Sad to say, death has had another good year. You have only to visit any congregation to know that our enemy has been at work. As I write this, memories of friends and mentors like Roy Wilson and Howard Pentland appear among my words. All of us have memories of precious people moving among our words. The people of our United Church congregations know this well. They are often at their best when they are holding their grieving ones against the cold empty wind.
Death has had a good year in Iraq. It has amassed triumphs in Palestine, Israel, Sudan. It is everywhere. When Karl Barth said that death is the supreme law of the world in which we live and that death is engraved inexorably upon our life, he wasn't making a concession so much as stating a fact.
If we live, we live in the face of it. People we love are living in the face of it. We are all of us living this way whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Anne Lamott, in Travelling Mercies (Pantheon), describes a friend who is living with cancer: "He is so savouring the moments of his life right now, so acutely aware of love and small pleasures that he no longer feels he has a life-threatening disease: now he says he's leading a disease-threatening life."
One of the reasons our congregations are often at their best when they are holding their grieving ones is that their community life is a witness to the way of Jesus. Especially in these days of Easter, they remember his agony, his betrayal by friends, his thirst, struggle and abandonment at the end. In following the way of Jesus, they find themselves implicated in the struggle against the powers of death. The odds are not in their favour.
If Easter is anything, it is to live fully in the presence of those odds. It is to believe in something, in someone, in somehow. Easter makes possible a disease-threatening life.
There was a moment in my life when I came to understand that I believe. It happened in a Grade 9 class to which I had been invited.
The teacher had asked me to explain to her 14-year- olds how the Bible came to be written. As best I could, I told how there were many ancient sources and strands of tradition. Some writings were accepted (the canon) and some were rejected. There were languages to consider and questions of authorship. As the lecture wore on, the class seemed sullen but not mutinous.
When I had finished, the teacher invited questions. There was only one. A girl in the front row put up her hand and asked, "Do you believe in Jesus, Mr. Short?" The question was perplexing -- an obvious oversimplification.
I said, "Do I believe in Jesus? Well, it depends on which Jesus you mean. On the one hand, you see, there is Jesus the peasant who died by crucifixion at the hands of Roman soldiers. That's the Jesus of history.
On the other hand there is Jesus the risen one, a cosmic and timeless presence beyond history. That's the Christ of faith."
At the end of my answer (which was actually considerably longer than that), she was looking at me, waiting. She said nothing, but in the silence her eyes continued to ask, "Well, do you? Do you believe in Jesus?"
The question sank deeper in the stillness of the room.
Then I said it. I have never forgotten saying it, that one word spoken in the presence of all those 14-year-olds; one word in the presence of my training in critical analysis of the biblical tradition; one word in the presence of my evaporating sophistication.
Yes, I believe in Jesus. In that moment I understood that I don't explain Jesus. Jesus explains me.
Not long after that I dreamed a dream. It was a nightmare but in the end it left me with an unaccountable hope. The dream was of Christ:
I find myself captive in a kind of courtroom. Someone is arguing with me. My antagonist is condemning religion and pouring contempt upon the inept and credulous followers of Jesus. He is telling me that as a believer I am intellectually enfeebled and that all the evidence amassed since the dawn of the Enlightenment is against me.
He sets out an analysis of the ancient biblical text, dismissing it piece by piece -- the inconsistencies, the hyperbole, the bare-faced miracles.
When at last the tirade abates, I admit that he is right. I have been swimming against an irresistible rational tide. It is all impossible and I have been a fool.
My adversary is not finished. He tells me that I am emotionally immature; that I believe because I need to believe, not because it is true. I am dependant on a mythical Christ and an impossible God. I have surrendered my freedom. Do you know what's wrong with you?" he asks. "You are an undifferentiated personality."
I concede to my adversary that I am without adequate defence. He is right, I need to believe. I have been depending on Jesus and on God.
He is smug in victory. Wrenching the Bible from my hands, he jams it in the trash, then turns in triumph and strides off into the bracing light of his real world.
Then suddenly it is night and I am alone. Under the covers of my bed, flashlight in hand, I am opening an illicit copy of the forbidden book. I open it to the Gospel of John, the story of the rising from the dead. The small light falls upon the words: "Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, `Woman, why are you weeping?' She said to them, `Because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.' Saying this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, `Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?'... Then Jesus said to her, `Mary.'... [T]hen Mary ran and told the disciples, `I have seen the Lord'."
As the dream ends, I have been discovered with the book. My antagonist has dragged me before the court again. But this time I say to my accusers: "Even if you take the book away, I will always know the story. You can't kill the story because it's not in the book; it's in the street and in the faces of the people.
It's a pearl hidden in a marketplace and a son heading at last for home and an invitation to eat fish broiling over a fire on the shore of a lake. I am a lost cause to you and there are many others like me. We have crossed over to the other side. We belong to his way now. He explains us. That's why there's no accounting for us -- how odd we are. We belong to him because he belongs to God."
Thus ended the dream. It was one of those dreams that afflict us believers; dreams that afflict us with the rising. In a way, the dream had been there all along. It had appeared the day that young girl asked her question: "Do you believe in Jesus, Mr. Short?" Well, do you?
Death always has a good year, but never the last word. The last word lives and so must we. *
. . .
Rt. Rev. Peter Short is moderator of The United Church of Canada.
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