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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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.

The Tenacity of Love

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

imgresA few years ago, the New York Times published an article titled “At First she Didn’t Succeed, but she Tried and Tried Again (960 Times).” The feature profiled a 69 year old grandmother from South Korea named Cha Sa Soon and chronicled her five year quest to attain a driver’s license. During this period, Ms. Cha traveled by bus from her home in the country to a testing center in the city several times a week. After failing the 700th time, she became something of a national celebrity, not only because she was a loveable underdog, but because of her dogged persistence. When she finally passed the test, Ms. Cha earned accolades from her countrymen and made international news. More importantly, she made it clear that her perseverance had been worthwhile. By outlasting the doubters, Cha Sa Soon became a symbol of what can happen when we refuse to give up.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was addressing a community plagued by conflict. Much of this dissension stemmed from the fact that there was a faction in the church who believed that they had discerned the only way to live an authentic Christian life. This group believed that they had it all figured out. In particular, they valued knowledge and spiritual gifts above all else. These Corinthians thought the ability to speak in tongues, to make prophetic utterances, and to understand the mysteries of the universe were all key components of the Christian life. As a result, church members who possessed these gifts disdained anyone in the community who lacked knowledge or spiritual charisma. Though it might seem that these gifted members of the community were just trying to prove that they were better than their less talented brothers and sisters, their disdain is actually slightly more complicated. These gifted members of the community believed that knowledge, tongues, and prophecy were the most effective way to commune with the divine, that they were vehicles for connecting with that which is eternal. Indeed, the Corinthians thought of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge as tools for addressing the fundamental human anxiety: how do we deal with the fact that we will die? These members of the Corinthian community believed that their mastery of human knowledge and their ability to speak in tongues and prophesy allowed them to escape the tyranny and inevitability of death. This is why those gifted members of the church regarded others in the community with contempt: the others weren’t trying hard enough to fix the ultimate human dilemma.

imagesPaul’s response to his congregation is intriguing. He does not methodically demonstrate that their way of thinking is flawed as we might expect; in fact, he declines to engage with their position at all. Instead, he implies that the spiritual gifts they so highly prize have no value in themselves. In spite of their knowledge, Paul suggests that the Corinthians have no idea how the world really works and that their preoccupation with knowledge and spiritual gifts will fail them in the end. Paul insists that there is a better way. He dismisses the Corinthian preoccupation with knowledge and spiritual charisma and instead offers a glimpse God’s ultimate purpose.

It is in response to the Corinthian conflict that Paul offers his famous meditation on the mystery of love. In this meditation, Paul’s implication is clear: everything we think is important pales in comparison to the gift of love. For Paul, love is what gives meaning to the things we value. Paul is at his most poetic when he tells the Corinthians that those who speak in tongues without love are noisy gongs and clashing cymbals and reminds them that those possessed of immeasurable knowledge and prophetic powers are nothing if they do not have love. This is not to say that Paul considers these spiritual gifts inherently useless. Indeed, Paul makes the startling claim that the faith to move mountains, a virtue that is celebrated specifically elsewhere in the New Testament, is worthless without love. For Paul, nothing can have value, not even the greatest spiritual gift, unless it is animated by love.

The reason for this is that love has staying power. The Corinthians deluded themselves into believing that their spiritual gifts could forestall the inevitability of death. Paul disabuses them of this fantasy: “But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.” Paul acknowledges the painful reality at the heart of the human condition: all of the things we think are important will come to an end, all of the things that preoccupy us will cease, all of the things that we believe can free us from the tyranny of death will ultimately come to an end. The only thing that does not end, that will not end, that cannot end is love. Love persists; love abides; love doesn’t give up; love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.”

We’re on somewhat dangerous ground here, because it is possible to fetishize love, to turn it into one of the tools that the Corinthians imagined they could use to cheat death. This is what we tend to do when we sentimentalize love, when we think of it as a magic formula that can solve any problem. Hollywood loves to do this, to have every problem disappear when the protagonists realize their love for one another. Love, however, cannot solve every problem. Indeed, sometimes love makes those problems even more painful. The love of a wife will not necessarily cure her husband’s clinical depression. The love of a daughter will not heal her mother of cancer. The love of a parent will not necessarily prevent a child from spiraling into self-destruction. What love can do is endure every single one of these trials. Love won’t necessarily fix everything, but it can outlast anything. This is why the ultimate expression of love is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By raising Jesus Christ from the dead, God proves that love truly endures all things, including death. In the resurrection, God affirms that nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even the fact that we will die.

imagesIn just a few moments, we will baptize Charlotte Grace into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just after she is covered with the waters of baptism, she will be anointed with oil using these words: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Baptism is neither admission to a club nor a guarantee that everything will go well for us. Rather, baptism is an affirmation that God’s love for us can outlast anything. As Christians, we are called to manifest this love to the world, confident that God will never give up on us.

Faithfulness

As I was driving home from our Good Friday services this afternoon, I caught the tail end of a sports radio talk show that I listen to on a regular basis.  The hosts had apparently exhausted their sports-related talking points and were discussing their plans for the weekend.  One mentioned that in honor of Easter, he had planned to do some community service, but, finding the process of signing up for a project too daunting, had abandoned those plans.  Oddly, his partner praised him for his generosity, even though he was no longer planning to do anything.  At first, I could not understand this exchange.  I didn’t understand why the one host talked about his failed community service plans or why the other host thought that his willingness even to think about doing community service was praiseworthy.  As I thought about it a little more, however, I realized that most people listening to the program probably identified completely with the conversation.  As a rule, human beings are full of good intentions, and as a rule, we like to be praised for our good intentions.  Whether it is going to the gym or giving money to public radio or volunteering for a local service organization or calling our parents on a regular basis or telling our spouse we love them every day, we always say that we are going to do good, that we are going to put the effort into making a difference in our community.  But, invariably, life gets in the way.  We run out of time because we have to work late.  We run out of money because we have to bring the car into the shop.  We run out of patience because we are in a bad mood.  Inevitably, our plans crumble around us and we fail to do what we said we would do.  This is one of the undeniable realities of the human experience: try as we might, it very difficult for us to be faithful to our good intentions.

On Good Friday, the Church has always emphasized the centrality of the cross to the Christian faith.  Few texts embody the Church’s understanding of the cross better than this verse from Venantius Fortunatus’ “Sing my tongue, the glorious battle”:

Faithful cross among all others: the one noble tree.  Its branches offer nothing in foliage, fruit, or blossom.  Yet sweet wood and sweet iron sustain sweet weight.

crucifixion_iconThe first adjective used to describe the cross, and by extension the one who was crucified on the cross, is “faithful.”  Perhaps the most important thing we affirm about Jesus’ experience of his Passion is his faithfulness, his obedience even to death on a cross, his willingness to do what he said he was going to do.  Jesus Christ did not succumb to the very human tendency to look for excuses or be derailed by doubt.  In spite of the abandonment of his disciples, in spite of his betrayal, in spite of his own self-doubt, Jesus marched inexorably toward the cross, because that is what he said he was going to do.  Through Christ’s example, we can trust that we can be faithful to God and one another even in the most challenging and overwhelming circumstances of our lives.  We can be faithful because in his death on Calvary, Jesus Christ revealed that God will be faithful to us.  More than anything else, the “goodness” of this Friday is intimately tied to the faithfulness of a God who is with us even when we come face to face with death.

Certainties

Today is Tax Day.

imgresThough I generally take a moment in this paragraph to explain the provenance of what I have mentioned in the first sentence, I suspect the vast majority of those reading know exactly what I’m talking about.  April 15, the day that US Tax Returns are due, has the quality of Judgment Day.  For accountants, it is the finish line after a long marathon.  For the self-employed, it is the day that we have to send an inappropriately large check to Uncle Sam.  And for the procrastinators among us, it is a day of panic, stress, and promises that we will not wait this long next year.  Tax Day touches everyone in some way because taxes touch everyone in some way.  The ubiquity of sending money to the government supposedly led Benjamin Franklin to quip that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.

With Franklin’s words in mind, it occurs to me that Tax Day is appropriate way to wrap up our Lenten experience.  After all, we began this season of penitence and renewal with a reminder of our mortality.  Part of the purpose of Ash Wednesday is to remind us about the certainty of death.  And here in the waning days of Lent, the IRS reminds us that taxes are also inevitable.  This year, our Lenten journey is bracketed by Benjamin Franklin’s two certainties.

It’s easy to read this quotation in a fatalistic way: we are going to die, and we are going to pay taxes.  That’s all we can count on; everything else is ephemeral, like dust blowing in the wind.  But I think that these words about life’s inevitabilities are actually hopeful.  The only true certainties are death and taxes, but the rest of our lives are full of possibility.  We are not hamstrung by fate or destiny; we have the power to make choices and forge our own way in the world.

In certain strands of Christianity, one often hears people say things like “God has a plan for my life.”  This has always fascinated me, since so much of Christian theology is predicated on the notion that human beings have free will, that there is not a plan that we must follow slavishly, that we are responsible and accountable for our actions.  In fact, the story of Christ’s Passion indicates that Jesus himself exercised free will on his journey to the cross.  He had the choice to turn back, he had the choice to utter recriminations, he had the choice to reject his disciples, and yet he faithfully made the decision that would reconcile the world to God.  Jesus Christ was not subject to some plan that was beyond his control; he made the choice to walk to Calvary, trusting that God would be with him.  In the same way, we are called to recognize that we are not slaves to our circumstances; we can walk through our lives, make the best of our situations, and trust that God will be with us even when we feel like we are losing control.  While death and taxes may be inevitable, we are called to trust in the God of boundless possibility.

Fearless

Note: During the season of Lent, I will be publishing a devotional on this blog titled “Surprised by Grace,” in which I will write about my efforts to look for grace in unexpected places.

ASH WEDNESDAYToday, I told a bunch of people that they were going to die.  I wasn’t nasty about it; in fact, most of them we eager to hear the reminder.  I told older people who have been struggling with cancer, younger people who have recently lost their parents, and little children who barely understand what death is.  This is, of course, the Church’s custom on Ash Wednesday, a day when we are reminded of our mortality and our complete dependence on God’s grace.

There is unexpected grace in this reminder of our mortal nature, because just after we are told that we are going to die, we are invited to go out and live.  More importantly, we are invited to go out and live with the understanding that we will someday die.  There is no way of getting around it.  While this may seem depressing, it is actually intended to be empowering.  If we live our lives with an awareness of our mortality, all of our ultimately futile efforts to preserve our lives become silly. This is the genesis of Jesus’ admonition in Matthew’s gospel: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Our cultural preoccupation with wealth and security, our willingness to do anything to protect what we own crumbles in the face of the undeniable reality that our lives will someday end.

When we embrace this fundamental truth, it becomes clear that there is nothing of which we have to be afraid.  If we go through life with an awareness of our mortal nature, we are liberated to try new things, to care for people who cannot provide us with anything, to risk being embarrassed or hurt.  In other words, when we embrace our mortal nature,  we no longer have to fear failure.  In so many ways, this is what characterized the ministry of Jesus.  He refused to worry about what people thought about the fact that he ate with tax collectors and sinners.  He refused to be intimidated by touching someone with leprosy.  He refused to run away when it became clear that his ministry would end in death.  Jesus refused to fear failure.  During this season of Lent, I invite you to try new things, take risks, and embrace the fundamental truth that, by God’s grace, we have nothing to fear.