Monday, April 10, 2017

Life Against Death

Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45

“What do you think really happened to Jesus in his tomb?  I mean (I know you don’t know but guess)what do you think?”

“Oh I don’t know,” he said.

I growled.  “That’s your first response.  What’s your second?

So Joe and I sat across from the desk we share and got into a discussion about resurrection as I was beginning to compose my Easter sermon.  I had no idea back then in 2012 that it was going to change me.  For one thing, it was nothing new, my asking this question. I’d been posing it for no fewer than forty years, intrigued since at least seminary with the notion of what it means to live the resurrection.

In the course of our conversation I pulled off the shelf a book I’d had since 1970, Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death.  Brown was a literary Freudian.  The final chapter in that book is entitled “The Resurrection of the Body.”  Here is a snippet of Brown’s argument that I shared:

The time has come to ask Christian theologians…what they mean by the resurrection of the body and by eternal life.  Is this a promise of immortality of life after death? In other words, is the psychological premise of [Christianity] the impossibility of reconciling life and death either in “this” world or the “next,” so that flight from death—with all its morbid consequences—is our eternal fate in “this world” and “the next”?  For…that perfect body, promised by Christian[s]… is a body reconciled with death.

In the last analysis [Christianity] must either accept death as part of life or abandon the body.[1]

So we talked on, Joe and I, about the acceptance of mortality, and about how Jesus embraced the body and the body’s inevitable fate, death.  We chewed on the notion of how resurrection is impossible outside the body, and thus of how the body is central to any discussion of resurrection, while it can easily be tossed aside if immortality of the soul, for example, supplants it.  That happened when Christianity exchanged its twin foundational doctrines of incarnation and resurrection for a pervasive suspicion of the human body and a campaign to classify anything material as inferior to anything “spiritual.”

I grabbed another book, one that I love.  It’s C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in his Chronicles of Narnia.  I flipped to that passage where Aslan, the great lion, willingly goes to the Great Stone Table to let himself be sacrificed in place of pitiful Edmund, who’s run afoul of the White Witch.  It’s much too long a passage to read to you, or even to sum up.  Suffice it to say that the little Pevensy girls stand in the shadows watching a jeering, mocking, cursing crowd of fiends and brutes cruelly shave, muzzle, and finally bind the great cat to his death on the cold stone slab. 

Lucy and Susan manage in the darkness to remove the muzzle from the dead lion, and sob and cry until at last they notice that little mice have appeared. The mice, perhaps hundreds, have come in the darkness just before the sun has risen and are gnawing through the ropes binding Aslan’s corpse.

A great crack then breaks the stone table in two from top to bottom.  The frightened girls, who could not bear to look any longer at the horrible scene, turn and, seeing no Aslan, imagine that something awful has happened to his body.  One asks a question and they hear a voice behind them.  “Yes!”  There shining in the sunrise is Aslan himself. No, not a ghost, but fully alive, even with his mane grown back.  He tells the girls to catch him if they can, and the three run, romp, laugh, and play until girls and lion lie panting in the sun, not the least tired or hungry or thirsty. [2]

I was in tears.  I put the book down.  “Joe,” I said in awhile, “I want to live like that.  I want the rest of my life to be nothing but resurrection.  I want to taste it, feel it, love it until—until I die.”


We are at the beginning of Holy Week when we get to follow that dolorous way of the cross, watching another rabble mock and scourge and spit upon and string up the Son of Man.  So we’re not quite ready entirely to ponder the resurrection just yet, are we? Instead, let's look at two stories. One is a vision, Ezekiel’s celebrated vision of the valley of dry bones. 

"Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost..."

A voice says that they are the whole house of Israel, as good as dead, dismembered, bleached dry, useless.  But the vision of new life unwinds. Bones rattle together.  Muscle and sinew and skin cover them.  Then the ruah, the wind, the spirit enters them and becomes their breath.  It is a redoing of creation.  The spirit that moved over the face of the deep when there was nothing but a watery darkness now moves into the slain and brings them to life.  What does it mean? 

Then another story, even weirder than the vision because it purports to be factual.  Jesus gets word that Lazarus, a man whom he loves, is ill.  Instead of rushing straightway to Bethany, Jesus delays.  By the time he arrives, Lazarus has died and has been buried for four days.  Jesus is deeply moved, weeps even.  They take him to the tomb.  He prays.  He calls.  “Lazarus, come out!”  And the man whom he loves comes out not as a corpse, but alive, still wrapped in the grave-bonds.  “Unbind him,” commands Jesus. “Let him go.”  What does it mean?

Ezekiel tells us the meaning of his vision.  What happened in the valley of dry bones is what Yahweh will do to Israel.  They say that they are no better than bones, their hope clean gone, their future cut off completely.  Yahweh will breathe the Spirit into them, bring them home to their own soil.  And they will know who has recreated them.

And the meaning of the raising of Lazarus?  In John’s narrative it is the last straw for the authorities, the overwhelming impetus for putting Jesus to death.  In a larger sense, one cannot read the story without hearing overtones of the story which is yet to come, a story of a tomb sealed with the customary stone, a dead man inside covered in grave-clothes down to a napkin over his head, a voice shaking the world like thunder coming from heaven. 
Henry Ossawa Tanner, "Resurrection of Lazarus," 1896
What does it mean?  You get to figure it out.  But I think I can give you a hint.  There is only one thing deeper than death, and that is the power of pure love.  To put it in C. S. Lewis’s metaphor, it is the Deep Magic. Magic deeper than death decreed before the world began that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and death would start reversing itself.  As Jesus says before his own death, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” 


So all of these stories, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the “Valley of Dry Bones,” the “Raising of Lazarus” are like so many sparks emanating from a single bonfire burning at the heart of human experience.  They all get at the truth differently, but the truth they get at is a truth about embracing mortality.  It is the  Truth himself who oddly says, “If you care about saving your life, you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.”   Every instinct in us wants to save our lives, beginning with our bodies and spreading out to everything material that props them up.  We love our things, our systems, our habits, our idols, our money, our pedigrees, all that stuff.  And, ironically, not always but often, much of that stuff comes between ourselves and our plain old bodies, our natural naked vulnerability.  We have a hard time even believing that we would ever be safe, let alone whole, if we once stopped worrying about it all.  We’ll make a thousand excuses to hold on to what we’ve got.  We’ll do our best to fend off change, mistaking change as life-threatening.  And the irony is that death is defanged the moment we begin to embrace the inevitability of death.  That’s not the moment when we know we are on our way out of this life, but the moment when we can behold our own bodies and love them the way God loves them.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux once said that the highest form of love was not the love of God for God’s sake, but the love of self for God’s sake.

That’s where new life is born.  And it does not stop where it starts. When we begin to love our bodies, our senses, without which the knowledge of God is impossible, we begin loving the things and people around us as we love ourselves.  Start practicing that kind of love and you’ll find that it’s a lot more fun than arguing, fussing, and fighting.  Begin loving profligately rather than measuring love out cautiously and you’ll find yourself laughing more than controlling.  Gradually shed your fixations and get playful and you’ll see how right Jesus was when he said that unless you become as a little child, you’ll just miss the boat to the kingdom.


Here’s the secret, and it is a pretty well kept one.  There is a difference between making a pact with death and embracing death.  On the one hand, making a pact with death is to resign oneself to the ways of death, most of which are pretty good at masking as life-sustaining, like that list of things we desperately want to cling to.  On the other hand, embracing death is facing into the wind, stepping out into space trusting that there’s a Love strong enough to hold us close and never let us go. 

You can’t be the Body of Christ without embracing death.  You can’t be the Body of Christ and opt out of facing the cross.  And that means more than persevering through suffering, though that might be in the cards.  It means affirming the physical, your own bodily life.  It means you let go of the fantasy that life is in the past.

What this troubled world needs is a community that doesn’t just recite a creed about the resurrection, but one willing to risk living the resurrection.  Show them by your life how to have a little more, or a lot more, Eros, and less strife. Form or reform communities where dreamers, mystics, poets, singers, artists, political idealists, social workers, healers, psychoanalysts, theologians, philosophers, writers say no to dead polemics and yes to reimagining a world living with its bodily senses wide open.[3]  Teach others how to live soulful lives the way you tend to your garden and the way you prepare and serve fabulous meals.  Look for opportunities to love and serve those hard to serve and harder to love.  And, in Norman Brown’s words, a little consciousness might help: “a little more self-knowledge, humility, humanity, and Eros.”[4]

And every time you stand on a gray day before some apparently dead end, listen carefully for a Voice that will shake your life like thunder.  It’s the old incantation fixed from all eternity by him whose Body is one with yours:  I am resurrection.” 

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017

[1] Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death:  The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History  (Middletown, CT:  Wesleyan University Press, 1959), pp. 308-9. Alterations mine.
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, vol. 2 in The Chronicles of Narnia (New York:  HarperCollins (Harper Trophy), 1950, 1978), pp. 150-164.
[3] Brown, p. 322.
[4] Ibid.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

The Longest Night

Twenty years have sped by since the longest night I ever spent.

It was late spring in 1997, two years after the onset of what I call “The Second Coming (Out).” I was trying very hard to keep afloat in a world where I feared total disaster were I to reveal anything of who I was. Priest in a large Episcopal church in a small Southern city, married, the father of two, I was alone in that most lonely and stifling of places: the closet. The door was ajar. I could see just a wee bit of light.

That light came from New York City. Richard, my best college friend, lived there, and had invited me to visit. It was Pride weekend. He had mentioned to me the possibility of going to a dance. I was ecstatic. I imagined a dimly lit bar where men danced with men. Absent any experience and not much more imagination, I naively thought that maybe a pink golf shirt might be gay enough to wear.

No slow dancing, no low lights, nor gentle touching was any part of the scene of the cavernous venue where I landed with Richard and Joshua, a young guy whom Richard knew and introduced as a style expert. The place was Roxy, that era’s answer to the famous “Saint,” dance oasis of an earlier period. The music was deafeningly loud to the point I could not hear the plan for regrouping after a certain time. And the persons per square inch made any strategy we had for reconnoitering totally impossible anyway. I found myself in a knot of twinks, wondering if Joshua’s attempt to dress me correctly had worked to keep me out of total dweebdom. I shook and writhed as best I knew how—which wasn’t too bad, I thought. I dared not touch the young body that kept (I thought) bumping into me intentionally.
The Roxy in its heyday.  It closed in 2007.

Soon the multitude had completely absorbed Richard and Joshua whom after an hour or so I completely lost track of. After three or four hours of ear-splitting noise, not knowing a soul, unable to speak (my main resource for being social in any situation), and with a bladder about to burst from the two beers I’d managed to down, I made it to the long line waiting in front of the men’s room. When I finally got in, I waded through water (I hoped) that thoroughly wet my Chuck Taylors (“those actually will do,” Joshua had said of my footwear). I stepped outside. Day was breaking.

Nice that Manhattan is so easy to navigate. Rather than wait for a cab, I walked to Richard’s. Sunday sunshine grew brighter as I wound my way from nearly the Hudson over to the West Village. I had no idea what had ever become of Richard and Joshua, but when I finally unlocked his apartment door, Richard sat bolt upright on his chaise longue and allowed as how he had come home many hours before. Dead tired, I made it to the bedroom, shed my wet Chucks, jeans, and tight-fitting tee that Joshua had recommended in Old Navy, and fell upon the mattress.

For the first night in my life since as a frightened child I’d hear my parents quarreling in the next room I cried myself to sleep. Totally alone, much more so than ever I’d been in the closet that at least held junk and costumes, I sobbed. I cried because I couldn’t go back into the closet because I knew I’d die there. I cried because the one love I had at the time was little more than an illusion, vaporizing before my very eyes. I wept because the marriage that had defined me was unraveling and I didn't know how to stop it. The priest I once wanted to be was incongruous with the man I knew myself to be.  I knew neither where I was nor where I was going.

In a few hours, these twenty years later, I will kneel, as is my custom, as a priest smudges my forehead with a crude ash-made cross, and I’ll begin the soul’s journey again from dust to glory. Rituals like that are best when we consciously realize that they play upon the strings of what our lives actually contain. Memories, hopes, disappointments, failures, new beginnings: all lie in a pile until some word, action, maybe some ceremony, orders and shapes them. I can relate to the ashes and cross precisely because of that longest night twenty years ago, and others like it before and since. If I did not know dark, I could not see light. Nor would it ever make sense to me that in such places as a tear-soaked bed the Holy One sneaks up close, unrecognized, silently waiting to be noticed.

Hard as it was, I would give nothing for that long dark night of the soul.  I would never have become who I am were it not for the painful and tortuous trip on which I found myself multiple times knocked off my perch, fallen into the dust till finally I came to realize that I was dust itself.  It is not so bad being dust.  That's the stuff we're made of.  Dirt.  And the wonder is that, from time to time, in these bodies of dust we actually see amazing glory, not infrequently shining more brightly through our tears.

 © Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Fully Alive

I was the kind of boy that, if you gave me an ideal, I not only respected it, I actually tried to live up to it.  When I started first grade and began to learn the basics of citizenship, such as pledging allegiance to the flag, I took it seriously.  When I went to Sunday School and they told me about the love of God and taught me about Jesus, I was more than interested.  I was enchanted.  If you set before me the notion, say, of moral behavior, I actually believed that it was a good idea to do my best to live morally.

Now all of that is not coming from a bad case of bragging, but rather a little self-disclosure.  I have nothing to brag about.  Because with all that stuff about being, if not the best little boy in all the world, at least one who took a pretty good stab at it, there comes a shadow side.  Deep down I knew, even in the second grade, that there was a part of me that took delight in being not only mischievous (what boy isn’t a little?) but sometimes quite mean.  I don’t think in all that I’m very different from any of you.  It doesn’t take us long to discover that there is more than one side of us.  And if we deny that shadowy, perhaps devious, side, ultimately it has a way of taking over.

There is a verse in Psalm 112 that is worth chewing on for a minute,   “Light shines in the darkness for the upright; the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.” What the text means is quite different from what you might think.  “Righteous” in Hebrew does not mean morally faultless.  Nor does it mean being the best little boy or girl in the world.  The word “righteous” actually means being in right relationships with God, with the world, with nature, with other people.  It means “doing what one is created to do, being what one is created to be.”  Some years ago I heard a man describing an experience he had in the Holy Land.  His car broke down on a stretch of desert road.  In the days before cell phones he hitchhiked to the nearest village and found a mechanic, who agreed to come take a look at the car.  Something like a belt had come in two and the mechanic was able after towing the car to repair it.  As he shut down the hood after finishing the repair, He said in modern Hebrew, “Sadiq.”  “Now she is righteous.”  In other words, the car is put back in order, ready to do what the car was designed to do. 

That’s helpful, isn’t it? To be upright is not necessarily to be a moral exemplar, though it might be.  More to the point is to be what one is designed to be.  And what is that?  In a word, it is to be fully alive.  St. Irenaeus, one of the Early Christian Fathers, said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”  Think about that.  What is it like to feel alive, really alive?  Is it to be filled with energy? to be sensitive to sensory stimuli? Is it to stand as tall as you can, to feel balanced, grounded?  Is it to be ready to take on some challenge and to feel up to it? Is it to be almost overwhelmed with a feeling of love, a readiness to embrace nature, an enthusiasm to reach out to other human beings with compassion and delight?  Is it to be filled to overflowing with joy?  Is it to settle into a comfortable, quiet peace?  Is it be satisfied, still, fulfilled?  That is a rather long list perhaps of possibilities, but I suspect that you are like me:  you could say yes to most of those things.  It would be almost impossible to feel fully alive if we are feeling weighted down with worry, fear, anxiety, depression.  It is hard to imagine feeling fully alive if we were living in terror, scared of enemies, dreading the worst.  And I have never felt myself fully alive when I was energized mostly or only by hate, loathing, disgust, disdain, or any of those feelings that come from feeling or being over against other things or other people.  They have a way of draining me.  Is that your experience too?

Now the reason I go into this much detail about feeling fully alive is that that is the most effective way I know of for describing wholeness.  And wholeness is a word that is very closely related to sanity.  And sanity is not far from what it means to be healed.  And healing is at the heart of what the Bible means by salvation.  So you see where all this is going.  When we are fully alive and whole and well we are in fact experiencing God, who is always Life and always Truth.  We who speak the Christian vocabulary talk about that Life and Truth to be embodied and exemplified in Jesus, who is the Way that God manifests in humanity.  But Jesus never ever meant, by his own admission and teaching, to be the one and only example of God’s life in human form. “I say to you, ‘you are gods, and all of you children of the Most High.’” What he is by nature—child of God—is exactly what we become by grace. 

When I was priest in a parish with a large day school, I used to have the gift of conducting chapel for pre-schoolers almost every day. We had a little ritual that the kids loved, namely lighting the candles on the little altar in their chapel.  I would ask as one candle was lit, “Who is the light of the world?”  They would shout, “Jesus!” And I would agree.  Then as the child lit the second of the two candles, I would ask, “And who did Jesus say was also the light of the world?” Silence was the initial response.  And I would say, “Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world.’”  And they would gradually come to say, “I am.”  I am the light of the world. 

Now it makes sense, doesn’t it?  That verse in Psalm 112 is, “Light shines in darkness for the upright.” Yes it does.  And the source of the light is both beyond us and within us.  God is not one or the other but both—beyond and within.  And the Light of God, which is the Life of the human being, issues not in anything other than mercy and compassion.  Don’t ever forget that.  Those who imagine that God is punitive, graceless, unforgiving, terrifying, generally treat themselves and other people just that way:  first themselves, then others, and beyond that the rest of nature with contempt.  Those who know that God is merciful and compassionate are far more likely to be able to love themselves and almost naturally find that loving their neighbor as themselves is not so hard after all. 

It is no secret that we are right now going through a period of darkness.  Even the most optimistic among us realizes, no matter what her opinions or his political beliefs, that we are all responding to something like a cosmic eclipse of light.  Even the President’s inaugural address describes a nation stumbling about in darkness.  I myself see a good deal of light, but I do not deny that, ironically, the harbingers of darkness are sometimes the very ones who are describing it even while deepening it.  The important thing here is not who is responsible for the darkness, or even how deep the darkness is, but rather that our call is to be children of Light.  That is not the same as ignoring evil, nor is it the same as whistling in the dark.  It is knowing that we are righteous—not morally superior, and certainly not flawless.  But by speaking the truth, showing mercy, and being compassionate, we are letting our light shine.  We are being who we were created to be.  We will be doing what we were designed to do.  That is what it means to be fully alive.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017