Monday, March 18, 2013

Flyin' Shoes

In their book On Grief and Grieving, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler make an observation that is easy to accept in principle: “God gives us a life cycle that includes death.” But when our beloved dies, Kübler-Ross and Kessler write, “We can’t believe what has happened, because we actually can’t believe what has happened.” Denial, which Kübler-Ross made famous, is our psyche’s way of obscuring an unfathomable horror until we recover enough for her next stages: Bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance.

No one chooses to experience such loss – except us Christians, who revisit the birth, life, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ every year between Christmas and Easter.

Most of the time, of course, we’re retelling familiar Bible stories that aren’t especially traumatic, even when they’re sad. Otherwise people wouldn’t read sad novels or go to the movies. In worship, the stories can be so familiar or stylized that they lose their punch. The prayers in our Holy Eucharist liturgy encompass the whole history of God’s people, from creation through our alienation from God to reconciliation through Jesus Christ and his betrayal and Resurrection. The story is swirling, actually cinematic, and yet we’ve heard it in church so often that our attention is sometimes won by our worries and troubles and even grumbling stomachs (been to the new In-N-Out yet?).

Lent is supposed to bring the great epic back into frame and focus. We repent, fast, and prepare. We work harder at reconnecting with God and each other, trying to make more time for reflection and prayer. And we remember that soon we’ll pass from daylight into the gloaming and on to the midnight of Holy Week and humanity’s greatest loss.

When comparing terrible losses, a person mourning a parent, spouse, child, sibling, or friend is likely to feel that Christ has some competition. A comforting aspect of Christian doctrine is that Jesus Christ experienced suffering and death to give meaning to ours, to demonstrate that God had endured and transcended the worst life could offer. Might suffering even be our duty? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34). The secular mind replies, “Since I don’t want to be your follower, I’d rather not take up my cross.” The secular mind would say that faith is denial – humanity’s way of obscuring the uncomfortable truth that life is loss and pain.

But the mature Christian doesn’t deny loss and pain but meets them head on, accepting humanity’s complicity in Christ’s death and the inevitability of our own. During our Sunday morning Grief and Grieving discussions this Lent, St. John’s members shared moving personal stories of loss and recovery – in Christian terms, death and resurrection. We may be so conscious of Christ’s divinity that we feel reluctant to appropriate his experience, afraid to compare our suffering to his or accept that we have the right and capacity to enjoy resurrection after the searing trauma of loss. But the very purpose of the Incarnation is to bring God close enough to touch, envelop, and comfort us. God indeed gives us a life cycle that includes death, and life’s seasons as well. Among many other things, Lent and Easter are seasons when we practice – literally practice, as in “get ready for and used to” -- both grief and hope.

This Lent, I watched a poignant documentary about a brilliant Texas songwriter, Townes Van Zandt, who died in 1997 at the age of 52. He suffered from alcoholism and bipolar disorder. His story made me think about my father, a talented writer and musician who died too young because of his drinking. It made me think about being in late middle age. It made me think of the imminence of loss and preciousness of life, especially in the St. John’s community. The life of our church and especially the implacable church calendar are great blessings, because I do sometimes deny the swiftly passing seasons. But as Townes wrote and sang:

Days full of rain
Sky’s comin’ down again
I get so tired
Of these same old blues
Same old song
Baby, it won’t be long
‘fore I be tyin’ on
My flyin’ shoes 

This post was first published in the Lent 2013 issue of the parish newsletter of St. John's Church, the Vaya Con Dios.