounds he was complicit in inflicting. In a way, Thomas does not doubt the resurrection; Thomas doubts that his faithlessness can be redeemed. It is only when Thomas sees the wounds of Jesus, when he traces the scars of his own infidelity, that he experiences the peace God offers in the resurrection, a peace that reorders and renews all things. The resurrected body of Jesus reveals something unexpected, yet elemental: God redeems everything about us, not just the parts we would like to have remembered at our funeral. In the resurrection, God redeems even our brokenness, even our wounds, even our deepest infidelity. The resurrection means that there is nothing in our lives that is outside God’s domain, that there is nothing we cannot bring before God, that there is nothing that cannot be redeemed.