The Son Also Rises

The Son Also Rises

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see”. John Newton, 1773

It’s spring and with it comes an avalanche of Easter lilies, bunnies, egg hunts and hidden baskets.  Somewhere off in the distance, floating like buds on a dogwood is the message of redemption.  Buried under a benign avalanche of modern day commercialism, resurrection stirs.  It may be as subtle as a crocus risking its bloom in an early spring chill or the daffodil bravely signaling that we have once again been reborn from the depths of winter.  It is a time of year that activates a latent emotion deep within us, the idea of dying and being born again.

The concepts of redemption and resurrection are essential threads in the fabric of human history and culture.  No matter a person’s ideological or theological orientation  – atheist, agnostic or fanatical acolyte, the idea that one might redeem themselves and “resurrect” to become a better human being, holds deep spiritual appeal.  As children we heard stories that focused on individuals losing and regaining their purpose in life.  For those marched to Sunday school each week, we were taught the religious allegory of The Prodigal Son.  As a parent, the story of unconditional love resonates more today.  In the parable, one of two sons leaves his family, demanding his inheritance early from his father, which the son then summarily goes out and wastes.  When the son returns home broken, the father does not reject him but rejoices while the brother who had remained faithful to the father becomes upset.  The father explains to the faithful son that he is rejoicing that the “lost” son has returned just as a shepherd rejoices when he finds a lost sheep.  Because of a father’s unconditional love, the son rises again.

In life, redeemed sinners have left indelible marks on the world. Bill Wilson was a physician that had lost his reputation, self respect and soul to alcoholism.  Through his efforts to help another alcoholic stay sober, he founded the most successful spiritual movement of the 20th century, Alcoholics Anonymous.  Bill Wilson was hardly perfect.   But through the simple act of sharing his humanity and serving others, he was reborn giving hope to an entire generation of broken souls. Bill W was resurrected.

Literature offers us innumerable examples of the rise, fall and resurrection of mankind.  Charles Dickens created our most beloved Christmas fable, a Christmas Carol, a ghost story of redemption detailing the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge.  In 1965, Alex Haley chronicled the story of Malcolm Little, a small-time crook and angry hoodlum who discovered Islam during his many years of incarceration.  His epiphany led to his reincarnation as Malcolm X, a fire brand minister for the American Nation of Islam that tirelessly labored to advance the moral and social future of the African American community.  Most recently, a popular South African movie, “Totsi” offers us the view of a ghetto tough in the shanties of Johannesburg that finds a baby while carjacking the vehicle from the child’s mother.  His encounter with the child transforms him and redeems him.

Every culture values redemption and resurrection. Buddhists believe one can improve their karma and achieve enlightenment with personal change and better moral conduct.  Hindus believe that Moksha, the release from the cycle of birth and rebirth (reincarnation), can only be achieved through the personal change and improvement – – through meditation, good works, devotion or knowledge. Many Christians worship the teachings of St Paul who prior to his miraculous conversion on the road to Tarsus, was Saul, the “crazed destroyer” of Christians.

As human beings, we are a complicated collision of opposites. We are fascinated by failure and those in our society who fall.  Even though we know at our core that everyone is imperfect, schedenfruede and insecurity compel us to watch the spectacular failings of people.  We are riveted by the gory public revelations of celebrities, politicians and every day people’s private imperfections.  In a bizarre way, we feel better about our own uneven lives.

Yet, within that same psyche that celebrates the fall, we also celebrate redemption. We are irresistibly drawn to tales of emancipation, salvation, and atonement.  The most happy among us seem to be able to re-embrace those that they, at one time, had banished. We find ourselves pulling for any person who overcomes self inflicted hardship. Whether it is a pro athlete who was once addicted to pain killers or a celebrity that succumbs to the artificial reality of stardom, we have short memories and a predisposition to forgive.  We love a comeback.  We have awards for most improved person and the comeback player of the year.  We love redemption.

What reassures me is this human capacity for compassion and forgiveness.  Vengeance and resentment are social and psychological cancers.  Actress Carrie Fischer once remarked that resentment was like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die”. Resentments are warm, familiar mud but they wash away in the fresh water of resurrection. We want to believe in salvation.  We pray for the various forms of resurrection – recovery from disease, release from heartache, redemption from corruption or resurrection from failure.    The one common attribute in anyone’s recovery and resurrection is the love of others – an individual or a community willing to unconditionally help a flawed person recover and find their way.  It is our quest to be part of a society that participates and celebrates in the return of any prodigal “son”.

As my children search for Easter eggs and baskets, I search for something more elusive, a golden egg hidden deep in the tangled undergrowth of my soul.  I am reminded on Easter of the value of resurrection.  In my church, I will faithfully hear the story of the son of God who rose from the dead.  As I ponder the themes of death and resurrection, I try to translate this to my children so they can practically understand that anyone can be reborn. Progress, not perfection is our human quest. The ability for anyone to recover depends on the love of another. Forgiveness and the instinct to celebrate when another lost sheep rejoins the fold, is an essential ingredient of our humanity.

I guess in the end, the “golden egg” I seek is grace – the ability to give it and receive it.

God, Church and Construction Sites

Braswell Congregational Holiness Church's Sund...
Image by Old Shoe Woman via Flickr

God, Church and Construction Sites

 

Any Sunday, 1966 – Sunday was a day of paradoxes growing up in a house of four boys ruled by a father we affectionately referred to as “Colonel Kurtz”.  My mother was a very spiritual person and found herself closest to God while lying in bed one day a week, with all five men out of the house at church.  It fell to my father every Sunday morning to dress four boys and shuttle us to the local congregational church.  The routine was a black comedy of ironies as my father would rush chaotically from room to room, tying double Windsor knots that in the old west could have been used to lynch cattle rustlers.  He would swear, yell, and comb down cow licks with spit.  We would then race to “our” church which was over ten miles away in an adjacent town.  By the time we reached our destination, Dad would be relaxed and acting “ Christian “ while we would look like shell shocked soldiers returning from two weeks in the bush.

You see the church that we used to attend – – that friendly Presbyterian Church that was literally two blocks from our home where all our friends attended, had been taken over by “pinkos”.  We were not really sure what “pinkos” were.  We surmised there must have been a hygiene problem and everyone was getting conjunctivitis, a common condition we often exchanged at home.  My older brother Miles explained that a “Pinko” was a “Communist “.  This perplexed me.  We saw no Cubans at the coffee table.  No toasts were ever concluded with “dasvidnaya” and a smashed glass.

In looking back now on that fateful day,  my brothers and I theorize that the annual stewardship sermon perhaps edged too stridently close to the notion of income redistribution and it sent my father into political apoplexy.  That night, he declared we were going to “try” a new church the following week.  That “try “turned into a ten year hiatus from our beloved sanctuary, friends and as a result, any desire to attend church.

Sundays always confused me.  There was tension, swearing, tears and then a worship service that was the equivalent of watching paint dry.  We refused to attend Sunday school as we knew none of the children from this new town.  I would endure the sermon by doodling on offering envelopes and drawing football plays on the limited white space of the worship program.  My tight shirt collar, hand me down blue blazer and loafers that could give blisters within ten steps, were the uniform of a religious slave.  I hated it.

The values espoused in our new church – – worship, tolerance, compassion, empathy and service to others seemed so incongruous with the Bataan Death March experience we endured each week.  As if to inflict a final unintended indignity, our drive home from church would invariably take us past a construction site where my father would surreptitiously pull the car to a stop and point to a pile of wood and debris.  My father loved to have fires in the fireplace, a rare treat in LA where temperatures rarely dipped below 60 degrees.  He would pathologically collect “discarded” two by fours at construction sites extolling their virtues as perfect kindling.  He would then order each son to wiggle through a chain link fence like a Vietnam soldier and gather up an arm of “discarded” wood and rush back to the car before a junk yard dog or passing security guard might chase us for liberating the wood.

Any Sunday, 2006 – I now awaken each Sunday to a quiet house of people pretending to be asleep – one eye on the clock and one ear to the ground.  As a new age Dad, there is less yelling and infinitely more negotiation.  The Windsor knots are replaced by wrinkled button downs, khaki slacks and Merrills.  Yet, the same moaning and reluctance returns as my possums are exposed.  The half-hearted grousing about being tired, sick or not feeling spiritual.   I smile. Their resistance is weak and a charming memory.

The reality is they need a church community and the church community needs them.  They are the next generation of members who will form the nucleus of the lay ministry that serves the church membership and our community.  I realize it starts with my resolve which on a cold day or after a late night out, wanes.  But if I want my family to develop skills to cope in a world that seems so unwilling to reward character over charisma, they will need some spiritual grounding and it’s up to my wife and I to ensure this happens.

The key was finding a church home that felt right.  It starts with clergy whose views best track with your own views of the world.  As descendents of Huguenots who fled Europe to avoid the demands of a church that sought to control all aspects of their lives, we sought out a church that offered a community of people that sought to understand before being understood.  Our pastor, Gary Wilburn, preaches tolerance, inclusion and responsibility to be a peacemaker.  He avoids the harder edges of a more orthodox theology that can sometimes judge, exclude or seek to proselytize those who do not exactly blend into a singular view.  My Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Islamic and Hindi friends all have found similar experiences at churches and synagogues as they sought a community that helped them form a healthier spiritual balance in life.

They say “Comedy is Tragedy plus Time” and in many ways, I can now laugh about my Heart of Darkness Sunday experience and the fact that after all that, the path through the jungle led me back to a community of God.  1966 was a different time and place.  Yet, the need to serve a greater purpose than one’s self and to yield to a grander plan of a higher power stirs within all of us and has throughout time.  In a town with seventeen churches, it seems like there has to be something for everyone.  The key is getting everyone out of bed and getting involved in service.

One word of advice — God is generally not found in construction site woodpiles, especially on Sunday.