“V” for Victory

“V” for Victory

[Finally getting around to publishing this one, along with the next few posts that are coming, long after the original air-date. It’s not Easter anymore, but you get it…]

“I can do this all day!”
I watched an episode of “New Girl” this week on Fox, and I don’t know if this was their version of a semi-Easter episode or if it just worked out, but they took on the big one: Death. In the episode, one of the main characters, Nick, has lost his father, Walt. Walt had been introduced in a prior episode as an utterly dishonest and over-the-top con man. He’s a scoundrel and always has been, so he doesn’t get much reverence out of his grieving family/friends, apparently deservedly. But still Nick and his closest friends, Winston and Schmidt, are forced to wrestle with the loss. Schmidt in particular is struggling not so much in a personal way, but with the idea of dying/funerals in general. Have a look (some mild language):

 
HAH! Oh, Schmidty. It gets better later, at the funeral visitation. See, one of Nick’s cousins has been claiming that Walt had once swindled a gold chain from his dad. So when the cousin goes slyly over to the open casket to retrieve the chain from the body, Schmidt has a special encounter:

Absurd, yes. Inappropriate for Easter time? Nahhhh. Because doesn’t Schmidt just tap into the child-like stuff in all of us that doesn’t know how to come to grips with death and grief?  We all try somehow to cope with those feelings, even in bizarre fashion.  And, best of all, he reveals how many of us only engage the deep substance of death, and resurrection, in a pretty superficial way.

Death and DABDA
Experts say that grieving is a multi-step process, and maybe you’ve heard that the first stage is (surprise, surprise) Denial.  It makes perfect sense.  What do we do with the things that scare us, or produce anxiety, or create unanswerable questions, or cause severe pain?  Usually we try to work around them, ignore them, cover them up, pretend them away, or just find really good distractions.  Human beings don’t like to hurt, or to appear hurt/vulnerable – according to our survival instincts, those are not good things.  We bandage up a weeping wound and put it away.  But does it always heal real well that way?  Nay.  So we start with Denial, but the experts will go on to say that dwelling only in Denial is too superficial a process, and that if we don’t progress into other stages of feeling then we can handicap our quality of life.  We can get bogged down in an emotional state that may color the rest of our experiences – like how we see ourselves, others, and even certainly God.

So, yeah, it makes great sense that Schmidt starts with a pretty typical, basic, childlike fear of death and goes no deeper than this pretty surface-level place of coping, and that’s the end of it.  It’s what lots of us do.  But hopefully “New Girl” opens up our perspective because, while Schmidt’s ability to “go all day” and survive the funeral seems like a grand accomplishment for the episode, it’s not much of an endpoint for our own real world grief.  Life ain’t no 30-minute sitcom, and the final goal for me isn’t just being able to touch the dead guy and then get right back to normal.

Schmidt’s insanity, contrasted to our own needs, draws us to wonder what our actual hope is in the face of death and grief, and where our process actually takes us, and whether or not it’s good enough.

Back to the experts and their theories (e.g., the “DABDA” model), like I said, human grief begins with Denial, as we try to shield ourselves from what hurts. They claim that if we go deeper, there’s usually an outburst of feeling in Anger. When that release is over, there’s Bargaining — where we try to make sense of what happened, and try to decide what could have gone differently, or what we will do differently from now on.  With the rationalizing done, persistent reality usually sets in again as Depression or Despair. But, ultimately, if we can persevere through the despair, we may finally reach a state of peace they call Acceptance. D-A-B-D-A.

Have you ever felt those stages, or felt yourself moving through them?  It applies to all the ways we grieve a loss, whether it involves a loved one, or part of our identity, or an ability (like driving) or a way of life (like our independence).  Maybe you know what it is to dwell overlong, or even feel permanently lodged in, one of these emotional stages.  Is grief responsible for my persistent anger at life and the world and God?  What about my nagging depression?  Or my pie-in-the sky denial that manifests itself in all sorts of ways?  Good questions, and that’s why it’s worth thinking about our journey of coping.  Who wants to settle for only making partial progress and never finding true peace?

He? Who? He did WHAT!?
That brings us to another part of the story, a particular something else that is huge and intimately related to death. It’s another something with hard questions and implications to wrestle with. It’s just as mysterious and somewhat weird and irrational and unanswerable as death: Resurrection. The theme of the day, Easter folks.

I gotta say that, in terms of engaging the Resurrection, Easter Sunday has usually gone one of two ways for me. Option one: it’s a huge resounding joy fest, with all the candy and clothes and meals and songs and family get-togethers and Scriptures about the empty tomb. Whether you’re feeling it or not, the tone is “Happy, happy, happy.” Or, option two: it’s the “Jesus Juke” Sunday where the sermon is about conviction, about taking Easter more seriously, about not forgetting the cross and not getting too caught up in the honey-baked ham and sweet pastel sweater-vests. The atmosphere is either light-hearted or grave (pun). In leading worship I’ve gone both ways with it, and probably prefer the latter.

Now, I love the Easter celebration as much as anybody, and everything we can do to celebrate it will never be enough honor. Scripture gives us the impression that the very universe declares the majesty of Jesus and his Resurrection, with or without us, and rightly so. But for all of that I still get concerned when we perform the whole shebang without also trying to feel for the depth and breadth of what we’re singing and preaching. The service is familiar and draws us into unconscious participation. Someone says, “He is risen!” and we might auto-respond, “He is risen indeed!” I feel sure that, for me, there are Easters that have come and gone when I barely entertained, let alone dwelt long on, the fact that I actually believe Jesus is alive.

It’s worth processing. I mean, if Denial is the entry-level stage of how I cope with the idea of death, then blind and shallow Agreement is how I superficially handle the Resurrection. And I think that will just not do. The words for “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and all the rest, are nothing for anybody to casually acquiesce to. Easter deserves more.

Plus, the swollen crowd on Easter Sunday, half-filled with unfamiliar faces, deserves better. I think about people who are in church this one day for the year, or this one time ever, even against their own wills, and what it must all feel like. Is all the pomp and celebration something that they’re on the outside of, that they’re foreign to? Do we “insiders” get so caught up acting out the message: “Isn’t it great what Jesus did for me!?” that we forget to actually describe to others what he did, and why, and how, more in the vein of: “Here is what Jesus did for all of us, and here is what it means.” Most of all, do we leave any room on Easter Sunday for those who have their doubts about it all?

For me it’s the day of all days when, as absolutely true as I believe the Gospel is, we shouldn’t act like what we claim to believe is an easy swallow. This is the day when billions of people all over the globe gather, even at sunrise, to uphold that once long ago a Jewish man was arrested and executed in a Roman-occupied city; that he was buried and sealed in a stone tomb kept under guard; that several days later he was raised to life by God and walked out of that tomb; and, ultimately, that he was no mere man but indeed God setting out to save everything. We claim that his love and words and deeds opened a door, personally to each of us, such that we can follow him into Life, whole and forever. Say it out loud, and it is SO good, but it doesn’t smack of rationality.

So, how much do we actually engage the message of the day? Do we keep in mind that no matter how appropriate celebration is at Easter, it is a celebration that includes all Creation and has implications for every person, not just those who already joyfully believe. Let’s by all means shout, “He is risen!” But let’s try to do well to translate it. Those three words are freaking loaded with boldness and hope, context and history and tradition, and the witness of our and others’ personal experience.

More than “A” for Acceptance
What’s up, then? Should we all be intentionally downcast or demure for Easter? Should we over-think every word and action? Certainly not. For one, when we move through the familiar rhythms and practices of worship, even when we aren’t in the mood or don’t understand it, it can experientially draw us up into the truth, and transform us, just by doing it. So let’s do it. But we’re having a superficial observance of Resurrection, if we don’t strive to be attentive and present, and wrestle with our deepest questions, and embrace the risk and irrationality of what it is we claim to believe. Those are exactly the things that I think Paul introduces us to in our text for today from 1 Corinthians 15.

Read 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, 51-57 here.

There was room for doubt in the Corinthian church. Really, there was a pretty strong opposition to the rationality of the Gospel. There were those who, unsurprisingly, wanted to take Jesus’ words of wisdom, and his example of love, and not really get too swept up into the whole “raised from the dead” bit. These were educated folk, wealthy and cultured, familiar with the philosophers, so they would ask why all that mystical, supernatural business was necessary.

And Paul answers with his own questions, almost like this: Can this faith even exist without the Resurrection? Wouldn’t we, whom you have grown to love and trust, and whom you have seen do mighty deeds, be liars? Wouldn’t we be God’s enemies for lying about what God has done? Wouldn’t Jesus be just another dead mortal, and wouldn’t we all still be powerless to escape the sin and darkness that so easily dominates us? Wouldn’t all those you love, who have died with this faith, be just the foolish dead?

That is a wrestling worthy of Easter — understanding the risk of who we claim Jesus to be, and what we claim he has done. Understanding what staking that claim has meant for our loved ones, and would it could mean if it’s false. It’s good to take a minute to follow out that line of thinking and all its implications. And having dwelt on it and started processing it, Paul — and the Gospel, and a true Easter Sunday — would then still have us choose to believe it, and to believe all of it. It’s why Paul continues by plunging into what are probably the boldest declarations he ever makes about Resurrection, (it’s something you hear at nearly every Methodist funeral):

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Altogether it is a more calculated, processed, thought out engagement of Resurrection, that results in a more exuberant and stout and celebratory exclamation. As if, because the reality and rationality of Easter has been duly processed, and still leapt into by faith despite all risk, the celebration is all the deeper. It means that our faith intends to take us to a place that is even better than the Acceptance of the DABDA model. We can do better than just enduring funerals or even laying grief to rest. We can be victorious.

“V” for Victory
That’s a pretty bold statement, and it brings us to the last major thing that has to be processed with Easter’s Resurrection promise. If we have some sort of victory because Jesus has defeated death, and darkness, and evil and hell, then where has it gone? Why don’t we seem to get to taste it? Why do we still die at all, or struggle at all, or suffer or harm one another? These are the questions that keep some folks from embracing the honky-dory nature of sugary Easter worship. It’s hard to claim victory when 30,000+ children died today (and yesterday, and tomorrow) from food/water related issues, and more.

But the answer for me is that obviously we’ve been invested by God with a short time longer to make up our minds, to choose a path and to participate, or not, in the Resurrection life of Jesus. Part of that includes the fact that WE are the way God most often cares for children, all people, and the earth. Even more, all indications are that evil and death, with this short while left to scratch and scramble before total defeat, are also still battling tirelessly for the hearts of people.

There’s no better image of where we are today than in the latter half of World War II when, without anyone totally realizing it, the tide had begun to shift against the Nazis and Axis forces. A movement had begun with a series of BBC broadcasts by former minister Victor de Laveleye to the occupied Belgian people. They were given a message to band together and start circulating a simple symbol of their resistance: the letter V. As de Laveleye put it:

the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [would] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.

And V’s started popping up all over Europe — chalked on walls, written on postage stamps, and held up by two fingers. In one French city, stonemasons snuck a giant V into a sidewalk that they had been hired to repair, right under the Nazis noses. My favorite trick was that the movement knew the Morse Code signal for the letter V was three dots and a dash, or three short beats followed by a longer one, and they realized that the famous opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony had the same rhythm. You know how it goes: dum dum dum dummmm (listen below):

So the resistance would begin its broadcasts with Beethoven’s Fifth, and people would whistle it in the streets, as a sign of their underground campaign. V, for victory. It would’ve driven the Nazis especially mad because Beethoven was a beloved German! Bold, and brilliant.

What we’re talking about is a group of people, heavily under fire and suffering greatly, behind enemy lines in occupied territory. They were no strangers to death, but they were defiant anyway. They understood the risk, and even sometimes the total irrationality of it all, but still counted on victory.

I say that is pretty akin to the story of the Church of Christ Jesus, as it always has been and will be until things are said and done. It’s a community based on participation in the progress of victory, and a distinct trust in its full culmination one day. There’s nothing superficial or falsely optimistic about it, but it still has an infinitely high hope. That, I think, is a more balanced way to let Easter wash over us, and one that has room for a healthy level of both joy and gravity. It’s something to keep in mind for Jesus’ sake, for ours, for everyone who shows up on Easter Sunday, and for everyone who doesn’t.

Because we have a chance to celebrate our redemption in Jesus, and recognize that this victory is one where we can indeed even smack-talk death — all day, son. So let’s celebrate it, translate the message, engage it, and then celebrate it again. Happy Resurrection Day.

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